A blog by Miami Criminal Defense Lawyer Brian Tannebaum. Commenting on criminal law issues of local and national interest.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Anyone Available To Cover?

Matt Brown over at Chandler Criminal Defense laments the crappy, lazy, too busy to represent their clients, lawyers who have their own definition of "coverage."

He recalls his early days of practice:

When I first started out, other attorneys would regularly take advantage of my willingness to help out. I was eager to meet lawyers and get into court. Other lawyers were eager to avoid work. Lawyers who had the same tribal indigent defense contract I did would ask me to cover hearings and tell me the hearings were just simple continuances. The clients were pissed no one visited them, judges were mad the defense had blown deadlines, and prosecutors were frustrated that the defense hadn’t returned their calls. One lawyer asked me to cover what she said was “a dismissal.” I appeared and it was a bench trial. She thought the victim wouldn’t show and it would just get dismissed. She thought wrong, and I was like a deer in headlights.

Criminal defense lawyers who are members of e-mail listservs know all too well the everyday occurrence of this:

"Is anyone going to be in (name courthouse) tomorrow?"

Or with the economy causing lawyers to take cases hundreds of miles away from home:

"Can anyone cover a case (name city at least 150 miles away) tomorrow at 9:30? It's the first pre-trial conference, just need a continuance, thanks."

Matt's post goes in to detail regarding one hearing he covered that turned in to a "disaster." Those of us who have covered know about these "disasters" all too well.

I caused a disaster for a lawyer once. I went out of town. (Rule #1 for criminal defense lawyers - you cannot go out of town when anything is set for court, period. It does not matter what is set. If you are not there, something will go wrong. Guaranteed.) A client was set for trial. There was some sense the victim was not going to appear and the case was going to be dismissed. The client made clear that if the victim appeared, he would enter a plea of guilty. The victim appeared, and the client changed his mind. My "coverage" lawyer spent 4 days in trial before the case was eventually dismissed. Yeah, terrible.

Matt Brown says: I can’t just refuse to help out other lawyers when they really need it. If I know they’re incompetent or unethical or there’s something else wrong with them, the case, or the situation in general, I say no. I have no problem disappointing people when it’s necessary. What happens when the lawyer asking me for a favor is an unknown though? Do I only help lawyers when I’m familiar with their work? How familiar? Or do I help anyone unless I have reason to believe they suck? Should I help anyone regardless of my opinion of their lawyering so long as they haven’t thrown me into a crappy situation in the past?

You're a good guy Matt, but you need to draw a line when it comes to stepping up to a podium to advocate for a client - even if it's not your client - especially if it's not your client.

First, never cover a "critical" hearing for a lawyer. I'll cover your motion for continuance, or "status" report. (or whatever you call a "judge, I'm here to advise the court that...... hearing). I will not take a plea for you. Most lawyers worth anything would never ask another lawyer to cover a plea - too many things can go wrong, like the client can decide not to plea and the judge can announce that a jury panel is coming down now and you are trying the case.

Second, I will not cover for those lawyers who, as a practice, take cases all over the state with the knowledge that they can seek coverage all the time. If you want to take a case 300 miles away, that's what we have airports and expressways for, not e-mail listservs. It's the same lawyers, sending the same e-mails, all the time. If you can't make money practicing close to home - move.

Finally, I'm not covering for shitty lawyers. Chances are, you're not telling me the whole story, like that your client is routinely late, brings his girlfriend and screaming baby in a stroller to every hearing, or will keep me outside in the hallway for 20 minutes asking me questions I can't answer. If I don't respect you as a lawyer, I'm not entering a courtroom and announcing that I know you.

Brian Tannebaum is a criminal defense lawyer in Miami, Florida practicing in state and federal court, and the author of The Truth About Hiring A Criminal Defense Lawyer.Share/Save/Bookmarkokdork.com rules Post to Twitter

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Judge Roberto Pineiro

Judge Roberto Pineiro died today. He was 56. He had a stroke.

The death of a judge is a unique experience for a courtroom lawyer. Courthouses are like small cities, full of different types of people with different reputations among the various practitioners. There are "good" judges, there are "terrible" judges, there are judges that make people wonder how they ever became judges, there are judges who are "fine," or "OK," and there are "great" judges.

Rob Pineiro was a great judge.

I knew him as a intensely fair man who could spot bullshit better than anyone on the bench. Reading comments on various websites from both defense lawyers and prosecutors alike, I am not alone in my opinion.

That is how you determine whether a judge is "great" - when lawyers on both sides of the courtroom have the same high opinion. It indicates a judge who plays no favorites, allows people to be heard, and does the right thing.

Judge Pineiro's death is sad because he was young and well liked, but it is tragic because those that practiced in front of him all felt like they were in a courtroom where justice was doled out. I read comments today from prosecutors who often lost in his courtroom, and from defense lawyers whose clients received lengthy sentences. All comments included a deep affection for Judge Pineiro.

Judge Pineiro was famous for his involvement in resolving cases. Even after case law held that off-the-record conversations with judges about plea offers were a recipe for reversals, Judge Pineiro continued the old school way of clearing his calendar. He'd take the 28 year old prosecutors and 26 year old public defenders and a smattering of private lawyers in to chambers and tell prosecutors not to bullshit him, and defense lawyers that they were crazy to take the case to trial. He'd take a 3 year prison offer and reduce it to 6 months jail because we all knew that this is what the case deserved.

