Legal lessons for lunch- Federal judges speak to summer associates


By Taryn Hartman

Legal News

"I just got blindsided, because the words I was going to give you were supposed to be of wisdom," joked U.S. District Court Judge Avern Cohn as he took the podium before a room filled with black, gray, and navy blue suits Thursday, July 1, at the Theodore Levin Courthouse U.S. in Detroit.

Cohn and his colleague U.S. District Judge George Caram Steeh were on hand to address the attendees at the Federal Bar Association's annual luncheon for summer associates and law clerks, now in its eighth year. Brian Figot, executive director for the Eastern District of Michigan chapter, said 153 associates and clerks had registered for the event and estimated that about half were interns from the U.S. Attorney's office, the district court and other local federal offices and the other half represented local law firms.

Attendance was so good that Au Bon Pain had to deliver additional sandwiches, fruit and desserts halfway through the program.

"I think it's invaluable to law students to have something to do where they actually get to hear real judges speak," said Samantha Smith, one of the program's co-chairs. She remembered her own experiences as a young lawyer and how "awesome" it was to be able to listen to some of the judges with whom she may never have gotten the opportunity to meet or speak.

In addition to providing summer associates and law clerks with some advice on practicing in federal court from Cohn and Steeh, the luncheon also gave those in attendance some time to network with one another before the program started.

Cohn shared some of the ins and outs of trying cases in federal court, drawing from his 31 years on the bench. He warned attendees of individual judges' idiosyncrasies -- "there are a lot of them" -- and advised them to spend some time sitting and listening in the courtrooms of the judges who are scheduled to handle their cases in order to get an idea of a judge's personal tendencies, preferences, temperament and values.

Near the conclusion of the afternoon event, new FBA President Laurie Michelson noted its fortuitous timing and said she intended to take Cohn's advice, as she and some of her Butzel Long colleagues have a case scheduled to go before Cohn within the next few months.

Steeh followed Cohn and spoke on civility after noting that he felt he had no business sharing the podium with one of the court's elder statesmen.

"Judge Cohn is an institution within an institution in this court," Steeh said.

Despite the 40,000 students that Steeh estimated would be graduating from the nation's law schools this year, he told the attendees, "You are going to be entering a universe that is very small."

As a result, a lawyer's reputation and sense of civility becomes critical because of many repeated interactions with the same attorneys and judges.

"Life as a practicing lawyer can be a lot of fun. It can be very satisfying," Steeh said before adding, "It is not going to involve easy choices."

He called on his early experiences as a Macomb County lawyer and the challenges presented by the competing demands of his clients, opposing counsel, and the court while handling cases, noting that the legal business can often be a difficult place to look for friends. But Steeh encouraged the law students and clerks in the room to become well-known for their civility and aspire to be one of the lawyers whose names other attorneys and judges are always happy to see on case filings.

Cohn's Best Practices for Brief Writing

"A brief is a composition, and it should be approached as a composition," U.S. District Court Judge Avern Cohn said as part of his presentation at the Federal Bar Association's annual luncheon for summer associates and law clerks on July 1.

"Style, composition and prose are important in your brief," Cohn said, before recommending "a little book called 'The Elements of Style' by Strunk and White."

Some of Cohn's other best practices for legal brief writing that he shared with the assembled law students and clerks included:

* "The first thing you have to understand about a brief is that it's gotta be brief."

* His preference for including with a brief copies of any cases that are cited within that brief.

* A brief should have a table of contents and separate, labeled sections: "It should not just run on."

* "Briefs should be self-contained." Cohn said that for judges who often take briefs home with them to read after-hours, there's nothing more frustrating than discovering the brief calls for something a judge didn't bring home.

* "You want to facilitate plagiarism," Cohn said, explaining that when a judge quotes directly from your brief, it should be considered a compliment. "That's the only time when I think plagiarism is appropriate and should be condoned."

Published: Mon, Jul 12, 2010