Status report: Ombudsman settles into role with court

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 By Tom Kirvan

Legal News
 
A one year assignment has grown into at least two for attorney Joel Serlin, who in the winter of 2012 was appointed to the newly-created position of ombudsman for the Oakland County Circuit Court.
 
“At the risk of using a cliché, it has been a true ‘learning experience’ for me since I assumed the role,” Serlin said in reflecting upon his first 18 months on the job.
 
The statement from someone like Serlin, universally regarded as a skilled and accomplished litigator over the course of a 44-year legal career, says plenty about his volunteer assignment even if the Wayne State University Law School alum is generally inclined to let his actions do the talking.
 
The ombudsman post, which is modeled after that used by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, was created to serve as an intermediary between the bench and bar, to principally address administrative and case management issues, according to Serlin. As ombudsman, he was granted authority to address “attorney and judicial concerns” related to practice before the Circuit Court bench, offering a “confidential and discrete forum” for the resolution of issues in “which there is no established procedure” for redress, he indicated.
 
Serlin said he received 27 “formal inquiries” related to the bench during the first year of his assignment.
 
“That figure was probably more than we—and I—expected,” said Serlin, a senior partner and head of litigation for the Southfield firm of Seyburn, Kahn, Ginn, Bess & Serlin. “And that does not include the numerous informal contacts I received at meetings in the courthouse or at bar association events.”
 
Nor does it include a number of inquiries he fielded from “in pro per” litigants, calls that fell outside the realm of his responsibilities.
 
Yet, the figure should not be interpreted in a negative light in terms of the quality of the Oakland County Circuit Court bench, Serlin stressed.
 
“I view it more in terms of the fact that there now is someone designated to handle those inquiries, whereas that wasn’t the case before the position was established,” Serlin said. “In other words, there is a vehicle now that didn’t necessarily exist in the past.”
 
Serlin, a product of Detroit Public Schools and Michigan State University, said most of the inquiries have dealt with general procedural matters and the uniformity of court rules as applied by individual judges.
 
“I’ve done my best to be a good listener and to impart my knowledge based on the experience I’ve gained over my career,” Serlin said. “I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I can relate some of the valuable experiences and things that I’ve learned as a practicing lawyer in the litigation arena.”
 
In an interview last year shortly after he was appointed ombudsman, Serlin said he has stressed the importance of “preparedness” and “work product” throughout his legal career. 
 
“One thing I’ve stressed is the importance of ‘knowing your judge,’” Serlin said of his conversations with attorneys. “Every judge has a distinct personality and each one manages his or her courtroom differently. If a judge is a real stickler for timeliness, then you better be in court at least 10 minutes ahead of schedule. Some like to hear oral arguments and others would prefer to read the briefs and to leave it at that. Attorneys should know what a judge prefers or should have made an effort to find out.”
 
Earlier this month, Serlin met with the entire Circuit Court bench, providing judges with an overview of his work as ombudsman during the first year of the assignment. Circuit Court Administrator Kevin Oeffner said that Serlin “can raise issues on behalf of members of the bar in a constructive way,” and that he “works very well with the bench and bar to find ways to address or resolve issues that are beneficial to both groups.”
 
The opportunity for “give and take” will be vital to the ultimate success of the ombudsman program, according to Serlin.
 
“I have been impressed right from the start about the seriousness with which the bench has approached this program,” Serlin said. “It is wonderful how cooperative the bench has been and the importance with which they view the ombudsman’s role. As a group, it is their goal to make this the finest court possible and they realize the importance of receiving feedback from those who appear before them.
 
“Correspondingly, the judges have every right to voice some of their concerns about how lawyers act in the courtroom and how they deal with members of a judge’s staff,” Serlin added. “Judges have legitimate complaints about lawyers who are constantly tardy, ill-prepared, or are rude to opposing counsel or court staff members. My job is take all of these concerns and to relay them to the appropriate parties in hopes that improvements can be made.”

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