Posted On: November 22, 2010

Access to Justice Initiatives: Steps in the Right Direction

All Americans have the right to an attorney when charged with a crime. But what about the right to an attorney when confronted with complex legal issues that are civil in nature, a situation more and more families face in these turbulent economic times? Last Friday, the Department of Justice addressed this very real concern. According to the Legal Times, the DOJ announced three initiatives to give American military veterans, lower-income families, and those facing foreclosure on their homes better access to legal advice and representation. This is welcome news to those of us who believe all Americans should have access to legal counsel and advice, regardless of their ability to pay.

The announcement was made by Laurence Tribe, the highly regarded Harvard Law professor who has led the DOJ’s “Access to Justice Initiative” since February, but who is stepping down next month to return to his Harvard post. According to Tribe, the initiatives include a toll-free number to an ABA referral service to help resolve the most complex complaints about wages and benefits, such as workers being denied family medical leave or overtime pay. In most instances, these private-sector attorneys will work on contingency-fee bases. A second initiative involves an interactive web site that, among other things, connects veterans and their families with lawyers near them to help with the litany of legal issues veterans face, including foreclosure, consumer fraud and employment issues. The final initiative focuses in promoting foreclosure mediation programs to keep struggling families from losing their homes.

As Tribe said at his news conference, he knows these steps aren’t going to transform the national landscape. While that may be true, the longest journey begins with a small step forward.

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Posted On: November 10, 2010

Why You Need to Know Your Jury

Whatever your opinion about controversial filmmaker Michael Moore, he did recently offer some unwittingly sage advice to trial lawyers everywhere: He reminded us why it's important to conduct juror research early and often. Last week, a judge in New York dismissed a juror in the final throes of a case against banking giant Citigroup, after it was discovered that the juror was listed in the credits of Moore’s 2009 documentary that berated Wall Street and the banking industry. Citigroup ultimately prevailed in the case but the question of the biased juror made for an awkward, if unavoidable, situation.

When reached by Bloomberg News for comment about the judge’s decision to remove the juror, Moore, who said the juror didn’t work on the film, added, “You’ve got to feel sorry for Citigroup. They’re paying all this money to their attorneys and they didn’t even bother to Google her ‘til last night.”

The filmmaker may have been too severe. Solid information about jurors' biases is generally hard to come by, even when online research can be done during voir dire. What’s more, it is not known how this juror answered questions during voir dire or how cleverly she hid any biases up to that late stage in the trial.

It’s also important to point out that Citigroup’s lawyers were wisely attentive to this juror’s behavior during the trial and that they smartly took action immediately upon sensing a subtle change in her demeanor. As the judge commented after deciding to dismiss her, she answered questions in a manner that struck him as deceptive. She may well have withheld important facts and biases just to be seated on the jury.

That said, the incident emphasizes the cardinal rule of persuasion: know your audience as well as you can. We have Michael Moore to thank for the reminder.

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