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Saturday, August 4, 2007

Many suits will be built on bridge collapse

The Star Tribune has an interesting story today on the liability questions and potential lawsuits arising out of the collapse of the 35W bridge. (See "Question of liability rises.")

Given the limitations on state and municipal liability and the fact that the bridge was constructed 40 years ago, attorneys pursuing liability claims will likely have to focus on the private entities involved in the bridge's maintenance, the article correctly points out.

And there will, of course, also be a bevy of legal issues relating to insurance coverage that will crop up.

The most disturbing part of the article was an interview with Omar Jamal of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center. Once it became clear that a pregnant Somali woman and her 2-year-old daughter were among the victims, calls from attorneys looking for her family's contact info have not stopped, Jamal said. He reported at least a dozen in the article, starting within 24 hours of the collapse..

"This is the worst form of ambulance-chasing," Jamal told the Star Tribune. "The divers are still in the river looking, and the attorneys keep calling us."

It is unfortunate to hear that is going on. It plays into the worst stereotypes about personal injury lawyers.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Summer associate part of heroic bridge rescue efforts

Minnesota Lawyer has learned of at least one member of Minnesota's legal community who participated in the heroic rescue efforts following the collapse of the I35 bridge.

Bowman and Brooke summer associate Will Barron and his wife were in the immediate vicinity of the bridge when it collapsed last Wednesday evening. They were on the scene assisting victims immediately.

A photo of Will carrying an injured person out of the wreckage appeared in People magazine on Thursday Aug. 2. (He's in the gray shirt and blue pants.) A co-worker of Will's, Christopher Fowlkes, sent an e-mail around to other Bowman and Brooke employees today in which he states: "[Will] insists that he is not as bald as the picture depicts. Whether or not that is true I can't say. But I can say that what he did was truly heroic and I am glad to know him."

An uncomfortable spot between the branches

With all that has been going on lately here in Minnesota, I don't know how many of you had the chance to watch the testimony the other day of White House aide J. Scott Jennings in the ongoing U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee's inquiry into the U.S. attorney firings. (Click here for the New York Times' coverage.) I caught some of it repeated late last night on C-SPAN.

Jennings is a 29-year-old with enough of a baby face to look more like he belongs in a Gerber's commercial than before a congressional committee. Yet there he was -- chubby cheeks and all -- caught in the epicenter of a power struggle between the President of the United States and the United States Congress.

The over-his-head aide was, of course, eaten alive by his senatorial inquisitors. To almost any question of substance, he consulted with his attorney and White House counsel, and then responded that he couldn't answer "pursuant to President Bush’s directive invoking executive privilege.” Jennings tried to diffuse the situation by comparing his position to being caught between Scylla and Charybdis -- and nearly got his poetic license permanently revoked with a congressional contempt citation for his lame attempt at levity.

I am not sure who deserves the most blame at here -- the executive branch for throwing a still-wet-behind-the-ears aide to the lions, or the legislative branch for dutifully being the lions. It's just hard for me to believe that things have degenerated to the point where we spend hours of congressional time on a low-quality witness like Jennings, who looks like he'd be more comfortable at a college keg party than before a congressional committee.

The executive and legislative branches need to find a way to work out this impasse so we can stop having to see hearings as useless as this one. Or maybe I just need to stop watching late-night C-SPAN ...

What the heck is a 'Libby' motion?

Coming up in Monday's Minnesota Lawyer -- Learn about a new device using by criminal-defense lawyers across the country to advocate for leniency for their clients.

Also: Have you ever thought about being an appellate judge? Find out why there may never be a better time for you to apply.

Australian court orders completion of eBay deal

Having second thoughts about letting go of that item you sold on an eBay auction?

Too bad, according to the Australian court that today ordered Vin Thomas to complete a deal he made on the Internet to sell a vintage airplane.

According to a report in the Brisbane Times, Thomas put the plane -- worth about $250,000 -- up for auction on eBay in August 2006. An Australian war plane enthusiast, Peter Smythe, bid on the the 1946 World War II Wirraway plane moments before the auction ended, offering $150,000 (the reserve price). But Thomas wanted to back out of the deal, having found someone else who was willing to pay $100,000 more than Smythe.

Smythe took the case to court -- and won. The New South Wales state Supreme Court said the eBay auction formed "a binding contract between the plaintiff and the defendant and ... should be specifically enforced."

Kudos to the court for enforcing the agreement. But the case does bring to mind a question: Who buys -- or sells for that matter -- a vintage airplane worth $250,000 on eBay?

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Minnesota Lawyer's parent company went public today

Dolan Media, the parent company of Minnesota Lawyer, went public today.

The Minneapolis-based firm’s shares opened on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker symbol “DM,” with an initial public offering price of $14.50.

Though when trading commenced at 10 a.m., shares opened at $16.40 apiece and quickly climbed to trade above $17 per share.

The operator of niche business and law publications said net proceeds from the offering are expected to be approximately $138.6 million and will be used to redeem all outstanding shares of the company’s preferred stock, to repay $30 million of outstanding debt under the company’s credit facility and for general corporate purposes, including acquisitions and working capital.

