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Friday, February 22, 2008

Minnesota Lawyer blog gets recognized (sort of, anyway)

I was recently reading an online article on the The Rake site about the the growing importance of Web media ("All the News that Fits and Then Some.") Since Minnesota Lawyer is both a print and online information provider, it is with some interest that I read such thoughtful reflections on how the migration of readers to the Internet has affected the media industry.

The Rake included the results of a survey of "a bevy of local online media folks" asking them where they go on the Web for news. The Rake listed the top 25 responses or so, and lo and behold, there was the Minnesota Lawyer blog on the list! I felt pretty good about that until I tried the link to our blog in the article and discovered it was faulty. Sigh. Being an online news provider is all about being humble.

Will 'Michael Clayton" be the Oscar surprise?

Folks all around the country are busy making their Oscar picks today, including many of us over here at Minnesota Lawyer. Last year’s winner in our unofficial “Oscar” pool was editor Mark Cohen -- which means that for the past year, our traveling Oscar trophy has been residing with him.

Without a lot of “buzz” about any particular movie, it’s a tough year to predict the winners -- but that isn’t stopping people from trying. Academy award winners were even being forecast by some attendees at last night’s “Attorneys of the Year” event. (Which, by the way, people are saying they really enjoyed!)

Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Paul Anderson told the Minnesota Lawyer staff that the underdog “Michael Clayton” could be the surprise pick for Best Picture. (In case you haven’t seen it, the movie is about a middle-aged lawyer -- played by George Clooney -- who works as "fixer," clearing up complex or dirty cases on behalf of corporate clients.)

Minneapolis appellate attorney Eric Magnuson was unexpectedly coy when asked for his pick for Best Picture, but said that people either loved or hated “There Will Be Blood,” calling the movie a “great character study.”

Whoever the winners turn out to be, I always enjoy watching the awards show and keeping track of who’s ahead in the Oscar pool. And hopefully, on Monday morning Oscar will have a new home -- preferably on my desk!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Nomination deadline approaching for Up & Coming Attorneys

You only have two more days to nominate your favorite young guns for our Up & Coming Attorneys award.

This will be Minnesota Lawyer's eighth year presenting the awards. We're looking for attorneys admitted to the bar within the last 10 years whose work has influenced you, your practice or the profession. In particular, we are looking for counselors who have distinguished themselves through any of the following:

• professional accomplishment
• leadership
• service to community or profession
• achievement as in-house counsel

You know who they are, now tell us! An online nomination form is available here, and a .pdf version can be downloaded here.

Nominations are due Friday, Feb. 22. We will announce the award winners in early March and host a lunch celebration for the honorees in May.


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Results of 'informal survey' at AGO are in

Minnesota Lawyer's website just posted the results of today's "informal survey" of attorneys at the Minnesota Attorney General's Office. (Click here for article).

Staff attorneys were asked whether the writers of a recent letter critical of Lori Swanson spoke for them. The majority of those present and willing to participate said no. (The vote was reportedly 52-30, with 12 declining to participate and 30 out of the office or not otherwise available to vote.)

It's hard for me to say what that vote means because I find the question itself confusing. You could be in favor of a union and not agree with everything that was in that letter. Or you could agree with everything that was in that letter, but not want to give the letter writers the authority to speak for you. It would have been a much simpler and cleaner affair if they had just asked the employees if they wanted to unionize.

An update on the labor situation at the AG's Office

An interesting twist on the labor dispute at the Minnesota Attorney General's Office. According to another e-mail to staff posted on this site, Lori Swanson has announced that Miles Lord (former judge, AG, U.S. Attorney) and former Judge Jonathan Lebedoff will conduct an "informal advisory" on the staff's stance on unionization. The unionization issue -- which had been festering since Mike Hatch left the office last May -- recently resurfaced when three assistant AG's publicly identified themselves as supporting a union and called upon Swanson to recognize it.

Lord and Lebedoff -- who combined have practiced law in Minnesota since the days the dinosaurs roamed the Earth -- will apparently function as a two-man Warren Commission, visiting the attorneys in the office today to help Swanson get a "sense of the staff."

I am not sure how I feel about this idea, but I think it's better than Swanson doing the gauging herself as she indicated she intended to do in yesterday's e-mail. At the very least, one has to give Swanson points for innovation for coming up with this.

How much pre-trial coverage is too much?

Hennepin County District Judge Denise Reilly took the unusual step of postponing a trial because too much information about the case was contained in a Star Tribune article about the case.

