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Saturday, April 21, 2007

A double standard?

We in the media love a local angle to a story, which is one reason there have been so many attempts to tie the recent upheaval in the local U.S. Attorney's Office with the national scandal over the firing of eight U.S. attorneys. It's tough to sit on the sidelines with such a juicy story brewing nationally. So when U.S. Attorney Rachel Paulose's three deputies stepped down earlier this month, it gave the local media a chance to participate in the fun and games if only we could connect those darn dots.

The problem was that it required fitting a square peg into a round hole. As I pointe
d out in my last column "A management primer: Who moved the U.S. attorney's cheese?" the deputy dispute was exactly what it appeared to be, a managerial issue between a young new manager who wanted to change the status quo and strong-willed and experienced deputies with ideas of their own about how the office should be run.

Nonetheless, the attempts continue to tie Paulose's office with the national scandal. The
Star Tribune reports today on a case involving a probe last summer by the Minnesota Attorney General's Office into alleged overbilling by an autism center chaired by Ron Carey, who is now chairman of the state Republican Party. In the middle of running for governor at the time, then-Attorney General Mike Hatch, a DFLer, referred the case to the U.S. Attorney's Office to avoid the appearance that any subsequent prosecution was politically motivated. The case is still pending at the U.S. Attorney's Office. (The Strib story published today is "Politics colored probe of autism center billing.")

So was this the ever elusive "missing link?" If Paulose's office has failed to prosecute a case involving a prominent Republican, doesn't that show she is tied in to the firings scandal and related attempts to politicize the office of U.S. attorney? Errr .... sorry. This one was an air ball. It turns out that Paulose prudently recused herself from the case.

But rather than just giving up he ghost at this point, the story then switches gears and goes after the assistant U.S. attorney who was assigned the case. The article maintains he had a conflict of interest because he applied for a judgeship from (Republican) Gov. Tim Pawlenty while the case was pending. Seems like a stretch to me to find a conflict here -- particularly given that Pawlenty had no idea that the assistant USA was handling the case and in any case wound up awarding the coveted judgeship to someone else -- but I suppose the Strib reporters didn't want to just write off all that time they had spent trying to connect Paulose to the national U.S. attorneys' scandal.

Meanwhile, speaking of the AG's Office, no one seems to have picked up on an ironic little fact reported Minnesota Lawyer's Bar Buzz column recently. Right about the time Paulose's three deputies stepped down, two of newly installed state Attorney General Lori Swanson's deputies departed from her office with nary a peep in the press. (See "Two deputies exit AG’s office," in the April 9 Minnesota Lawyer, password required.)

Swanson, a relatively youthful 40 and the first woman to hold the AG job in the state, is a DFLer. Paulose, a relatively youthful 34 and the first woman to hold the U.S. attorney job in the state, is a Republican. Hmm. We will leave it to you and the political blogs to speculate if there is any significance to the disparate coverage.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Ms. Jones goes to Washington

Intrepid Minnesota Lawyer Associate Editor Barbara Jones is currently in Washington, D.C., with a number of bigwigs from the Minnesota State Bar Association to attend an American Bar Association's annual legislative lobbying event -- ABA day. Oddly enough, the event takes two days -- or at least that was what Barb told us when we agreed to send her there.

Among the MSBA delegation are executive director Tim Groshens, ex-MSBA President Susan Holden, Hennepin County District Court Judge Cara Lee Neville, ex-MSBA President David Stowman, current MSBA president Patrick Kelly and David Brink, who is a former president not only of the MSBA, but also the ABA.

So what's on the ABA's agenda? Legal Services funding, student debt and judicial salaries, Barb reports from the nation's capital. Barb and the MSBA delegation have met with a number of federal lawmakers over the last two days, including Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Norm Coleman.
Kelly checked in last night on Barb's behalf to tell us that the delegation was working into "the wee hours." However, in the background of the voicemail message we heard the distinct sound of laughter and glasses clinking.

Give peace a chance?

In writing about collaborative law for this week’s Minnesota Lawyer, I sensed a divide among attorneys who feel the method is valuable because it’s founded on avoiding conflict – and others who feel it’s counterproductive, even unethical, for the same reason.

That made me wonder what the latter group would think of the International Alliance of Holistic Lawyers,
a Delaware-based group whose vision is “a world where lawyers are valued as healers, helpers, counselors, problem-solvers, and peacemakers. Conflicts are seen as opportunities for growth. Lawyers model balanced lives and are respected for their contributions to the greater good.”

Most lawyers could be excused at this point for exclaiming, “Say what?” The idea of avoiding conflict, as collaborative law skeptics maintain, seems antithetical to the very idea of lawyering. But, proponents maintain, is there also not room in the legal business for the human touch, the ability to act as a peacemaker and a healer? Even if you’re not on board with the new-agey lexicon, it’s hard to dispute that the IAHL promotes some good ideas for human interaction, even if they don’t always fit comfortably in the practice of law.

