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Friday, October 19, 2007

Warning! Internet scammer is targeting attorneys

There is an Internet scammer out there targeting lawyers. The scammer purports to be a Thailand-based company in need of a lawyer to aid in its delinquent account collection.

The company -- which claims to have located the attorney through an online directory -- will ultimately try to get the attorney to deposit a check and wire the funds out of the country. The check is actually a cleverly constructed counterfeit. At least one local attorney was among those targeted. Minnesota Lawyer has the details of the attorney's experience in Monday's paper.

Lawyers rock at the Fine Line

In a blog entry last week about the growing popularity within the legal community of riding motorcycle, I encouraged those of you who’ve been under the assumption that lawyers and judges are nothing but a bunch of buttoned-down, boring men and women in business suits to “think again.”

This week, I repeat that advice.

A week from tonight, Oct. 26, eight different bands -- all of which include at least one lawyer or law student -- will be rocking away at the Fine Line Music Café in Minneapolis.

It’s all part of the fifth annual Attractive Nuisance Tour, which raises money for two local legal charities -- the Minnesota Justice Foundation and the Hennepin County Bar Foundation. Each year since ANT’s inception in 2003, the amount raised has increased -- from $10,000 the first year to $57,000 last year. Organizers anticipate that this year’s concert will be even bigger and better than ever before.

A preview of this year’s ANT event will be available in Monday’s edition of Minnesota Lawyer. General admission is $20. For ticket information, e-mail Joy at joy@hcba.org.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

New blog a capital idea

Lawyers USA, Minnesota Lawyer's national sister publication, recently started a blog called "DC Dicta."

The blog covers the U.S. Supreme Court, Congress, the federal agencies and all the legal players in the nation's capital.

In addition to the serious matter, reporter and blogger Kimberly Atkins plans to write about interesting exchanges between the justices and attorneys, funny or unusual things that happen and appearances of "legal celebrities."

We leave it to Kimberly -- and to you -- to determine which of our local legal luminaries qualify as "legal celebrities" when they are spotted arguing a U.S. Supreme Court case or, for that matter, eating at the Capital Grille. But the blog is worth checking out if you want to keep up on what is going on in the corridors of power.

Companies are suing, being sued less

Fulbright & Jaworski this week reported a "distinct drop" in the number of lawsuits filed against U.S. companies.

Based on interviews with in-house counsel at 250 major U.S. corporations, 17 percent of respondents said their companies had escaped the past year without having to defend a single new lawsuit — that's up from 11 percent the previous year.

Companies also seem to be suing less: just 65 percent had initiated at least one lawsuit in the past year, down from more than 70 percent a year ago and 88 percent in 2004.

So what kinds of suits are disappearing? Securities cases are down, along with bankruptcy disputes, Fulbright says. But other types of litigation, such as patent cases and product liability suits, are on the rise.

So depending on your practice, this could be good news or bad news. Either way, the majority of in-house counsel still identify labor and employment matters as the most frequent source of lawsuits.

And if you're general counsel, well, less litigation is always good — whether it's against your company or against you personally. The National Law Journal reported earlier this month that a record 10 GCs were charged with or pleaded to civil or criminal fraud in federal courts this year.

More information from the Litigation Trends Survey is available here.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Police reports add quaint flavor to big-city news

My favorite thing about small-town newspapers is the police report, the weekly round-up of thefts, loud parties and animal rescues that spice up rural life. At their best, these sections of the paper are like a local version of News of the Weird.

The Star Tribune recently began running a weekly cross-section of area police reports, and it’s as entertaining as one might imagine. Consider these gems from Wednesday’s log:

* A Spring Lake Park High School student streaked an athletic event at rival Blaine High School. This was no spontaneous act, either – the perp had a getaway car (containing his clothes) waiting for him at the end of his streak. But he was caught anyway, and banned from attending any Blaine events for three years.

* An auto dealer in Columbus, Minn., reported that someone stole a car from his lot. Although the car had a dead battery, the resourceful thief stole a good battery from another car on the lot, installed it in the car he wanted, and drove away.

* In Maplewood, a homeowner filed a property damage complaint when someone affixed an adhesive flier to his front-door window. The homeowner was unable to remove the flyer’s glue from his window, so he called police.

* In Stillwater, a man advised police that he was planning on talking to a neighbor whose cats had been urinating on his property. The report didn’t mention how that conversation turned out.

Of course, there are plenty of much more serious crimes reported all the time in our fair cities. But reading about some of these oddball goings-on can be a refreshing break from the "real" legal news.

Mukasey hearing starts today

The Associated Press reports that Attorney General-designate Michael Mukasey pledges to strike a delicate balance between keeping the nation safe and protecting the civil liberties of Americans.

"Protecting civil liberties, and people's confidence that those liberties are protected, is a part of protecting national security, just as is the gathering of intelligence to defend us from those who believe it is their duty to make war on us," Mukasey said in remarks prepared for delivery at his confirmation hearing, which began this morning. "We have to succeed at both."

