Courtroom Lessons from the Marshall Movie

Courtroom Lessons from the Marshall Movie

Imagine this. It’s 1941, and the NAACP dispatches Thurgood Marshall to a picturesque Connecticut town to defend a black chauffer accused of repeatedly raping a prominent white socialite, binding and gagging her with strips of her own dress, and throwing her off a bridge into a lake.

The headlines are going crazy. A local white man writes a letter to the editor saying, “we should have hung all n*****s while we had the chance, and trust me it would make the world better.” Imagine what it was like trying to pick a jury in that environment.

Except that statement was not printed in a newspaper in 1941. It’s actually what a white high school student said to an African-American girl on Snapchat in 2017, in the affluent mostly-white suburb where I live and saw the movie Marshall with my wife this past weekend.

So, yeah, you could say the movie is still relevant 76 years later.

But don’t go see Marshall like it’s homework or some rite of atonement. What makes it a great movie is that it’s a classic Hollywood courtroom drama, spiced up with some odd-couple buddy-cop flavor. The fact that it also serves as a sort of origin story for the most successful civil rights lawyer of the 20th century is icing on the cake.

On the Five Minute Law Movie Scale, I give it 0.4 hours (that’s on a scale of 0.1 to 0.5 hours).

Granted, I’m a trial lawyer who loves stories from the civil rights movement, so they had me at the preview. Chadwick Boseman could have made any half-way-decent movie about the sensational Joseph Spell trial, and I would have been hooked.

But Marshall was even better than I expected, and one reason is that the courtroom scenes were relatively realistic (by Hollywood standards). In fact, I took away from it some practical lessons on how to be a better trial lawyer. Here are nine of them.

*SPOILER ALERT: These tips contain minor plot spoilers. But if you’re like my mom, who figures out every plot twist in the first 15 minutes of a movie, then I’m not really giving much away.

1. Clients don’t always tell you the whole story

I’m sure Thurgood Marshall  believed all defendants have a right to counsel, but a key part of the NAACP’s legal defense strategy was to focus on defendants they believed were actually innocent. This was important to the overall political strategy and to fundraising.

So, one of the first things Marshall (Boseman) does is interrogate his new client, Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), to assure himself that the man is actually innocent. But would you believe that Spell doesn’t tell Marshall the whole story in that first interview?

More about that later.

2. Don’t rely too much on stereotypes for jury selection

On paper, she’s a terrible juror for the defense: a white woman who grew up in North Carolina and now rubs elbows with Connecticut high society. Local defense counsel Sam Friedman (Josh Gad) is ready to strike her, but Marshall says not so fast. She’s an educated woman with a mind of her own, her body language towards the “Yankee” prosecutor showed some hostility, and she likes you, Marshall tells Friedman. Plus, Marshall has a hunch this lady may know things about the victim, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson).

The result: the white socialite gets on the jury. She even becomes the forewoman.

When you have no other information about a juror, you may have to fall back on demographic profiles, but jury consultants say that attitudes about case-specific issues are a better guide than stereotypes. And of course, it never hurts if a potential juror likes you.

3. Some things are better left unsaid

Mrs. Strubing strangely claims that after her chauffer threw her over a bridge into the water, he threw rocks at her. So, when Friedman cross-examines the local police captain who inspected the scene, he asks whether any rocks were found on the bridge. The captain can’t recall.

Friedman then dumps a pile of pebbles on the prosecutor’s table. Would you call these pebbles or rocks, Captain? The witness eventually admits they are pebbles, prompting chuckles from the jury.

The unsaid part: the fact that Marshall collected the pebbles at the scene. The defense never offers any witness to lay a predicate that the pebbles came from the bridge.

But they didn’t have to. In the words of Hall & Oates, Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid.

4. Save that killer impeachment point for closing argument

The examining physician testifies that skin was found under the victim’s fingernails, but there’s a problem: there’s nothing in his examination notes about that. When Friedman brings up this point on cross, the doctor is ready with an excuse. My wife took the notes, he says, and she neglected to include that fact. And then the doctor drops a bombshell. It was a black man’s skin under her fingernails.

On the next break, Marshall berates Friedman for falling into a trap.

Imagine if Friedman, instead of bringing up the point during cross examination, had waited until closing argument to point out to the jury that the doctor’s notes said nothing about skin under the victim’s fingernails. Then it would be too late for the doctor to try to explain away the glaring omission.

5. You can do it if they don’t object

In law school, I had a trial advocacy instructor (now a judge) who told a great story about defending a police officer accused of assault. He started slapping himself on the head with the alleged weapon in front of the jury, causing himself no injury. The students couldn’t believe that was allowed. The instructor’s point: it was allowed because no one objected.

The defense team in Marshall does a similar demonstration. Mrs. Strubing claims she never screamed, even when a police officer was only a few feet away, because she was gagged. In front of the jury, Marshall puts the gag in Friedman’s mouth and pulls it tight, asking Mrs. Strubing if he has it right. Friedman then belts out the loudest, longest scream you can imagine. Point made.

Can they do that? Well, no one objected.

6. Bring up your client’s baggage before the other side does

Mr. Spell is not the ideal defendant: he abandoned a wife and two kids in Louisiana, got dishonorably discharged from the Army, and got fired from his last job for stealing. So here’s what you’re going to do, Marshall says to Friedman, you bring up all those bad facts when you get Spell on the stand. Don’t give the prosecution the chance to do it first.

