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Op-Ed

Lawyer excuses

July 25, 2022

If your excuses are going to work, you need to be consistent, stay off social media, and look like you're working.

Milt Policzer

By Milt Policzer

Courthouse News columnist; racehorse owner and breeder; one of those guys who always got picked last.

You no longer need a dog to eat your homework — technology has provided alternatives.

This is from a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruling last week: “Mr. Johnston testified that his law firm’s software prevented him from uploading Elizabeth Bagsby’s wet signature indicating that she signed the petition in a representative capacity for Gayle Bagsby.”

But be careful how you use these excuses. You need to be consistent.

“The court noted that Mr. Johnston’s testimony regarding his use of the software to upload the required signatures was undermined by ‘his actions in that the plan filed in the second case contained his wet signature….’”

You either know how to use the computer or you don’t.

The computer thing, though, wasn’t the only problem that the lawyer in this case got wrong. This is the beginning of the ruling: “Attorney E. Covington Johnson filed bare-bones Chapter 13 bankruptcy petitions on behalf of Gayle Bagsby in 2016 and 2018 at the request of Gayle Bagsby’s daughter. ... There was only one glaring issue with this arrangement – one cannot file for bankruptcy on behalf of a deceased person and Gayle Bagsby died on February 28, 2006.”

Maybe no one noticed?

Always make sure your client exists before filing anything in court.

Social media is watching. If you’re doing something bad, try not to enjoy yourself in public.

The Georgia Supreme Court recently unanimously disbarred a lawyer who was accused of accepting fees for a group of cases and then ignoring them.

Her excuse for one of them didn’t fly:

“Washington told both her client and the trial court that she was sick on the evening of October 24, 2017, and therefore had overlooked the trial notice, which was sent to her electronically on that date, but her client found pictures posted on Facebook of Washington at a sorority function the same night that she claimed to be sick.”

If you’re going to ignore a client, make sure they don’t own a computer.

I should note here that this happened in 2017 and another one of the ignored cases happened in 2015. The lawyer also ignored most of the disciplinary process.

Do you have the feeling disbarment might not have the desired impact?

Thinking big. Check out the numbers in this sentence from a New York federal court ruling the other day: “Plaintiffs now move against Grinberg for damages awards of $4,625.19 for Cajero Torres and $2,613.66 for Bautista, and an award of attorneys’ fees for $154,847.50 and costs totaling $10,125.55.”

Imagine what the plaintiffs would be thinking if they’d lost.

OK, I know this could have been a contingency-fee case. If so, imagine what the plaintiff lawyers would have been thinking.

We don’t, however, have to imagine what the court thought of this. Some excerpts:

“No reasonable client would pay $350 an hour for tasks such as ‘reivwe (sic) court fling,’ or even ‘review court filing’; ‘address phone call issue;” or ‘review email from OC. ... And Hand did not appear at trial or, in any way visible to the Court, perform any substantive work in this matter.

“Although Zhu’s good nature and humility were commendable, his extreme inexperience with litigation and with trial work was repeatedly on display during this trial, and the record reflects little effectiveness and numerous lapses that are inconsistent with a billing rate of a lawyer of any experience.”

There’s more. A third lawyer had his rate reduced “because of the general, unsophisticated nature of the tasks for which he claims to have worked,” and there was a fourth lawyer who “physically appeared in court during portions of the trial but did not visibly do any work.”

They could have been there for moral support.

There’s lots more — this is a 54-page ruling — but I won’t spoil it for you. The attorney awards were reduced to $5,145 in fees and $1,285.63 in costs.

Lesson for you lawyers out there: At least look like you’re working. Maybe do some Solitaire on your iPad in court.

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