General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Conference features judicial advice

Issue December 2007 By Bill Archambeault

The General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Conference attracted more than 60 attendees who received advice from judges, networked and learned about technology and trial basics at the Holiday Inn in Taunton on Nov. 8.

Two judicial panels gave attorneys practical advice that ranged from the import- ance of pre- trial memos to responding to judges’ questions. Other panels included “Employment Law for Lawyers,” “Evidence Issues in Civil Trial Practice,” “Top 10 Criminal Cases You Need to Know,” “Technology Chal- lenge” and “What Every Practitioner Needs to Know about Divorce, Deeds, Inheritance and Trusts.”

Luncheon speaker Rodney S. Dowell, director of the Law Office Management Assistance Program (, explained that LOMAP’s free and confidential service is focused on helping lawyers manage the business side of their law practice, including dealing with trust accounts, client relations, document management, office technology, disaster recovery, time management and finances.

“We’re attempting to raise the professionalism of the legal community in Massachusetts,” Dowell said. “We help attorneys clean up their practice so they feel like they’re in control again.”

LOMAP was launched in July with the support of the Office of Bar Counsel, the Board of Bar Overseers, the American Bar Association, the Massachusetts judiciary and the state bar associations.

Requests for help have focused parti-cularly on business planning and time management, said Dowell, who offered the audience several tips:

• Focus on finding the “ideal” client, including those who are able to pay. “I like to do pro bono work, but I want to be the one to decide when I do pro bono work,” Dowell said.
• Communicate regularly with clients. “Do it as often as possible, and never let more than a month go by,” he said.
• Concentrate on accomplishing essential tasks. For example, Dowell suggested turning off features like instant e-mail alerts to avoid distractions.

The first judicial panel, “District Court,” featured Nantucket District Court Acting First Justice Joseph I. Macy and New Bedford District Court First Justice Bernadette L. Sabra and was moderated by MBA Vice President Denise Squillante.

Sabra gave the audience basic advice about preparation and timeliness. For example, she said, attorneys need to know at least enough about their clients to answer a judge’s basic questions once in court.

“You come across as a much better advocate for your client,” Sabra said. “Plus, it makes you look good for your client.”

And though delays and conflicts are an unavoidable element of the court system, Sabra urged attorneys to let the court and the client know if they’re running late.

“The worst thing in the world is to have your case called, the client stands up and the court has no idea where you are,” she said. “It reflects badly on you and can affect your business.”

Macy used humor to emphasize the importance of answering a judge’s questions fully and succinctly, without stating the obvious. For example, he said, if a judge sees that a client isn’t in the courtroom and asks where he is, it’s advisable not to reply, “He’s not here.”

After the audience’s laughter quieted down, Macy added, “We know that. We’re trained.”

He also advised attorneys to:

• Provide a copy of laws they cite to help save judges and their clerks time;
• Know the rules of evidence inside and out;
• Don’t overuse objections. “Just because something’s objectionable doesn’t mean you should object,” he said. “If the answer isn’t going to hurt you, let it in.” He advised using “strategic” objections, however, “if you’re getting killed, you could try to throw the opposing counsel off;”
• Ask judges to give specific instructions to the jury, but not waste time asking for basic, universal instructions;
• “Be civil” to opposing counsel. “Relax. Be nice to each other;” and
• Dress appropriately. “(Clients) don’t expect you to come in a rumpled sport jacket with a spot on your tie. They expect you to look like a lawyer.”

Squillante also moderated the second judicial panel, “Probate and Family Court,” which included First Justice Elizabeth O’Neill LaStaiti and Associate Justice Prudence M. McGregor of Bristol Probate and Family Court, Plymouth Probate and Family Court Associate Justice Michael J. Livingstone and Barnstable Probate and Family Court Associate Justice Robert A. Scandurra.

LaStaiti stressed the importance of attorneys preparing their clients for the realities of a settlement or trial’s outcome, as well as preparing themselves.

“One word to you is preparation. This is where I see most of the problems,” LaStaiti said. “Don’t wait until the pre-trial conference to tell your client that they’re probably going to have to pay alimony. Let them know upfront what is doable and what is not doable.”

She stressed paying close attention to pre-trial dates and preparing typed, un- blemished financial statements.

“Too often, we see financial statements that are filled out in the corridor,” she said.

Finally, she echoed other panelists who emphasized the importance of a pre-trial memorandum.
“There’s nothing worse than a pre-trial memo that’s a page-and-a-half. That tells me nothing,” she said. “Tell me what makes your case unique.

Livingstone said, the financial statement and pre-trial memo are the most important court filings.
“The pre-trial memo is your client’s chance to tell their story,” he said. “Tell us what your philosophy is, tell us what your client wants and try to be succinct.”

In the pre-trial memo, McGregor said, she wants to know what the attorneys agree on and what they don’t.

“I’m looking for something that gives me the theory of the case,” Scandurra said about divorce cases. “If you’re looking for 60 percent of the (couple’s) assets, give me a paragraph and tell me why. But limit those memos, because no judge wants to read a 35-page memo. It’s really the most important thing in the case.”

Susan Huettner, co-chair of both the conference and the General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Section, said she noticed that “The audience was thoroughly engaged. I saw people networking all day long.”

Squillante, a driving force behind the conference, said there is a “thirst for programs and first-rate presentations” among small-firm and solo practitioners.