Friedman does exactly that, getting Spell to admit his checkered past before the prosecutor can ask a single question.

As I wrote here, if you know there are bad emails from your client, don’t try to hide or ignore them. Usually you’ll only make it worse. What was true in 1940 is true now: you look better if you freely admit your bad facts.

7. Be careful with open-ended questions on cross examination

When prosecutor Loren Willis (Dan Stevens) gets his crack at Spell on cross examination, he unloads on Spell’s history of lying. Then, after setting up Spell as a habitual liar, he goes for the jugular with his key question: if you’re innocent, then why did you lie to the police about what really happened?

But the question backfires. Marshall has prepared Spell to knock this one out of the park, and Spell does it. The prosecutor is so shaken, he does the only thing he can think to do and asks the judge to strike the answer. After a long pause, the judge gives his ruling.

Conventional wisdom says you only ask leading questions on cross. That advice is not always realistic; sometimes you just have to ask an open-ended question. But the prosecutor’s blunder in Marshall is a good reminder of why using open-ended questions on cross is dangerous.

8. Persuasion requires meeting the audience half way

When Spell answers the prosecutor’s key question, you sense that the tide is turning. But the defense still has to persuade the jury in closing argument. Over dinner, Marshall tells Friedman what to say in closing.

Throughout the movie, we’ve seen Marshall going on the offensive, so we’re bracing for an all-out assault on Mrs. Strubing’s credibility. But Marshall understands that Friedman is not going to persuade the all-white jury by portraying the white victim as a bad person. Instead, he crafts the argument to get the jury to feel sorry for her (with obvious echoes of To Kill a Mockingbird).

Sometimes persuasion requires accepting the biases of your audience and crafting an argument that appeals to their world view, not yours.

9. Get a non-lawyer’s opinion about the big picture

Boseman portrays Marshall as a supremely self-confident young lawyer who already knows what he’s doing (prompting friend Langston Hughes to quip, “I’d say you have enough confidence for all of us”).

But it’s a non-lawyer who helps Marshall discern the key to the case. Early on, the wife of the local NAACP leader asks Marshall if he really thinks Spell is innocent. “Why would a woman lie about something like that?” she asks.

It is only when Marshall reflects on that question that he realizes his client hasn’t told him the whole story. That’s when he really figures out how to defend the case effectively.

When I get a new case, I like to describe the big picture to my wife, daughter, or another family member. Hearing a non-lawyer’s take is a great way to gauge how a jury is likely to react. That’s just as true today as in 1941.

Some things haven’t changed.

___________________________________________________________________

head-shot-photo-of-zach-wolfeZach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation. His firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC has offices in Houston, Austin, and The Woodlands.

These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case.

Top 5 Most Smug Areas of Law Practice

Top 5 Most Smug Areas of Law Practice

Ever notice how there are some areas of law practice you love to hate? If you’re honest with yourself, it’s just based on envy. But still, there’s something about the lawyers in that field that is just so . . . smug. Here are the top five offenders.

5. Bankruptcy

I have a little experience with litigation in bankruptcy court, “enough to be dangerous” as they say, and that’s enough to know that bankruptcy-world is its own universe. So, lawyers who know bankruptcy inside-out have a big advantage.

As if that wasn’t irritating enough, bankruptcy is the quintessential counter-cyclical practice area. When a recession hits and other billable work dries up, bankruptcy practice is booming. And the bankruptcy lawyers can barely conceal those smug little smiles.

4. High-Stakes Plaintiff’s Contingent-Fee Litigation

Not sure if this is really a “practice area,” but you know the kind of lawyer I’m talking about. Flies to depositions in a private jet. Wears cowboy boots made of some kind of exotic game. Probably owns a yacht and a Lamborghini. And if he’s really likeable, it’s that much worse.

3. Tax

In my 20 years doing a fairly broad business litigation practice, I’ve always been up for learning a new substantive area of law, but I draw the line at tax law. I’m not even going to touch it. And many of you are just like me. That means if a real tax issue comes up, we have to go to one of a handful of tax specialists for help. And they know it.

2. Appellate

No explanation required.

1. Patent Prosecution

Picking this over appellate was a close call. Yes, it’s easy to resent those appellate lawyers who were the smartest kids at their elite law schools, clerked for federal judges, and then had to agonize over which big-name law firm to join.

But think about how you feel when you see a lawyer profile like this: undergraduate degree in Engineering, Ph.D in Molecular Biology (is that a thing?), J.D. from a respected law school, handles patent prosecution for large high-tech companies. You know that lawyer is basically printing money.

Ok, yes, he probably had a lot of student loan debt, but it was paid off years ago. And while he used to work at a big firm with high overhead, now he’s a partner at a little boutique in the suburbs with cheap rent.

Smug as a bug in a rug.

_______________________________________________________

head-shot-photo-of-zach-wolfeZach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation. His firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC has offices in Houston, Austin, and The Woodlands. These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients. 

He actually kind of likes appellate lawyers. But not tax lawyers. Nobody likes those guys.

The Plain-Language Non-Compete

The Plain-Language Non-Compete

Even if you’re not a lawyer, you’ve probably had some occasion to read court documents and come across stock phrases like this:

TO THE HONORABLE JUDGE OF SAID COURT

COMES NOW PLAINTIFF . . .