If you feel like finding out for yourself what these mellow folks are all about, their annual leadership conference begins May 3 in Asheville, N.C. At the conference, author Constance d’Angelis will present her Seven Laws of Peaceful Solutions – which, in case you were wondering, are Unity, Perception, Cause and Effect, Alignment, Mental Attention, Gratitude, and Redemption.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

CrackBerry withdrawal, anyone?

First, the good news: BlackBerry service has been restored after an overnight outage that left millions without e-mail access on their cherished devices.

The bad news is that you're now acutely aware of your
CrackBerry addiction.

Research in Motion, the Canadian company that provides BlackBerry service, is still investigating the cause of the outage. But what about the effects?

Stories abound on the supposed
addictive and sometimes painful nature of the handheld devices, not to mention the cultural impact of a workforce that’s unwired, but nonetheless tethered, to the office.

So how did you get through the night?

According to
WebMD, withdrawal symptoms can include:
  • Cravings
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating

If you experienced any of these, we’d like to hear about it. ... And oh yeah, please contact your family physician.

Old-boy network gets a makeover

Minnesota Lawyer's national sister publication, Lawyers USA, reports in an upcoming piece that a growing number of women-only client outings are being hosted by law firms throughout the country. Many of the events have a decidedly feminine flair, as some women attorneys opt for glamour over golf to schmooze with their female clients.

Here's a taste of the article:

On a Tuesday evening last fall, 19 women lawyers from a large Chicago law firm got together with 60 women clients to browse designer shoes together at the Cole Haan store on Michigan Avenue.

They sipped cocktails, snacked on appetizers and swapped business cards. Many also used a special discount to buy shoes at the upscale store, which closed early to the public for the private party.

"It was more successful than I think we ever would have guessed," said Leslee Cohen, a principal at Much Shelist and co-chair of the firm's women's initiative. "The women were shopping and networking with each other. We made contacts for this law firm, and our guests made contacts with each other, which they found very helpful."

The event was one of a growing number of women-only client outings hosted by law firms throughout the country. Many of the events have a decidedly feminine flair, as women attorneys opt for glamour over golf to schmooze with their female clients.

Click here for more. (Password required.)

In Minnesota, we have the “Juris Divas” a group of women lawyers who bill themselves as “smart, sassy lawyers or judges who enjoy good times, good stories and good friends — and a good martini or two.”

When we reported on the group last year, we noted its organizers quipped they were tired of listening to their male colleagues “prattle on and on about golf or football or their wives and kids,” and would much rather be talking about “spa day, our latest shopping jags, the latest gossip, and other girl talk while sipping our favorite libations.”

For more information about the Juris Divas, contact Minneapolis criminal defense attorney Carolyn Agin Schmidt at caslaw@comcast.net.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The true value of our pets

Lawsuits are mounting over the deaths of numerous cats and dogs across the country who were allegedly given contaminated pet food that caused their kidneys to shut down. Menu Foods, an Ontario-based manufacturer of brand- and private-label wet pet foods, is at the heart of many of the lawsuits and was the first of several companies to recall the now more than 100 brands of tainted pet foods and treats. Some plaintiffs are claiming that Menu Foods knew that the food could kill pets before the recall.

As an animal lover who views her own cats as members of the family, I feel deeply for those who have lost their pets to the contaminated foods or gone through the ordeal of almost losing them. The only good that could possibly come out of this horrible tragedy is that it is highlighting the ongoing debate over the value of our pets.

Are they simply property, whose worth is nothing more than what a person paid for them? Or do they have "intrinsic value" that is much more than that? Should people be awarded compensation for the emotional distress of losing a beloved family pet? We would love to hear your thoughts on the issue.

A weighty issue

Minnesota Lawyer next week will be publishing an article from our national sister publication, Lawyers USA, on a topic of great weight -- are the scales of justice tipped against obese litigants? (Hey, hey, don't blame me -- they are the ones who came up with that whole scales of justice motif.) While the title may be a lot lighter than the topic, the issue is an interesting one. The piece offers some concrete strategies for combating juror biases against portly plaintiffs.

If anyone has had any experience with this issue and has some local input they would like to add, let us know.

Monday, April 16, 2007

House commitee wants to talk with Paulose, others

The House Judiciary Committee has made a request that U.S. Attorney Rachel Paulose and several others submit to voluntary interviews as part of the committee's investigation into the firings of eight U.S. attorneys, according to the Associated Press. The request was reportedly made in a Monday letter to Acting Assistant Attorney General Richard Hertling.

"In our continuing effort to determine the truth behind these firings, we believe that these future interviews will also provide information which we may not already have but that is critical to our investigation nonetheless," the letter said.

Click here for more.

Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the tragedy at Virginia Tech, the Senate Judiciary Committee has rescheduled the appearance of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales from today to Thursday.