Judge Pineiro was unique. To go on would be a waste of time for those reading here, because unless you were in his courtroom, you cannot understand the impact of his presence on the bench.

But I do have two stories that define the man. Neither are my cases, for those I have my own stories.

The two stories happened recently, in fact on the same day.

It was a busy day in Judge Pineiro's court. Dozens of cases, way too many people in the courtroom needing to speak to the prosecutors and public defenders, and Judge Pineiro keeping things moving along like a conveyor belt. He was not an impatient man, but there was no need to spend 10 minutes on something when 3 would do.

The prosecutor told Judge Pineiro she was offering credit time served to a woman in jail on a probation violation. All she needed to do was admit the crime, and she'd be sent home. Someone noticed there was a co-defendant in the case, and the co-defendant's case was closed. The question was asked what disposition the co-defendant received. The prosecutor responded that the disposition was a dismissal. That someone who noticed there was a co-defendant and asked about the disposition was not the defense lawyer - it was Judge Pineiro, who then asked "well don't you think this defendant, who's charged with the same exact crime, should get the same exact disposition?" The defendant didn't care, she was going home either way - but Judge Pineiro wanted to make sure the right thing happened.

On that same day, the prosecutor offered a very generous plea to a defendant on a drug possession case. The defense lawyer announced that the defendant would accept the plea, and then walked away from the podium to talk to another client. The prosecutor also walked away to deal with another matter. The next words heard in the courtroom were "does anyone have a motion to suppress?" No one responded. Judge Pineiro then read aloud the arrest affidavit, which laid out a law school type scenario where the search and seizure of the defendant was a textbook violation of the Fourth Amendment. Judge Pineiro then asked the defense lawyer again - "would you like to move to suppress the search?" Like he was woken up from a nap, the defense lawyer said "yes," the motion was granted and the case dismissed.

Judge Pineiro paid attention. He had a sense of his duty that went beyond the factory type setting we often see in our courtrooms where the only goal is to close cases.

I don't know how many cases Judge Pineiro had on his docket when he died today. I know it doesn't matter, because tomorrow there will be more.

Unfortunately, those defendants, and the lawyers who prosecute and defend them, won't have the privilege of having their cases presided over by Judge Pineiro.

In 16 years of practice I've been in front of many judges. Many are memorable for both good and bad reasons. Judge Pineiro is one of those that I will forever be thankful that I was able to practice before, and I will count as someone in my career that I was incredibly lucky to know.

Brian Tannebaum is a criminal defense lawyer in Miami, Florida practicing in state and federal court, and the author of The Truth About Hiring A Criminal Defense Lawyer.Share/Save/Bookmarkokdork.com rules Post to Twitter

Monday, December 06, 2010

Our Addiction To The Flexible (Non) Payment Plan

"Get it up front." That's the advice from any experienced criminal defense lawyer.

But cash flow is slow, you need the case, and you're OK getting $1,500 down on a $5,000 fee, because you really need that $1,500 right now.

A month later that first of seven $500 payments doesn't come. You hope the judge will give you enough continuances to get paid, and you're looking for a way to convince the client to pay his fee. In the end, you've received $2,500, you hate your client, and most of the conversation with him is about "when" he's going to pay.

This isn't his fault, it's yours. There's no such thing as a payment plan. It's a non-payment plan. When clients don't have to pay all the money, they don't. Remember, you're representing people accused of crimes. Some of them are accused of crimes having to do with theft or fraud. Some of them haven't done so well fulfilling obligations, so why do you expect they'll fulfill their obligation to you?

But the flexible payment plan is here to stay. Criminal defense lawyers who run factory type offices are fine with them. They'll take the credit card for the $500 down, do that a few times a day, and in the end, it's enough to pay the overhead and take a little for yourself. The lack of payment of the rest is the cost of doing business. Maybe in a year you'll look at your receivables (if you even keep track) and want to (unsuccessfully) try to collect.

I listen to how criminal defense lawyers run their practices. I hear about all these things. Sure, there are the clients that pay, but more often it's about chasing the money.

There's payment plans, and payment plans. Taking half down, or even a third and accepting a few payments may work. If you have a real case and not some show-up-once-and-get-a-plea thing, it may be OK. But generally, payment plans are a recipe for getting the down payment and nothing more.

I know "your clients" can't pay all up front. You sure about that? Have you ever asked for it all up front? Is it so foreign to you that you would never even think of it?

If you have the type of practice where you spend your days "feeling bad" for your clients, I just hope you have the type of practice where not getting paid is not an issue. Maybe you don't have rent in your home office, maybe you have no assistants, and your only overhead is your cell phone.

Those of us that don't get paid the fees we quote, deserve it. We need to stop complaining about it. People will treat you how they are permitted to treat you. If you allow clients to pay over time, you are telling them you don't really need the money.

Brian Tannebaum is a criminal defense lawyer in Miami, Florida practicing in state and federal court, and the author of The Truth About Hiring A Criminal Defense Lawyer.Share/Save/Bookmarkokdork.com rules Post to Twitter