WHEREFORE, PREMISES CONSIDERED, PLAINTIFF PRAYS . . .

And yes, they are usually in ALL CAPS.

You may have wondered if there is some legal purpose to these formalisms. The answer is no. Leaving these traditional incantations out of a court document would have zero legal effect. They are no more necessary than drafting a court document in Papyrus font.

So why do lawyers use them?

The most basic explanation is inertia. Lawyer like to use forms, forms often contain phrases like this, and lawyers don’t bother to change them.

But many attorneys include these phrases—and continue to include them—intentionally. (Associates, here’s an experiment: take these relics out of your next draft and see if the supervising partner puts them back in.)

I think insecurity is the main reason lawyers use these archaic phrases. The lawyer feels a need to “sound like a lawyer,” to show people “hey, I went to law school for three years and passed the bar.” The lawyer does not feel secure enough that the substance of his writing will accomplish this.

The irony is that when I see a lot of these empty formalisms in a court document, it has the opposite effect. It doesn’t make me think, “wow, this must be a really experienced lawyer.” Instead, I think to myself either “this guy relies too much on old forms” or even “this guy is kind of a lightweight.”

At a minimum, a document encrusted with these legal barnacles shows that the lawyer is not serious about good contemporary legal writing.

But let’s not get carried away

A couple caveats are appropriate. First, everyone has certain formal phrases they like to use in legal documents. I admit a fondness for putting “respectfully submitted” before the signature block, even though it has no legal effect and isn’t required. I see this as the equivalent of good manners, like saying “please” and “thank you” in polite conversation.

Second, there are certain ceremonial formalities that are worth observing for the sake of tradition and decorum, like saying “May it Please the Court” at the start of oral argument in an appellate court. We say things like this for the same reason that judges wear robes.

But many lawyers overdo the formalisms in legal documents, and for no good reason. If you leave out “TO THE HONORABLE JUDGE OF SAID COURT,” do you really think the judge is going to look at the document and say, “this lawyer doesn’t think I’m honorable, how dare he”?

And most authorities on contemporary legal writing agree that throat-clearing phrases like this are not only unnecessary, they are undesirable. I like what Wayne Schiess had to say about this here (and not just because he happened to be my first-year legal writing instructor at the University of Texas).

In short, if you care about good legal writing, eliminate the unnecessary ceremonial language, or keep it to a minimum.

Good legal writing and the “plain language” movement

But this gets to a more substantive question: what is it that makes good legal writing good? More pointedly, what makes bad legal writing bad?

Oh, let me count the ways. Schiess is helpful on this point as well. In this recent blog post he identifies some common flaws in weak legal writing. The main thing these flaws have in common is trying to sound more formal and “legal” than necessary.

This kind of legal writing has led to a reaction known as the “plain language” or “plain English” movement. Some judges, practitioners, and academics have advocated and practiced eliminating—or at least reducing—the “legalese” that plagues so much legal writing.

Overall, I’m on board with the plain language movement, which has several benefits and very little downside.

There are, of course, exceptions. When lawyers are writing to other lawyers, especially in their practice area, there are certain terms of art that would be awkward to translate into plain language. It would be silly to change “res judicata bars Plaintiff’s claims” to “the thing-already-decided doctrine bars Plaintiff’s claims.” Slavish devotion to “plain language” would make no more sense than blindly copying outmoded language from old forms.

And there is an even more important exception: when changing or deleting formal language would have a substantive legal effect. For example, a final judgment from a court typically ends with “All relief not expressly granted is denied.” That phrase has—or at least potentially has—a specific intended legal effect. It’s not merely an empty formalism, so you wouldn’t want to delete it just because it strikes you as unnecessary boilerplate.

The same is true of certain phrases that lawyers traditionally include in contracts. If you delete “Contractor has not relied on any representations not stated in this agreement,” thinking it’s unwarranted clutter, you just gave up something that could be significant in a later dispute.

This gets to the real test for plain language as applied to contracts: What difference does it make if a clause is written if legalese as long as it has the intended legal effect? Put another way, an “old-school” transactional lawyer might object that shifting to “plain language” is unnecessary, and even undesirable, because it places style over substance.

Point taken. But as a trial lawyer, I know that both substance and style matter. The style of a contract matters because that contract is going to be Exhibit 1 in a lawsuit, and you’re going to have to explain and defend the contract to a broad constituency: the witnesses, the judge, the jury, and even the opposing party.

Presenting the Plain-Language Non-Compete

I’ll use a non-compete agreement as an example, because it’s what I know best. I’ve seen a lot of non-competes, and most read like they were written with no regard for how they will be viewed in a subsequent lawsuit. Show me a lawyer who drafts a non-compete in impenetrable legalese, and I’ll show you a lawyer who never had to pin down an evasive witness about that non-compete in a deposition.

Somehow lawyers started to think that a non-compete is only enforceable if it’s contained in one long sentence in a block paragraph in small print that takes up at least half a page. And every key term—like “confidential information”—is a laundry list of “including-but-not-limited to’s,” rather than a single common-sense word.

But again, what does it matter, as long as the non-compete is legally effective?

It matters because in a lawsuit a lawyer will have to persuade a judge—and maybe even a jury—that the non-compete is reasonable and should be enforced. The plainer the meaning, the easier it will be to persuade.