The article, published Monday, reported that two former lawyers with the firm of Heins Mills and Olson filed suit over the way the firm distributed $103 million in legal fees from a nationwide class-action suit against AOL Time Warner.

The suit said that lawyers Samuel Heins and Stacey Mills got $48 million and $32 million, respectively, several times more than was received by the other lawyers who worked on the case. The suit to be heard before Reilly was filed by one of the lawyers who claimed to be short-changed.

William Pentelovitch, representing Heins Mills, said the article went beyond the facts of the pending lawsuit, citing background information that could prevent prospective jurors from being impartial. Reilly agreed.

Should newspapers be restricted in what they can report about a case before it goes to trial? It seems that substantiated, relevant data shouldn’t have to be embargoed for the benefit of one or the other side in a lawsuit.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

AG Swanson issues a response to staff members' letter

In an e-mail sent to her entire staff this morning, Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson offered a response to a letter sent by three of her assistant AGs late last week calling upon her to recognize a union in the office. (As Minnesota Lawyer reported yesterday, the letter represents the first time current staff members in the AG’s Office have stepped forward and openly advocated for a union.)

Swanson said she was sick with the flu last week when the letter was posted on the Internet, and that she was “disappointed” the employees distributed the letter to the public and the media before she could respond.

“This suggests a communication that is more about a political swipe and less about a good faith attempt to communicate,” Swanson wrote. “It does not further the mission of this office to have political debate with staff members who are supposed to represent this office as professionals.”

(In their letter, the three had disclaimed having any political motivation. “[This effort] is not supported by any outside political interests, nor is it the product of any political vendetta,” they wrote. The three assistant AGs who wrote the letter were all hired during the administrations of AGs from the DFL Party – one under Swanson, one under Mike Hatch and one under Skip Humphrey.)

Swanson said in the e-mail that she “strongly disagrees” with the accusations in the letter, which include assertions that a campaign has been waged in her office to stifle the unionization attempt.

She said she will have two of her deputies meet with the three assistant AGs who wrote the letter to “to flesh out the purpose of the letter and whether the three signatories actually represent the rest of the staff.” She also said she has her own "sense of the staff" and plans to gauge the staff further.

Swanson also noted in the e-mail that Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Delano, yesterday distributed copies of the three staff members’ letter on the floor of the House and called for an investigation of her office.

A copy of the full text of Swanson’s e-mail appears as a comment to another post on this site. We have verified through independent channels that staff members received the posted e-mail.

WSJ Law Blog weighs in on local attorney-discipline case

The Wall Street Journal law blog tackles a topic today that has gotten a lot of play locally -- the attorney-discipline case of Hennepin County prosecutor Gemma Graham. ("Prosecutor Suspended for Spurning CLE Requirements.")

The facts of Graham's case will be familiar to our readers at this point, but the comments the post generates make good reading. For example, there is a lot of negative commentary on the value of mandatory CLEs. Here's one of the more cutting:

This is genius, skip CLE for 20 years and get a 900 fine! I’d do that in a
second. CLE is the biggest scam in the world. It provides no value except to the
CLE companies who bilk their customers and line the pockets of the state bars
for mailing lists and stringent requirements.

Although the comment is a bit harsh, I personally prefer a voluntary CLE system to a mandatory one -- even with the breaks for bagels and chocolate chip cookies.

The posting also contained the revelation that Minnesota is the home state of the principal writer of the WSJ Law blog, Dan Slater. While the Manhattan litigator turned blogger left the Minnie Apple for the Big Apple some time ago, his nod to the Gopher State shows he hasn't forgotten the taste of lutefisk.

Sometimes size matters

This joke practically writes itself, but a motion for an enlarged brief has been filed in the Sen. Larry Craig case.

Truth be told, it's the Metropolitan Airports Commission, not Senator Craig, with the apparent problem in its brief size. The MAC says it needs the extra room to address all the novel issues raised by Craig and his amici in their briefs.

"Despite honest efforts, I am unable to abbreviate the text to the extent required by the Minnesota Rules of Appellate Procedure while giving proper attention to the issues raised by both factions in this appeal, and I wish to provide the Court with all information and analysis necessary to make an informed decision," writes the MAC's attorney, Christopher P. Renz.

No word yet from Craig on his stance on this. It is widely expected that he will be understanding of the difficulties inherent in trying to keep within a very confined space.