“As a business journalist, how many IPOs have we written about over the years?” said John L. Kominicki, publisher of the Dolan Media-owned Long Island Business News, who was on Wall Street for the IPO. “To be involved in one and to cover it is a thrill.”

Goldman, Sachs & Co. and Merrill Lynch & Co. are acting as joint bookrunners and as representatives of the underwriters. Piper Jaffray & Co. and Craig-Hallum Capital Group LLC are acting as co-managers.

Dolan Media owns niche newspapers in 19 markets, including New Orleans, Baltimore, St. Louis, Boise, Idaho and Boston. It acquired Finance and Commerce in 1993 and launched Minnesota Lawyer in 1997.

Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest

Admit it—you've always wanted to write that Great American Novel. You may have even heard lawyer/bestselling novelist Phillip Margolin share writing tips during last month's Minnesota State Bar Association convention.

But when you finally put pen to paper, please don't start your book with this sentence:

Gerald began—but was interrupted by a piercing whistle which cost him ten percent of his hearing permanently, as it did everyone else in a ten-mile radius of the eruption, not that it mattered much because for them "permanently" meant the next ten minutes or so until buried by searing lava or suffocated by choking ash—to pee.
That line was the winner of this year's Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. An anathema to good writing, the contest challenges writers to compose the worst, most garrulous opening sentence for an imaginary novel.

Here's another gem, this one from a Minneapolis writer, which snagged a Miscellaneous Dishonorable Mention:

With "Bambi" eyes and an angelic face made for singing "The hills are alive" while traipsing across an Alpine meadow, Heidi Weissbrot seemed as pure as driven snow to older folks around Peach Blossom, but among boys her own age, there was a nasty rumor that her purity was more akin to snow driven to the river in dump trucks after being scraped from roads and parking lots.
The Bulwer-Lytton contest is named after the Victorian novelist who penned "It was a dark and stormy night"—the gold standard for purple prose. Click here to read all of this year's winning entries.

Editor's note on the bridge tragedy

Our thoughts and prayers at the Minnesota Lawyer blog are with the victims of the 35W bridge collapse and their families and friends.

We encourage folks to donate money or blood to the local chapter of the Red Cross. Click here for more information.

Additionally, Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers issued the following statement this morning:

"Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers offers individual counseling services to all members of the legal profession and their immediate family members, 24 hours a day. These services are free of charge and we hope that those who may be affected by the 35W tragedy will call us if they need assistance. We can also help make arrangements for organizational assistance for firms or other legal employers who may need it. LCL may be contacted at 651-646-5590, 866-525-6466 or help@mnlcl.org."

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

AG Swanson discusses first eight months in office

There was an interesting interview on Minnesota Public Radio this morning with Attorney General Lori Swanson on her first eight months in office. The interview, conducted by Kerri Miller on the Midmorning show, made for very interesting listening. Overall, I thought Miller did a good job in asking some difficult questions about Swanson's stance on the attempted unionization of employees at her office, morale issues at her office and other management troubles that have cropped up in the early part of Swanson's term. Swanson resorted to nonanswers on a number of these inquiries. (One irate caller actually compared her evasive answers on some of these questions to those of U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in his testimony before Congress.)

On the other hand, I thought Swanson did a very good job discussing some of the priorities of the AG's Office, including going after predatory lenders. And I do have to give her credit for at least putting herself out there to be confronted by some hard questions -- including fielding a phone call from a none-too-pleased AFSCME official.

But why not listen to the entire interview yourself and see what you think? The interview can be accessed on the MPR site by clicking here.

Tonia Schulz to leave Oppenheimer for financial sector

After just seven months as managing partner of the Minneapolis law firm of Oppenheimer Wolf & Donnolly, Tonia Schulz has announced that she is leaving the 99-lawyer firm to take a position as executive vice president of Emmerich Financial. According to Emmerich Financial's website, the company has a client list that includes some of the country's top-performing financial services companies.

Many will recall that Schulz became Oppenheimer's first woman managing partner in January. Oppenheimer has a unique management structure whereby Schulz -- who works full time on operations -- shares executive power with firm CEO David Potter, who, in addition to his management duties, continues to practice law. The idea behind having the full-time manager was that in an increasingly complex world, the firm should have at least one person whose complete attention was devoted to strategic thinking and other management-related issues. (Many law firms have practicing lawyers serve on a rotating basis as CEO, but no full-time top manager.)

Oppenheimer firm spokesperson Jacquie Bystrom said the firm is sad to Schulz go, but the firm understood her decision to take on a leadership position in the fast-growing financial services sector. The Oppenheimer firm remains committed to its management structure of having a full-time managing partner, Bystrom added.

Schulz's departure is effective Aug. 31.

Who will benefit from legal ticket scalping?

Starting today, ticket scalping is legal in Minnesota. Reselling tickets to ballgames, concerts and other events for more than face value, once a misdemeanor, is now on the up and up. This is good news and bad news.