A non-compete written in dense legalese, on the other hand, sends a not-entirely-subliminal message: this is one-sided boilerplate the employer’s lawyer wrote to screw the employee.

Ok, plain language is better in theory, you say. But is it possible? Can an effective non-compete be written in plain language?

There’s only one way to find out. As an experiment, I give you . . . the Plain-Language Non-Compete.

***MASSIVE LEGAL DISCLAIMER*** I offer the Plain-Language Non-Compete only for the purpose of discussion. I am not advising anyone to use it. And if you’re not a lawyer, don’t even think about using the Plain-Language Non-Compete without advice from a qualified lawyer.

Some of you will think the Plain-Language Non-Compete doesn’t sound “legal” enough. If so, please tell me which provisions you think are too “plain English” to be legally effective, and why.

Some of you may go the other way. You may think I haven’t gone “plain” enough. And I admit, even the Plain-Language Non-Compete has some technical clauses only a lawyer could love. So, if there is a section you think is unnecessary or would be worded more plainly, I’m all ears.

And if you want to understand the substance of what I have included and why, a good place to start is my very first blog post: What a Litigator Looks for in the Typical Texas Non-Compete.

WHEREFORE, PREMISES CONSIDERED, Five Minute Law respectfully submits to the Honorable Readers of Said Blog: the Plain-Language Non-Compete.

Govern yourselves accordingly.

________________________________________________________________________

head-shot-photo-of-zach-wolfeZach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation. His firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC has offices in Houston, Austin, and The Woodlands.

These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case.

Social Media in Litigation Part 4: Jury Research

Social Media in Litigation Part 4: Jury Research

When I worked on my first jury trial, there was no Facebook and no iPhone. Ricky Martin was rocketing up the charts with Livin’ La Vida Loca. We nervously awaited the arrival of Y2K, but at least we didn’t have to worry about someone on the jury live-tweeting updates about the trial.

My how times have changed.

Previously on Five Minute Law, we looked at the ethical issues that arise from using social media for opposition research (Part 1), advising clients on their social media use during litigation (Part 2), and interacting with judges on social media (Part 3). In this final Part 4 we look at using social media to research information on members of a jury panel, before and during the trial.

The bottom line: monitor, but don’t communicate, and promptly disclose to the judge and opposing counsel if you discover jurors behaving badly.

Hypothetical 1: Jury Research Before Trial

To illustrate, let’s get back to our favorite fictional non-compete lawsuit, Paula Payne Windows v. Dawn Davis. Paula Payne’s lead counsel, John Laurens, is worried. He’s concerned about jury bias for the “little guy” against the employer. When he gets a list of the jury panel the week before trial, he tells his team “find the ones who think the system is rigged!”

His local counsel, venerable trial lawyer Hank Livingston, drives by the homes of several on the list. Two catch his attention: Marc Horger, a welder who has a “Come and Take It” assault rifle sticker on his massive pickup truck, and Scott Silveri, a freelance journalist who has a “Feel the Bern” sticker on his Prius. “Johnny, you need to get rid of these guys,” he tells Laurens, “they don’t like authority.”

Laurens also finds out that Judge John Lansing has a new program to encourage giving younger lawyers more courtroom opportunities: extra time for jury selection if you let an associate handle it. Laurens summons young associate Phil Hamilton to his office. “Bill,” he says. “It’s Phil, sir.” “Whatever. Phil, you’re handling this voir dire; but first find out everything you can about this jury panel.”

Phil starts by Googling each juror. Then he checks any publicly available info on LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. He sees that juror Alex Hart looks good for employers, at least on paper: 45-year old CPA, married with three kids, employed by the same company for 15 years. But Hart once liked a LinkedIn article titled “How Non-Competes are Killing Free Enterprise in America.”

Meanwhile . . .

Maria Reynolds, the lawyer for defendant Dawn Davis, is also snooping. She’s not satisfied with the jury pool’s publicly available social media, so she asks her very attractive legal assistant to start friending male members of the jury pool on Facebook. The assistant gains access to several non-public Facebook profiles by sending vague friend requests.

One thing is clear: these lawyers are walking through an ethical minefield.

Ethics of Jury Research

So, which of these would be an ethical violation?

(A) Phil checking publicly available social media

(B) Hank driving by a juror’s house, if the juror sees him

(C) Phil viewing a juror’s LinkedIn profile, if LinkedIn notifies the juror he did so

(D) Maria’s assistant sending deceptive friend requests

(E) Not investigating the jury pool on social media at all

Let’s start with the most obvious. There is so much wrong with (D), having an assistant friend members of the jury panel. First, a lawyer can’t communicate with a potential juror, period.[1] Second, a lawyer can’t get around this rule by having an assistant or third party do the dirty work .[2] Third, even aside from the prohibition on communicating with a potential juror, a lawyer can’t use deception to gain access to a private social media account.[3]

Avoiding an outright lie does not necessarily solve the third problem. As the Philadelphia Bar Association reasoned, failing to disclose the reason for a friend request is an omission that renders the request deceptive.[4]

It should also be pretty obvious that (A), checking publicly available information on jurors, is generally ok. ABA Formal Opinion 466 (2014) states the consensus view: a lawyer may view a potential juror’s publicly available social media content, as long as the lawyer doesn’t communicate with the juror.

