Monday, October 03, 2011

Another day, another jury?

I mentioned briefly last week that I would be on trial Friday.

Some small part of me never expected that to actually happen. The insurance company's attorney did her best to make me believe that we would go to trial -- but I've been the insurer's attorney, too, and I know that there's a certain amount of bluff built into any prediction, no matter how confidently made, that this case will go to trial.

I am a civil lawyer. I don't mean that I'm nice and polite to one and sundry, though I like to think I usually am; rather, I mean that I handle civil cases.

In the broadest sense, civil cases are those in which money is on the line. In other words, no matter how badly I screw up, no innocent person will wind up in durance vile. This differentiates me from the "criminal lawyer," most of whom are not themselves criminals, but who spend most of their days trying to put people into, or get people out of, jail. A lawyer who inadvertently stumbles upon this post might point out, correctly, that some criminal cases involve only the threat of a fine, not imprisonment. A lot of future lawyers used to get beat up every day on the playground for making valid, subtle and entirely unimportant distinctions like this.

In Chicago, the orbits of civil lawyers and criminal lawyers rarely intersect. It must be different in smaller venues, where there is only one courthouse, and all cases are heard there, sometimes by the same judge. However, in Chicago we have a Criminal Courthouse, at 26th and California (which has more to do with the location of former Mayor Anton Cermak's political base than anything else) and the Daley Center downtown. There are some criminal cases heard in the Daley Center -- the Traffic Court occupies the basement -- and serious DUI's are, I believe, heard on the 4th floor -- but the vast majority of the building is given over to the handling of civil matters. Torts. Contracts. Divorce (which too often involves both torts and contracts). Probate. Chancery.

One of the few places where civil lawyers and criminal lawyers come together is when some among them harbor judicial ambitions.

When I first sought judicial office (in 1994!) I had to appear before the judicial evaluation committees of the various bar associations. The Chicago Bar Association JEC, it was rumored, was supposed to be overstocked with assistant state's attorneys (what you may call DA's in your jurisdiction).

Rumor had it that the ASA's scoffed at the seemingly limited jury trial experience of civil lawyers. I know that I had only a bare handful of jury trials under my belt in 1994. I've had not much more than a handful since. In my world, though, going to trial was considered a disaster. One of the guys I worked for used to say, "If you try a case, you've already lost. If you're in court you're not taking care of your clients who are calling the office. If you win, your client wants to know why you couldn't have figured out how to get such an obviously weak case disposed of without trial. And you might lose...."

I found out, eventually, that this was an exaggeration, but only a slight one. The claims people at the Acme Insurance Company didn't really mind you trying a case now and then -- as long as you kept up with their files in the meantime -- and as long as the trial was for some other company. That way they could say they were sending business to seasoned trial attorneys without having to pay for the seasoning.

Criminal lawyers, on the other hand, were rumored to try cases to juries every day, sometimes finishing two before lunch. This gave the criminal lawyers a certain swagger. On the other hand, we civil lawyers noted a distinct shortage of paper in criminal files. Where were the briefs? The motions and supporting memoranda? The mountains of research? The discovery? The discovery disputes? Civil lawyers would argue that these many criminal trials were shallow, pale imitations of "real" trials -- even if many of the unhappy losers in those criminal trials were sentenced to time in the Crossbar Motel.

Still, some of us wannabe judges -- me, for example -- looked at the ASA's and Assistant Public Defenders who claimed to have logged 100 or more jury trials with something of a jealous eye. The voting public, conditioned by television to believe that all legal disputes resulted in jury trials, naturally favored the lawyers who could honestly claim that they'd racked up large totals of same. Some of these well-seasoned trial lawyers would attain judicial office and, in the ordinary course of events, be assigned to a civil calendar, where the staggering amounts of paper would come as an unpleasant shock.

I've often wondered what "seasoning" should be associated with the trial of a case, anyway. Given the way lawyers sweat out every case, no matter how trivial, I suppose it must be salt.

Anyway, I was on trial Friday -- I started the trial and I finished the trial on Friday. It was rather exhilarating, actually, and time and events permitting, I will talk about that trial a little bit here this week on Second Effort.

1 comment:

Dave said...

"A lot of future lawyers used to get beat up every day on the playground for making valid, subtle and entirely unimportant distinctions like this."

I learned this lesson somewhere during the first year in law school when friends' eyes moved to the middle distance.