Posted On: July 28, 2010

Wanted: Law Firm Mentors

Kudos to Steven Harper on an excellent post on his Belly of the Beast blog in which he calls attention to the growing mentoring gap in many large law firms today. Harper cites Peggy Noonan’s recent Wall Street Journal column in which she laments the lack of adult supervision of America’s young professionals and politicians who rise through the ranks seemingly bereft of the wisdom of elder statesmen in their professions.

In his July 26 post, Harper adds to Noonan’s always-keen observations with his own prescient spin on the legal profession. Harper writes that “the phenomenon flows directly from the dominant MBA- mentality that forces firm leaders and everyone else to focus on short-term metrics” like billable hours and profits per partner. He goes on to say the focus on such metrics leaves little room for the personalized mentoring that “turns good young lawyers into better older ones.”

As Harper suggests, this does seem to be the new norm, but despite the bleak-sounding picture, all is not lost. Young lawyers can still get the mentoring they need – they just have to be more enterprising than did previous generations of lawyers. Basically, they have to be self-starters: focusing on areas of law that most interest them, borrowing legal books and reading them, asking for help whenever they need it, and finding their own mentor rather than waiting for one to step forward.

Young lawyers should also pursue with gusto the many educational opportunities available through the American Bar Association, state bar associations, CLE International and a host of other organizations. For example, the Litigation Institute for Trial Training, which I started in conjunction with the ABA’s Section on Litigation, holds an annual intensive two-day trial training experience in Chicago every July with a group of outstanding trial lawyers and jurists from around the country. This is just one of a myriad of educational opportunities waiting to be explored.

There will always be partners in law firms who say – either in words or in body language – that they are too busy to mentor a young lawyer, but there are just as many happy to guide associates who show enthusiasm for their profession and who strive to hone their legal skills. My advice to those just starting out: be your own advocate.

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Posted On: July 20, 2010

Anonymous Juries?

Credit the news media in the trial of former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich for shining a spotlight on a growing trend: that of judges keeping the identities of jurors out of public hands for fear that a voracious press and minions of Internet bloggers will tamper with jurors and compromise their objectivity. See this recent story in The Wall Street Journal.

The court in the Blagojevich trial has refused to make the jurors’ names public, and the press, accustomed, to full access to criminal proceedings, is crying foul. The Chicago Tribune asked Tribune Co. Assistant General Counsel Karen Flax to articulate the argument for disclosure. You can read the full statement here, but here is an excerpt:

The news media are the public’s eyes and ears, and that role is particularly important when it comes to reporting on what happens in criminal trials -- especially when that criminal trial involves the prosecution of our former Governor, Rod Blagojevich.

The United States Supreme Court has long held that, under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, the media -- like Chicago Tribune, have a right of access to criminal judicial proceedings...

The reason that prompt disclosure is important is because, as one court recently put it, “knowledge of juror identities allows the public to verify the impartiality of key participants in the administration of justice, and thereby ensures fairness, the appearance of fairness and public confidence in that system.”

The conflict is, in part, a by-product of the Google and Facebook age and it is becoming prevalent in courthouses around the country. Historically, a judge virtually only called for an anonymous jury when the case involved a defendant who posed a serious threat to jurors’ physical safety or who would try to bribe them. Today, it is often used to quash jury tampering by the media and other sources.

The media is quick to cite cases when its tenacity set the system straight. In the case of another high-profile Illinois governor, George Ryan, it was the news media that uncovered evidence that two jurors had withheld information during voir dire that might have disqualified them. Thanks to the media, these two jurors were ousted and replaced.

Things got complicated with the prevalence of social media. Today, anyone with an iPhone or a blog site can call him or herself a reporter. The judge in Governor Blagojevich’s trial calls them, ‘bloggers and other gadflies’ and says that if jurors names are released, these individuals will swarm them and interfere with their duties. He has good reasons to be concerned.

While traditional news media generally comply with judges’ orders not to contact jurors about a case during trial, one cannot count on this new breed of pursuers to follow the same standards. As anyone who has surfed YouTube knows, people will record and upload virtually anything.

What’s more, though judges routinely order jurors not to do outside research while they are sitting on trials, the Internet age has made research too tantalizingly simple to avoid. Not that long ago, a lone question from a reporter might have peaked a juror’s curiosity, but not enough to make him violate a judge’s order and head to the library to research. Now it’s only a Google search away.

The debate over anonymous juries in high profile trials is not as simple as a Google search; it merits careful consideration by all parties involved – the judiciary, the press, and counsel. New media forums are not going away anytime soon, and neither are high profile jury trials.

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