(B) is a little harder. Driving by a juror’s house is not communicating with a juror, but could it be considered “vexatious or harassing”?[5] Driving by one time is probably ok, even if the juror happens to notice the lawyer. Driving by three or four times? That might cross the line.

Answer (C), viewing LinkedIn if the juror becomes aware of it, is more difficult. In Part 1, I opined that this is ok as to witnesses. But contact with jurors is more sensitive, and there is a difference of opinion on whether a lawyer can view a juror’s public social media if the social media platform alerts the juror that the lawyer has done so.

Two New York opinions saw this as an ethical problem. “If a juror becomes aware of an attorney’s efforts to see the juror’s profiles on websites,” the New York County Lawyers’ Association said in its Formal Opinion 743, “the contact may well consist of an impermissible communication, as it might tend to influence the juror’s conduct with respect to the trial.”[6]

Same for the New York City Bar. In Formal Opinion 2012-2 they said it would be a prohibited communication if a lawyer views a juror’s social media knowing that the juror will receive a notification that the lawyer has done so.

But the ABA has a different view. It said in Formal Opinion 466, “[t]he fact that a juror or a potential juror may become aware that a lawyer is reviewing his Internet presence when a network setting notifies the juror of such does not constitute a communication from the lawyer . . .”

The ABA reasoned that the notification is a communication from the social media platform, not the lawyer:

This Committee concludes that a lawyer who uses a shared ESM platform to passively view juror ESM under these circumstances does not communicate with the juror.  The lawyer is not communicating with the juror; the ESM service is communicating with the juror based on a technical feature of the ESM. This is akin to a neighbor’s recognizing a lawyer’s car driving down the juror’s street and telling the juror that the lawyer had been seen driving down the street.

Pennsylvania Bar Formal Opinion 2014-300 agreed with the ABA’s position.

I think the ABA got it right on this one, except for using the acronym “ESM.” Why do ethics opinions always have to make up terms that people don’t actually use?

But if you want to take the cautious approach, make sure you only view juror social media if you know the social media platform won’t notify the juror.

Finally, answer (E), not investigating social media at all, is the least tested of these issues. Investigating the social media accounts of the jury panel may be an ethical minefield, but failing to do any investigation could violate a lawyer’s duty of competence. Some will even say that it’s malpractice if a lawyer doesn’t find out what is in the jury panel’s publicly available social media.

And competent representation may also include continuing to monitor jury use of social media after the jury is selected and the trial proceeds.

Hypothetical 2: Jury Research During Trial

So let’s get back to our hypothetical non-compete case. Paula Payne’s lawyers strike Horger and Silveri, but Hart somehow manages to get on the jury. Phil Hamilton, the young associate, checks Hart’s Twitter feed after jury selection and sees that he tweeted: “Can’t believe I got picked for jury duty this week. Too much work to do!”

Reynolds, the lawyer for Dawn Davis, is also keeping tabs on social media. She tells her assistant to monitor the public posts of everyone who got on the jury. During the trial, they see a tweet from Hart: “The defense lawyer spent the last hour making the same point over and over. Someone shoot me now!”

Neither lawyer reports Hart to the judge. Phil doesn’t do anything differently, but Reynolds decides to tighten up her next cross exam to make it less repetitive.

So which of these things is an ethical violation?

(A) The lawyers monitoring a juror’s social media without permission from the judge

(B) Phil failing to report Hart’s “too much work to do” tweet

(C) Reynolds failing to report Hart’s “boredom” tweet

(D) Reynolds changing her trial strategy based on Hart’s “boredom” tweet

Answer (A) should not be a problem. Unless the judge has ordered otherwise, the lawyers don’t need to get permission to check what the jury may be saying on social media, and the duty of competent representation may even require that they do so.

(B) is borderline. Hart’s tweet lamenting his selection to the jury doesn’t really comment on the case itself. On the other hand, maybe it provides a clue about Hart’s state of mind and suggests an attitude about the lawsuit?

Failing to report an innocuous statement like this doesn’t strike me as an ethical violation, but the safer course would be to report it to the judge and opposing counsel. Plus, if the judge admonishes the juror for a harmless tweet at the start of the trial, it may prevent a more damaging tweet later.

(C) and (D) are likely to get Reynolds in hot water. If a lawyer finds that a juror has commented on something substantive about the case, the lawyer needs to promptly disclose that fact to the judge and opposing counsel.[7] And failing to disclose is even more dangerous if the lawyer uses the information to try to gain some advantage in the trial.[8]

Now that would be livin’ la vida loca.

___________________________________________________________________

head-shot-photo-of-zach-wolfeZach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation. His firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC has offices in Houston, Austin, and The Woodlands.

These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case.

[1] Texas Disciplinary Rule of Professional Conduct 3.06(b) (“Prior to discharge of the jury from further consideration of a matter, a lawyer connected therewith shall not communicate with or cause another to communicate with anyone he knows to be a member of the venire from which the jury will be selected or any juror or alternate juror, except in the course of official proceedings”); see also ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct 3.5 (lawyer shall not communicate ex parte with a juror or prospective juror unless authorized to do so by law or court order).

[2] New York City Bar Formal Opinion 2012-2 (“Third parties working for the benefit of or on behalf of an attorney must comport with these same restrictions”).