The deputy debate

As a special extra to our blog readers, Minnesota Lawyer is once again making this week's editor's column available in its entirety.

A management primer: Who moved the U.S. Attorney’s cheese?

By Mark A. Cohen
Minnesota Lawyer, April 16, 2007

Unlike the silly tempest in a teapot some made of Rachel Paulose’s $225 investiture ceremony, the decision of the U.S. attorney’s top deputies to step down from their leadership posts cannot be laughed off.

It is a serious business indeed when three highly regarded career prosecutors take a risky step like that. And when such a radical move accompanies reports that the U.S. attorney’s management style is “abrasive” and “disrespectful,” we must be doubly concerned.

My, how things change in just a few short months. When Paulose became the nation’s youngest U.S. attorney at the age of 33, she was lionized in the media. Her confirmation in the U.S. Senate had been unanimous. The child of an immigrant family, she was on top of the world. But now she finds herself fighting to keep her job and to prevent her previously spotless reputation from being torn to shreds.

Welcome to public life, Ms. Paulose. And as bad as things have gotten, they have the potential to get worse.

A number of media sources have tried, though so far unsuccessfully, to link the current controversy in the Minnesota U.S. Attorney’s Office with the national debate over U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ role in firing eight U.S. attorneys in other jurisdictions.

Paulose’s predecessor, Thomas Heffelfinger, left public life 14 months ago for a job in the private sector. He has repeatedly said that his decision was personal and that he was under no pressure to resign. But the unknown in the mix is whether Heffelfinger was on a “hit” list of U.S. attorneys slated for removal and would have been squeezed out had he stayed. If his name was on the list, and the document becomes public, Paulose is likely to again find herself in a firestorm of controversy.

It would, of course, be a shame if Heffelfinger’s name is there, given that Heffelfinger is a dedicated public servant who ran the office for two presidents. But the people who added the name to the list would be the ones properly answerable for that, not Paulose.

By all accounts Paulose is intelligent, talented, hardworking and highly driven. As far as I can tell, there are really only two potential areas of inquiry left in determining whether she can be a good U.S. attorney — her independence and ability to manage.

Minnesotans have a right to expect their U.S. attorney will exercise her independent judgment in running the local U.S. Attorney’s Office. If the job were merely to be an instrument of the attorney general, there would be no need for U.S. Senate confirmation. By the same token, Paulose has a responsibility not to use her office for purely political ends. In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, I think that Paulose is entitled to the benefit of the doubt on these issues.

More troublesome at the moment is the question of Paulose’s managerial abilities. Given her youth and status as a relative outsider when she became acting head of the office last year, it was to be expected that some of the nearly 50 experienced, talented and mostly older attorneys who work there would be unhappy having her as a boss. However, the action by the deputies goes well beyond the typical grumbling. It would be doing the three distinguished deputies a disservice to imply that they would do what they did out of petty jealousies or mere office politics. I credit the reports that they had major differences with Paulose over her management style.

Paulose’s resumé is highly impressive. It demonstrates that she is a Type A super achiever with enough energy to power a small city. However, the one thing missing from her otherwise stellar background is significant management experience.

For someone used to relying on his or her own skills and hard work to achieve success, having to rely on the work of others, as is the case in management, can come as quite a shock. There is a real temptation to micromanage rather than trust your people to do what they do best. And when your subordinates are of a high level of ability, they are likely to feel patronized and degraded when you micromanage them.

Do I know for sure this is what happened in Paulose’s case? Certainly not. I am actually speaking from my own experience. When I became editor of this paper, I was a 32-year-old with limited prior supervisory experience. I probably committed every management mistake in the book during that first year. Fortunately, unlike Paulose, I was not operating in a fishbowl. After a lot of trial and error, I eventually found a management style that worked for me and survived the experience. In fact, I wound up becoming so interested in the topic that I began taking management classes and eventually obtained my MBA.

I have already noticed some encouraging changes in Paulose’s management approach. I read an Associated Press report that said Paulose early last week called a general meeting of her staff, acknowledged that she had made some mistakes and apologized. These actions are all positive steps.

So were do we go from here?

To borrow a reference from Scripture, as Paulose is reportedly apt to do, I do not agree with those calling for her head on a platter. However, to whom much is given, much is required. Paulose has been given an extraordinary opportunity at a relatively young age, so our expectations are correspondingly high. Hopefully, our faith will be justified.

Mark A. Cohen is the editor-in-chief of Minnesota Lawyer. He can be reached at (612) 584-1531 or by e-mail at mark.cohen@minnlawyer.com.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Strib interviews Paulose

The Star Tribune has an interesting interview with U.S. Attorney Rachel Paulose today, "Paulose says 'conspiracy theories' on her fast rise to top are off base." I don't want to get too much of the substance of the interview, since a column I wrote on some of these issues will be out on Monday. I would encourage you to read the Strib piece, and follow it up tomorrow by reading my column (which I wrote prior to this interview coming out).