Words to the wise

Federal judges offer advice at event

By Frank Weir
Legal News

How to succeed as a practitioner in federal court without really trying? It's pretty simple. Be nice, be professional, and be kind.

That was the word from U.S. District Court Judges Matthew Leitman and Judith Levy who were invited to a meet-and-greet last week at Miller Canfield hosted by the WCBA's Federal Law Practice and Trial Practice sections, and the law firm.

Leitman began the discussion by noting that judges do indeed read depositions.

"We can see when attorneys say terrible things during depositions to the people involved," he said.

And Levy recalled a case where she was chatting informally with the attorneys before the proceedings began and was not wearing her robe. One of the attorneys clearly was annoyed at her presence, she said, and finally demanded to know just who she was.

"I told him I was the presiding judge on the case and he changed quickly, 'Oh, hello, your honor!'"

Judge Leitman offered a word to the wise for those gathered at the meeting.

"There's a certain way we do things in Michigan," Leitman said. "We have a tradition in this state of dignity and civility and I'm proud to be a part of that tradition. I would suggest that all of you read an opinion by Iowa Northern District Judge Mark Bennett (Security National Bank of Sioux City v. Abbott Laboratories, Case 5:11-cv-04017-MWB (N.D. Iowa, July 28, 2014)) about what it means to be an Iowan lawyer that applies to us here in Michigan as well."

He added that a recent opinion by Judge Robert Jonker, in Michigan's Western District, also addressed the high standards of civility typically practiced by Michigan lawyers.

Responding to questions from Trial Practice Section Co-Chair Dan Troyka, Leitman said that there is a new federal court local rule concerning Alternate Dispute Resolution (ADR).

"We are interested in having more ADR in the court," Leitman said. "My sense is that parties often don't want to participate in ADR. Or sometimes parties want a federal magistrate to preside so that they don't have to incur fees for ADR, and so that they feel assured that the magistrate would be neutral.

"Both parties must be committed and both have to feel that they are getting a fair shake. You have to get everyone to buy into ADR to make it work."

Both Leitman and Levy noted that cases rarely go to trial. "I've had two jury trials and one bench trial," Leitman noted.

Leitman added that oral argument in motion hearings "most certainly does matter in my court. Can an oral argument sway me 180 degrees? It isn't common, but it happens. In a case involving multiple counts, it may cause me to change my thinking on two of them."

One attendee asked for advice for new lawyers. Leitman advised new practitioners to "observe trials, watch proceedings and watch experienced attorneys. That's how you learn.

"Be polite to the judge's staff. They are doing their absolute best under pressure. The staff can be helpful to you and judges hear about it when lawyers are rude to their staff members. Be sure to get to know the judges as best you can. Attend events such as this one."

Leitman also strongly suggested that new lawyers accept pro bono federal cases. "That's especially important if you want trial experience. And judges appreciate you taking those cases."

Levy added, "Do whatever you need to do to build your confidence. And don't interrupt the judge. I have had problems with lawyers interrupting me in the courtroom or during a phone conference to the point where I have had to strongly ask them to allow me to speak."

Leitman noted that "there is no such thing as a 'small' case. For instance, in a case involving a claim for Social Security disability benefits, the claimant's life will be affected by whether or not they get federal benefits."

Leitman offered one last piece of advice: "Be sure you are properly doing what you are there for. It's a privilege to work with lawyers who are going about their work the right way."

Published: Fri, Apr 03, 2015