[3] Texas Disciplinary Rule 4.01(a) (lawyer shall not knowingly “make a false statement of material fact or law to a third person”); ABA Model Rule 4.1 (same); see also New York City Bar Formal Opinion 2012-2 (“the attorney must not use deception—such as pretending to be someone else—to gain access to information about a juror that would otherwise be unavailable”).

[4] See Philadelphia Bar Association, Opinion 2009-02 (having a third party send a friend request to a witness “omits a highly material fact, namely, that the third party who asks to be allowed access to the witness’s pages is doing so only because he or she is intent on obtaining information and sharing it with a lawyer for use in a lawsuit to impeach the testimony of the witness”).

[5] See Texas Disciplinary Rule 3.06(a) (lawyer shall not “conduct or cause another, by financial support or otherwise, to conduct a vexatious or harassing investigation of a venireman or juror”).

[6] New York County Bar, Formal Opinion 743 (2011).

[7] ABA Formal Opinion 466 (“if a lawyer discovers evidence of juror or potential juror misconduct that is criminal or fraudulent, the lawyer must take reasonable remedial measures including, if necessary, disclosure to the tribunal”); New York City Bar Formal Opinion 2012-2 (“if a lawyer learns of juror misconduct through a juror’s social media activities, the lawyer must promptly reveal the improper conduct to the court”).

[8] See New York County Bar Opinion 743 (if lawyer learns of jury misconduct on social media, he must not unilaterally act on such knowledge to benefit the client but must promptly bring the misconduct to the attention of the court “before engaging in further significant activity in the case”).

Social Media in Litigation Part 3: Why Can’t We Be Friends?

Social Media in Litigation Part 3: Why Can’t We Be Friends?

Judge’s Facebook friendship with lawyer does not necessarily require recusal

As a Florida court recently acknowledged, everybody knows that Facebook friends are not necessarily close personal friends. That got me thinking of the classic song Everybody Knows by Leonard Cohen. The first verse:

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows

After that sunny beginning, the rest of the song takes an unexpected dark turn.

Getting back to the Florida case, the court in Herssein & Herssein v. USAA said the mere fact that a judge is Facebook friends with a lawyer for a party does not require recusal. The court reasoned that being friends on social media is not necessarily being friends in the “traditional sense.” Thus, the Facebook friendship “does not provide a basis for a well-grounded fear that the judge cannot be impartial or that the judge is under the influence of the Facebook ‘friend.’”[1]

Texas courts and the American Bar Association had already figured this out a few years ago.[2]

The conclusion seems pretty obvious, especially when you consider that, before social media, the fact that the lawyer and judge were FITS (“friends in the traditional sense”) did not necessarily require recusing the judge.

There ought to be a law . . .

That leads us to Wolfe’s First Law of Social Media Ethics: If it’s unethical to do it in a traditional way, it’s unethical on social media too.

Recently, the Texas Supreme Court Advisory Committee considered a proposal to write Wolfe’s First Law into the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct. They didn’t refer to my law by name or anything, but the resemblance is remarkable:

Proposal for Judicial Canon 4

This should not be too controversial. The only criticism I might have is that this proposal, which merely states the obvious, may be unnecessary. Wolfe’s First Law is nothing if not intuitive.

Still, I’m not saying that applying this general principle to specific cases is easy. Courts, bar associations, and lawyers across the country have struggled with thorny questions that arise from judges using social media. Let’s consider a hypothetical.

Previously on Five Minute Law . . .

Take our favorite fictional non-compete case, Paula Payne Windows v. Dawn Davis, where lawyer John Laurens filed suit to enforce a non-compete. After finding out the case was assigned to Judge John Lansing, Laurens hires local counsel, Hank Livingston, a venerable trial lawyer who “knows everybody.”

Oddly enough, Livingston and the judge happen to be FITS: Livingston was the best man at Judge Lansing’s wedding, and they go dove-hunting together near San Angelo every December. They’re also connected on LinkedIn, although Livingston doesn’t really know how to use it.

Meanwhile . . .

Laurens’ young associate, Phil Hamilton, is eager to impress his boss. Phil starts following Judge Lansing on Twitter and retweeting his tweets, which are mostly about barbeque and Texas A&M football. Phil also sends Judge Lansing a Facebook friend request, which the judge accepts without a second thought, adding Phil to the 3,000 friends he accumulated when he ran his last campaign. They like and comment on each other’s posts several times.

Laurens, on the other hand, still does things the old-fashioned way. He starts by filing a motion for a temporary injunction to prevent Dawn Davis from competing with Paula Payne Windows. After scheduling a hearing on his motion, Laurens shows up at Judge Lansing’s campaign fundraiser and hands him a check for $5,000. “Good luck with your campaign, judge, I know you’ll keep doing a great job.”

None of this goes unnoticed by Dawn Davis’s lawyer, Maria Reynolds. She gets aggressive and files a motion to recuse Judge Lansing based on his relationship with the lawyers representing Paula Payne.

Reynolds is careful not to impugn the judge’s integrity. Instead, she cites Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 18, which says a judge “shall recuse himself in any proceeding in which . . . his impartiality might reasonably be questioned.” It’s not a question of whether the judge will be impartial, she argues, but merely whether someone could reasonably question whether he can be impartial.

So what is the strongest ground for recusing Judge Lansing?

(A) The connection between the judge and local counsel on LinkedIn.

(B) The interactions between the associate and the judge on Facebook and Twitter.