For more, click here.

Craig speaks on why he stalled in Minnesota

I saw Matt Lauer's exclusive interview last night with Idaho Senator Larry Craig on NBC. Well, I saw most of it, anyway. Unfortunately, it was on opposite the Red Sox's playoff game against the Indians, so I kept flicking back and forth. (The Sox lost, by the way. Uggh.)

Between channel hops, I was unable to come to a firm conclusion whether Craig did what he was charged with in a bathroom stall at the MSP airport bathroom (something of a "he said/ he said," I guess). But I must admit I found myself oddly amused by the name of the NBC show that directly followed the interview -- "The Biggest Loser."

Hmmmm. I will let you insert your own joke there.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

U.S. Attorney probe again Internet fodder

Former Star Tribune reporter Eric Black has a new post on his blog about U.S. Attorney Rachel Paulose just in time for U.S. Attorney General nominee Michael Mukasey’s confirmation hearing tomorrow. (See "Is Rachel Paulose in her final days?”) Black does not have much to add to his prior report that the Office of Special Counsel is investigating Paulose – other than an allegation that a second person may (or may not) have heard Paulose make the alleged racial remark (or at least something(s?) similar).

Now it’s pretty apparent that Paulose is not going to win any popularity contests in her office. Given the decision of three of her deputies and an administrator to resign their leadership posts last April (but to stay on staff), it’s not surprising that things there have been pretty choppy there from a managerial point of view -- particularly given the leadership vacuum currently atop the Department of Justice. However, something still strikes me as inherently unfair about the steady flow of leaked snippets from the internal investigation that keep being strategically calculated to be released at the moment they will do the maximum amount of damage. (The last one came a few weeks after Alberto Gonzales resigned.) And, of course, whoever is leaking that internal information is flouting with apparent impunity a DOJ policy designed to ensure the integrity of the process.

Whatever the result of the internal investigation is will be fair game for the media. But I am uneasy about one side using the Internet to make its case when the other cannot respond without violating DOJ policy. Maybe I am a bit old-fashioned in this age of new technology, but I like to see things fairer than that.

Lawmakers to hold hearings on 35W bridge claims

State Senator Ron Latz said in a press release yesterday that the Joint House/Senate Subcommittee on Claims has been studying the state’s responsibility to victims of the I-35W bridge collapse and will hold hearings to analyze options available to the state of Minnesota.

“We have been gathering information about the potential scope of claims, about how other states have handled similar situations and about the legal issues relating to the tort claims cap,” he said. “Now is the time to hear firsthand from the people whose lives were affected and who now must recover both physically and emotionally.”

Latz noted that this will be a detailed process and it will take time to determine both need and extent.

“Since the day after the bridge collapse, the subcommittee began gathering information and initiated consultations with the leadership in both the House and the Senate, the governor’s office and the attorney general’s office,” he said. “The time is now appropriate to request public input in this process we’re undertaking. The Claims Subcommittee’s role is to consider and respond to claims against the state and to think about the financial repercussions of such claims.”

Professional ethics, Hollywood style

I don’t go to movies for reality and certainly not for advice in how to practice law. Nevertheless, I thought I’d ask a couple of local ethics gurus about some of the professional dilemmas—and there are plenty of them—that arise in the course of the new movie, Michael Clayton.

The movie, as you may know from the omnipresent advertising, involves a products-liability lawsuit that threatens to go south in a big way when the lead litigator, a manic depressive, goes off his meds and begins to reveal the client’s dirty secrets. (For more details, see yesterday's blog post, "Michael Clayton' provides an interesting view of in-house work".)

Minneapolis attorney Chuck Lundberg offered the following observations:

An ABA formal opinion states: If a lawyer's mental impairment is known to partners in a law firm … steps must be taken that are designed to give reasonable assurance that such impairment will not result in breaches of the Model Rules. If the mental impairment of a lawyer has resulted in a violation of the Model Rules, an obligation may exist to report the violation to the appropriate professional authority.

If the firm removes the impaired lawyer in a matter, it may have an obligation to discuss with the client the circumstances surrounding the change of responsibility. If the impaired lawyer resigns or is removed from the firm, the firm may have disclosure obligations to clients who are considering whether to continue to use the firm or shift their relationship to the departed lawyer, but must be careful to limit any statements made to ones for which there is a factual foundation.

The obligation to report a violation of the Model Rules by an impaired lawyer is not eliminated by departure of the impaired lawyer.

Minneapolis attorney Bill Wernz agrees, and adds:

If no one else in the firm can handle the case properly, the firm should advise the client to get a new law firm. If the client wants to settle the case and if the settlement is reasonable, the firm could still advise on that.