It's good news for companies like Ticket King, which today opened a ticket outlet two blocks from the Metrodome after closing its longtime Hudson, Wis., location in response to the new law. Similar companies are sure to follow suit. Ticket brokers have long taken advantage of having pockets deep enough to allow them to buy up blocs of tickets, and being able to absorb the cost of "eating" the tickets that don’t sell.

It’s mixed news for the street-corner scalpers, the guys near the Dome with the signs reading "I Need Tickets" (need, in case it hadn’t dawned on you before, means am selling). While they no longer risk arrest for plying their trade, their revenues will be undercut by the presence of Ticket King.

It might be bad news for consumers. If the street-corner guys are driven away by Ticket King, bargain-priced tickets might be a thing of the past. Before, if a concertgoer bided his time until the Target Center headliner had taken the stage, he could get a ticket for less than face value from a scalper who just wanted to dump his remaining stock before it became worthless. Odds are, no such bargains are in store from Ticket King and their ilk.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

SS# settlement hasn't completely sunk in at Hennepin

As we have blogged about here before, on July 2 Hennepin County did away with a controversial requirement that applicants for marriage licenses provide a Social Security number. The policy caused problems for immigrants who wanted to marry, and resulted in the lawsuit that served as the impetus for the policy change.

We were notified by an astute reader the other day that an immigration lawyer’s clients had been turned away in Hennepin County because they couldn't provide a Social Security number on their marriage license application. The couple had been unsuccessful in procuring the license at both the Hennepin County Government Center in Minneapolis and the county's Brooklyn Center site.

We were naturally surprised to hear this, given that the county was not supposed to be requiring Social Security numbers any more. So we placed a call to county auditor Jill Alverson to ask her what gives. She promptly returned our call, leaving us the following voicemail:

“We were aware of the one incident at the Government Center. When we became aware of that, we did contact the staff and correct that. The people did come back, and we were able to process their marriage license application. We were not aware of the incident at the Brooklyn Center site. So we will be following up on that. The policy and procedures were changed effective July 2. We have over 180 staff working at our service centers across the county, so I think it's just a matter of time. … We are getting the word out.”

Thanks to Ms. Alverson for getting right on top of this important issue. If anyone else’s client experiences any similar problems with getting a marriage license, you can contact her at the Taxpayer Services Department at (612) 348-3011.

An innocent inquiry

The Innocence Project of Minnesota is hoping to find a few more local law firms to help sponsor its annual Innocence Ball. The event -- which this year will be held on Nov. 3 -- is one of the highlights of the legal community's social calendar. This year's keynote speaker is a marquee name -- author and lawyer Scott Turow -- who, appropriately enough, wrote Presumed Innocent.

The event is always a lot of fun and the cause is, of course, a very worthy one. Any firm thinking about becoming involved should contact executive director Erika Applebaum at (651) 523-3152, eapplebaum@ipmn.org, for more information. There are many different types and levels of opportunities available.

Would you like some coleslaw with that will?

Our national sister publication – Lawyers USA – ran a story this week about a Trusts and Estates attorney in Massachusetts who has hit upon a new gimmick for generating business – “will-signing parties.” (See "Will-signing parties enliven solo's estate practice.")

Modeled after Tupperware parties, the will-signing parties are held in someone's home. The host invites friends and relatives to participate. The attorney requires a minimum of five couples or individuals for each party.

Before the party, the lawyer asks each couple to fill out a questionnaire about their estate planning needs, and then talks with them by phone to answer questions. Each couple reviews a draft of their documents before the party.

At the party, each couple meets separately with the lawyer to review their documents. When they are ready to sign, another couple is called in to act as witnesses. Then presumably everybody goes out on the porch for barbecued chicken.

I can’t quite decide if this is a great marketing idea or something truly tasteless.

“Oh, I’m sorry honey, I got some mustard on our bequest to Junior. Could you pass me a paper towel to clean it off – oh, and some more potato salad while you’re at it, thanks.”

I am presuming that the guests lay off the beer until after they sign the wills.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Where have all the legal secretaries gone?

Minnesota Lawyer this week has a story on a major issue facing the local legal profession -- the lack of an adequate number of legal secretaries and other office support personnel for law firms. (See "Lawyers facing a critical shortage of office support personnel," password required.)

This phenomenon is attributable primarily to two factors -- the growing number of lawyers in the state and the shrinking pool of qualified candidates for these support jobs. An added issue is that the average age of secretaries and other support workers has been creeping steadily upward, creating concerns about who will fill these posts when the upcoming wave of retirements hits. The Minnesota Lawyer article chronicles some of the proactive steps some local law firms are taking to head off a crisis, including becoming involved in certification programs.

One easy thing that lawyers can do is to treat their support people well. Such individuals are the ones who keep the office running and should always be treated accordingly. Another thing is to make sure support workers have tasks that they consider interesting. If you would be incredibly bored doing their job, what makes you think they aren't?

While the shortage of law office support staff grows, the law schools continue to pump out new lawyers. If the current trends continue unabated, the lawyers may soon themselves fetching the coffee for the support staff.