(C) The fact that Paula Payne’s local counsel is the judge’s close personal friend and former campaign manager.

(D) The $5,000 campaign contribution Laurens handed the judge right before the temporary injunction hearing.

Unless you’re a member of Congress, I’m guessing the campaign contribution strikes you as the most egregious conduct here. (Everybody loves to pick on Congress.)  And you would not be alone.

Texas case law on campaign contributions

The defense lawyers in a little case called Texaco v. Pennzoil also had an issue with campaign contributions. After that suit was filed, Pennzoil’s lead counsel, Joe Jamail, contributed $10,000 to the presiding judge’s campaign fund. Texaco moved to recuse the judge, arguing that the contribution, coupled with Jamail’s service on the judge’s “steering committee,” created an appearance of impropriety.

A simplistic person might think the timing and amount of the contribution would at least create a situation where the judge’s impartiality “might reasonably be questioned.”

But the Houston Court of Court of Appeals took a more sophisticated view. It held that recusal was not required.[3] The court cited Rocha v. Ahmad, where the San Antonio Court of Appeals ruled that two justices who received thousands of dollars in political contributions from one of the law firms did not have to be recused.[4]

Funny thing about Rocha: it did not deny the obvious. The court did not deny that campaign contributions can create an appearance of impropriety. Instead, the Rocha court reasoned that campaign contributions cannot be a basis for recusing Texas judges, because then the judges would have to recuse themselves all the time: “If a judge cannot sit on a case in which a contributing lawyer is involved as counsel, judges who have been elected would have to recuse themselves in perhaps a majority of the cases filed in their courts.”[5]

The Texas Code of Judicial Conduct also bows to this practical reality. Canon 4(D) generally requires a judge to refrain from financial dealings that reflect adversely on the judge’s impartiality. But there is an express exception for soliciting campaign contributions. So, generally a Texas judge does not violate any ethical rule by accepting political contributions from lawyers who practice in his court.

And Texas courts have continued to follow Rocha’s lead. Ten years later, the El Paso Court of Appeals held that recusal was not required where the campaign contribution was small, the judge had a policy of accepting only limited contributions, and the contributing lawyer was not lead counsel.[6]

The Corpus Christi Court of Appeals even went as far as holding that recusal was not required where the lawyer was the judge’s close personal friend, the judge’s personal attorney in another case, and the judge’s campaign manager in his last campaign.[7]

By 2014 the Dallas Court of Appeals could accurately state that “Texas courts have repeatedly rejected the argument that campaign contributions by attorneys is grounds for recusal.”[8]

The Texas case law leaves open the possibility that the timing and circumstances of a political contribution to a judge could be so egregious that recusal would be required. But the general rule in Texas is that courts will bend over backwards not to require recusal based on campaign contributions. I haven’t seen a single case where a Texas appellate court required recusal on this ground. (Please tell me if you have.)

So what does this have to do with social media?

Texas law on contributions to judicial campaigns provides a helpful backdrop for questions about social media. If a lawyer can freely contribute to a judge’s campaign without fear of triggering recusal, it’s hard to see how any typical interaction between a lawyer and a judge on social media would create a sufficient appearance of impropriety.

No, when judges go wrong on social media, it usually involves something else: improperly commenting on a pending case before the judge. See John G. Browning and Justice Don Willett, Rules of Engagement, Texas Bar Journal (February 2016) (“judges shouldn’t discuss pending cases—period”). Generally, judges can freely interact with lawyers through social media, as long as they don’t use social media to do something they couldn’t do in a traditional way.

It’s Wolfe’s First Law of Social Media Ethics again.

And fortunately, there is a happy ending to the campaign contribution issue. The Texas legislature solved the problem in 1995 by passing the Judicial Campaign Fairness Act. Among other things, the Act provides that a judge may not accept a political contribution while physically present in a “courthouse,” which is defined to include a courthouse.[9]

That’s probably a good rule. There’s no appearance of impropriety when a lawyer hands the judge a check, as long as he does it at a fundraiser at Billy Bob’s BBQ and not at the courthouse.

Everybody knows.

___________________________________________________________________

head-shot-photo-of-zach-wolfeZach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation. His firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC has offices in Houston, Austin, and The Woodlands.

These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case.

[1] Law Offices of Herssein & Herssein v. United Servs. Auto. Ass’n, No. 3D17-1421, 2017 WL 3611661, at *4 (Fla. App. Aug. 23, 2017).

[2] See Youkers v. State, 400 S.W.3d 200, 206 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2013, pet. denied) (fact that judge was Facebook friend of victim’s father did not necessarily require recusal in criminal case); ABA Formal Opinion 462 (2013) (“Simple designation as [a social media connection] does not, in and of itself, indicate the degree or intensity of a judge’s relationship with a person”).

[3] Texaco, Inc. v. Pennzoil Co., 729 S.W.2d 768, 842-43 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 1987, writ ref’d n.r.e.). The case had the largest damages verdict in Texas history but famously did not go up to the Texas Supreme Court.

[4] Rocha v. Ahmad, 662 S.W.2d 77, 78 (Tex. App.—San Antonio 1983, no writ).

[5] Id.

[6] Aguilar v. Anderson, 855 S.W.2d 799, 802 (Tex. App.—El Paso 1993, writ denied).