As to the firm's obligations vis a vis the "smoking gun," it depends on whether evidence has been held back from discovery responses or false statements have been made. Rule 3.3 (candor toward the tribunal) was made more demanding in 2005 in Minnesota in response to the Enron/Sarbanes-Oxley events. Rule 3.4(d) requires diligent discovery responses.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Local personal-injury firms shelling out money to Google

The Wall Street Journal Law blog has an item today about what some law firms are paying Google to come up as "sponsored links" when you do a search using certain keywords. (The blog reports that lung cancer and law firms dominate CyberWare's list of most expensive search terms.) There are all kinds of jokes waiting to be made of that pairing, but I am not going to go there.

Number three on CyberWare's list of the most expensive terms are the words "personal injury lawyer michigan." If you type in those Google search terms, and then click on the link of one of the firms that comes up as a "sponsored link," that firm will have to pay Google $66.46. The firm is gambling that it will pick up enough business to offset the advertising costs incurred when people click on their link, but don't wind up giving the firm any business.The highest Minnesota-specific legal search terms on the list were: "personal injury lawyer minnesota." Firms are reportedly paying $36.17 for each click on their link to be sponsors for those terms. While Minnesota is still a better bargain than Michigan, that price is fairly high up on the CyberWare list.

I was curious what local firms were employing this advertising strategy, so I went to the Google site and plugged in the keywords "personal injury lawyer minnesota" to see what came up. Not surprisingly, at the top of the list of "sponsored links" was Woods & Thompson. Since I find that firm's TV ads annoying, I didn't mind clicking on its link just so it would get charged $36 for my visit. A few other usual suspects came up as "sponsored links," including Mesbesher & Spence, Schwebel, Goetz & Sieben and Sieben, Grose, Von Holtum & Carey. There were also less familiar names, such as Terry & Slane, The Schmidt Law Firm, and Hall Law.

I have no idea if their strategy is paying off, or perhaps it's to early to tell. I suppose if you do wind up landing a big case through being a sponsored link," $36 might be a small price to pay.

'Michael Clayton' provides an interesting view of in-house work

I recently saw the new George Clooney movie, Michael Clayton. Clooney portrays a lawyer at a big firm who has a nebulous role various described as a "miracle worker" and a "janitor." The closest description would be that he is a "fixer." Your client was involved in a DWI? Call Clayton and he'll mop up afterward.

Clayton is burned out, but in debt, so he can't get out from under this role he hates. At one point he begs the managing partner to put him into litigation, but the partner refuses, essentially saying that good litigators are a dime a dozen, but great fixers are much rarer. At another point, a lawyer notices that Clayton has been with the firm for 17 years, but is not a partner. Instead, he has the amorphous title "special counsel." It's almost comical when she asks rhetorically, "Who is this guy?"

However, the character who most intrigued me was not Clayton, but the general counsel for U/North, a corporate client of the firm. U/North is the subject of a multi-billion-dollar class action suit brought by farmers whose well water was poisoned by its product. U/North's general counsel, Karen Crowder (very ably played by Scottish actress Tilda Swinton), is desperately trying to prove herself by achieving a successful result in the case. Her predecessor in the job recently was bumped up to the boardroom, and she wants to demonstrate the company's faith in promoting her to general counsel to replace him was justified.

Crowder is high energy and extremely efficient at what she does. There are some great scenes juxtaposing her confidently speaking in an interview with her at home earlier in the day nervously rehearsing her responses. In her practice run, she has trouble coming up with a response to the anticipated life-balance question, until she reaches the very telling conclusion that having a good job is life balance.

Her interview is interrupted midway through when she learns that the outside counsel handling the class-action suit, a litigator from Clayton's firm, has stripped down naked during a deposition and announced that he is "Shiva, goddess of death." The law firm immediately dispatches Clayton to handle the problem. Meanwhile, once it becomes clear the lawyer having the "episode" is about to release to the world a smoking-gun memo establishing U/North's complicity in poisoning the wells, Crowder calls some fixers of her own. These gentlemen's methods are, shall we say, a little less polished than Clayton's.

What I liked most about Crowder was that she is a completely believable character. She straddles the line and then goes over it to zealously represent her in-house employer. (The memo does not even implicate her, but her old boss and the top corporate officers.) Despite her protect-the-company-at-all-costs mentality, she is an understandable and even in some ways sympathetic character. One can't help thinking that if she had a better life balance, things might have turned out differently. Her character says a lot about the banality of evil -- and the importance of life balance.

'60 Minutes?' I think not

I watched "60 Minutes" on CBS last night, which featured a variety of interesting stories, including an interview with the head of the Blackwater security company. (Why is it that the big controversies so often have "water" in them -- e.g. Watergate, Whitewater and now Blackwater?) If I were a conspiracy theorist, I'd find some significance to this. But then again, I'd probably be all wet.

In any event, I did have one issue with last night's "60 Minutes" program. For the second week in a row, it was a special "extended 60 Minutes." How the heck can you extend "60 Minutes?" Doesn't it then become "75 Minutes" or whatever. But I had better stop now. I am starting to sound like that crotchety Andy Rooney.