In Memoriam: Phil Resnick

Phil Resnick, who died yesterday of pancreatic cancer, was a fine lawyer. I first met him in 1981, while I was still in law school and clerking for Hennepin County District Court Judge Patrick Fitzgerald. Resnick came before the court defending a man named Isaac Brown.

It was a tragic and notorious case: an 18-year police force veteran, Richard Miller, was shot as he walked up to check on Brown's vehicle, which the officer suspected was stolen. Miller was alone in his squad car and back up couldn’t get there quickly enough. Brown shot him five times. Police hunted Brown for three days until he surrendered with the aid of his minister.

Faced with Brown’s confession and an eyewitness, Resnick put on a defense focusing on the fact that Brown was under the influence of marijuana and alcohol. The defense was meticulous, professional and spirited. (Brown was ultimately convicted.) I remember Resnick putting his hand on Brown’s shoulder at the counsel table during the trial. I didn’t think then and I don’t think now that it was only for the jury’s benefit. Resnick did a great job with an impossible task.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Beware of frostbite at the Capitol

Dan Heilman has an update on the unionization efforts at the Minnesota AG's Office on the Minnesota Lawyer website. (See "Three assistant AGs go public with union demand.") Those folks took a real chance publicly voicing their discontent with the management of the office. In many ways it's reminiscent of when Rachel Paulose's three deputies went public with their beefs about her management style just a little less than a year ago. (Of course, they, unlike these three assistant AGs, had civil-service protection to shield them.) It will be interesting to see if the general media plays up this little insurrection the way it did the one with Paulose. My money is on no. But Lori Swanson is a DFLer, not a "Bushie," so I guess somehow that makes it alright. (Sigh. Whatever happened to the good old days when it was the Republicans taking on the unions?)

Regardless of where you stand on the issue of a union in the AG's Office, you have to give the "AG Three" points for moxy for what they did. I would suggest that the cold-weather front hanging over the Twin Cities this week isn't the only reason they might need a parka when they head back into work tomorrow.

Show me the money? No thanks, says this law student

A local law student had an interesting reply to our post on the decision of big Minnesota-based law firms to keep their starting salaries at $120K rather than to match the $160K being offered in bigger markets. I think the comment is worth highlighting, so here it is:

As a law student (OCI next year, so no dog in the race yet), I'm happy to see
Minnesota law firms showing some sanity on salaries. First, $120k is a darn good
salary in this market. Second, maybe it means that Minnesota firms will be
better positioned to ride through a recession. Finally, I agree that higher
starting salaries would probably come with higher hours expectations, and I'd
rather make $120k and see my family than $160k and live in my office

You mean there is more to life than money? What are they teaching these kids today? What would Gordon Gekko say?

Prosecutor's CLE troubles have been an education

As the Strib reports today, there has been a lot of talk in the legal community about whether or not Hennepin County prosecutor Gemma Graham got off too lightly for prosecuting cases while her law license was on restricted status. For a period of 20 years -- from 1986 to 2007 -- Graham continued to practice despite being in noncompliance with the state's continuing legal education requirement. (The high court gave her a reprimand and two years of probation.)

On the one hand, there is no necessary correlation between the CLE requirement and whether a lawyer stays current in his or her field. If you are a criminal law practitioner, you could satisfy the CLE requirement by taking courses in family law, real estate law or any other kind of law you want. In fact, you could take no CLEs in any substantive area of practice at all and still satisfy the CLE requirement with professional-development courses. (You must also accrue a limited number of ethics and elimination-of-bias credits each reporting period as well.) In any event, Graham says she attended some CLEs during the period at issue, but didn't properly record them to make sure she was in compliance.

On the other hand, if Minnesota is going to have a CLE requirement, there have to be consequences for not following it that would dissuade those who would play fast and loose with the rules -- and possibly the law. (It is a misdemeanor in Minnesota to practice law without a valid license.) What bothers me most about Graham's case is the length of time involved -- two decades. She would have known during that entire period that she was not meeting the state's license requirement, but chose to ignore it. The fact that she would make that choice time and time again -- despite reporting period after reporting period where she could have followed the rules -- is what I find most disconcerting about the entire episode. I don't blame Hennepin County Public Defender Lenny Castro for being upset about this -- a prosecutor who would make such a questionable series of choices raises some concerns in my mind as well.

On balance, the punishment strikes me as light given the length of time involved. However, the embarrassment Graham now faces with the media coverage of this has added a new element to that original sanction. I suspect any lawyer thinking of practicing without fulfilling his or her CLE requirement would think twice about doing so now.