[7] Lueg v. Lueg, 976 S.W.2d 308, 310-11 (Tex. App.—Corpus Christi 1998, pet. denied).

[8] Holland v. Friedman & Feiger, No. 05-12-01714-CV, 2014 WL 6778394, at *10 n.8 (Tex. App.—Dallas Dec. 2, 2014, pet. denied).

[9] Tex. Elec. Code § 253.039.

How Do We Solve the Baby Litigator Crisis?

How Do We Solve the Baby Litigator Crisis?

TexasBarToday_TopTen_Badge_VectorGraphicFirst let me say for the record: I think it’s great when senior litigators give young lawyers opportunities to do things like arguing motions and taking depositions. That happened to me when I was a “baby lawyer,” and I’m grateful.

Having said that, I have to confess it has finally happened. I’ve become a grumpy old man. At 45 years old, I feel like I’m not even at the half-way point of my career, and I still think of myself as young. So what has me feeling like throwing open my front door and shouting “you kids get off my lawn”?

Well, lately there has been some handwringing in the legal community about the fact that younger lawyers don’t get to stand up and talk in the courtroom very often. (And forget about the decline in jury trials–that ship has sailed; we’re just talking about hearings and oral arguments.)

As a result, programs designed to give younger lawyers more courtroom speaking opportunities are now a “thing.” Some judges have even adopted formal policies designed to encourage more experienced lawyers to allow less experienced lawyers to argue cases in court.[1]

A First-World Problem?

The shortage of courtroom speaking opportunities for young litigators strikes me as a great example of a First-World Problem. If you’re not familiar with the concept, a First-World Problem is something that causes great annoyance to the upper-middle class in America, until you stop and think about whether someone in a third-world country would consider it a problem.

My personal favorite First-World Problem is when I order a cappuccino at Starbucks and they make it more like a latte. As I get the urge to complain to the barista, “more foam, less milk!” I have to stop and think to myself, “dude [I like to call myself ‘dude’], there are millions of people in this world who don’t even have clean water to drink.” And in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, I’m even more reluctant to complain about my relatively trivial problems.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that the lack of courtroom opportunities is not a problem for younger lawyers. But I have two concerns about the reaction to the problem.

What’s best for the client?

First, the reaction seems too focused on the needs of the lawyers, rather than the needs of the clients.

Mind you, I’m not suggesting the reaction is based on heartfelt concern for the job satisfaction of the young associates. Please! The problem big law firms are concerned about is “how can we justify charging $750/hour for a junior partner who never got much courtroom experience?” (Note to self: update this post once a year to increase the rate by $100.)

Maybe this is naïve, but I like to think that law firms should assign tasks based on what is best for the case and the client. For a routine motion or a deposition of a minor witness, there’s no reason to send the senior partner when a junior associate can do the job—and at a lower rate.

But who should handle a more difficult assignment, like arguing a case-dispositive motion, taking the deposition of a key hostile witness, or telling the CEO “we need to image your smartphone”?

In those cases, the overriding question should be who is going to do the job most effectively.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the assignment goes to the more senior lawyer. Sometimes the junior lawyer who knows the facts, documents, and case law inside-out may do just as good a job (or better). In those cases, I say give the young lawyer a chance. My Young Associate Development Program would simply be this: a tie goes to the less experienced lawyer.

The point is to focus on what is best for the case, not what is best for the law firm. Most clients don’t want to foot the bill for training young lawyers.

A radical alternative solution

The second problem I have with the reaction to junior lawyers not getting enough courtroom time is that the whole thing seems a little BigLaw-centric.

If you’re an associate slaving away at a big law firm and not getting enough courtroom experience, you have a few options. You could complain to the partners and hope they throw you a few more breadcrumbs. But if taking the lead in the courtroom is truly important to you, then the better solution is to bring in your own clients.

The problem, of course, is that not many third-year associates are going to land the kind of blue-chip clients who will pay BigLaw rates. So you may have to swallow your pride and find a job at—brace for it—a small firm, where you may have a better chance of developing your own business.

Or if you really care about being in charge of your own matters, you could take the plunge and hang out a shingle. In a solo practice, there is a very good chance the managing partner will let you argue the cases in the courtroom all you want.

Now we’re getting to the nitty-gritty. Because these options may mean shifting your expectations. You may need to trade in that new Lexus for a used Subaru. You may need to take your next vacation in Paris, Texas, rather than Paris, France. You might have to—gasp!—cancel your membership at the country club. You may be embarrassed at the law school reunion when you see your friends from law review and they ask where you’re working now.

And your clientele may have to change. You may no longer find yourself reporting to the Deputy Assistant General Counsel for Employment Litigation, Southwest Region, of a Fortune 500 company. Instead, you may find yourself reporting to Jim Bob, a middle-aged guy who dropped out of college to start a plumbing supply company.

But you know what? You may find that Jim Bob is smarter than you thought, and representing his company can be a lot of fun. Plus, when you’re in charge, you’ll get to argue his case in court all you want.

And, who knows, after a few years you may be the one sending a baby litigator to the courthouse in your place.

___________________________________________________________________

head-shot-photo-of-zach-wolfeZach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation. His firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC has offices in Houston, Austin, and The Woodlands. He is much nicer to young lawyers in person.

These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case.

[1] An interwoven issue is providing more opportunities for female lawyers. That’s an important topic in its own right, but for simplicity I’m saving it for a future post.