Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The ties that bind are being loosened

One of my favorite columnists, Neil Steinberg , announced in his column Monday that he will no longer wear ties on hot days. He wrote, “I'm instituting what I call the 90-degree rule: If it's above 90, the necktie -- an antique bit of empty ritual that does no good to anybody except lawyers, and I'm not a lawyer -- stays in the closet.”

Well, I am a lawyer, and Tuesday was my day to serve as an arbitrator in the Cook County Mandatory Court Annexed Arbitration Program. That may sound more impressive than it actually is. About five or six times a year I sit as a member of a panel – each panel consisting of three lawyers – hearing smaller cases (cases in which less than $30,000 in damages are sought) filed in the Municipal Department of the Circuit Court of Cook County. Some of the rules of evidence are relaxed so that hearings can be conducted more swiftly. Each hearing takes less than two hours; we are assigned to hear three a day. We decide the facts and assess damages and costs and prepare written awards – awards which can be, and frequently are, rejected by one side or the other on payment of a $250 fee.

A disproportionate number of our cases involve “substandard” insurers – the kind that advertise on late night TV, not the ones that advertise during sporting events (although it is becoming increasingly difficult to articulate meaningful distinctions between the corporate behavior of the substandards and that of the so-called standard lines insurers). So there are dreary and repetitive cases involving property damage to cars that have been rear-ended (that should have settled with a phone call, with no suit ever being filed – or which should at least have been resolved in inter-company arbitration) and lots of cases involving modest injuries to people involved in low impact accidents – all treated with ‘therapy’ that consists largely of hot packs.

But now I’ve understated the case: It’s fun to serve as an arbitrator, particularly for a judge wanna-be like myself. One of the three lawyers has to preside at the hearing, and I usually get to be the chair. So, except for the much smaller pay, it’s kind of like being a judge. As close as I’m likely to get anytime soon, anyway.

And the other panelists are usually interesting people. Many are retirees. The Chicago Bar Association Senior Lawyers Committee supplied much of that first crop of arbitrators, more than 12 years ago. (In fact, that’s how I got to be an arbitrator; my father – a senior lawyer – was invited to go, and told me to go instead.) A lot of these original arbitrators are gone, now, just like my father - but the ones that are left are treasures. So I usually have great fun chatting before the lawyers come in to present their cases.

And that’s where we come back to the original thread of this story: The lawyers who present cases at the Arbitration Center are often young; these smaller cases provide useful training for budding trial lawyers. And the young lawyers may be harbingers of a change in the practice of law: Neither of the first two lawyers that came in Tuesday was wearing a tie. One wore a suit and an open-necked shirt. The other was dressed in khakis and a sport shirt – not tucked in. His client failed to appear; when he walked in with a folder and without anyone in tow, I initially thought he was a pro se – a person representing himself.

At our second hearing Tuesday, one of the lawyers wore a suit – but the other wore jeans and a denim shirt, sleeves rolled up, like he’d just come in from punching dogies home on the range. Although I don’t think he was wearing cowboy boots – I really didn’t have the heart to look.

Apparently, Mr. Steinberg, even the lawyers are starting to abandon neckties. What are we going to do without our ‘antique bits of empty ritual’?

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