New York Personal Injury Law Blog » Courts


August 3rd, 2010

Professionalism (Or Lack Thereof) In The Courthouse. And A Solution

Queens County, Supreme Court

It happened again to me today. I arrived for a Preliminary Conference in Queens. The conference was scheduled for 9:30. I was there on time, as I always am. Defense counsel sauntered in at 10:35. No pre-conference phone call to indicate she would be late. No excuse when she appeared. No apology. And nothing to indicate she actually gave a damn about the concept of professionalism.

The problem sits with the courts. They schedule a gazillion conferences for the same time, and then lawyers sit around waiting, and waiting and waiting. If you have a single appearance to make, and the other side has three or four, you can be forced to sit there while the other lawyer runs around billing his or her time. Or maybe the other lawyer just wants to sleep late.

But, no matter the reason,  it’s being done on your time if you were acting conscientiously and actually showed up. I wrote about this problem last in 2008 (see: How One Brooklyn Courtroom Wastes $10M Every Year). And if you then need judicial intervention on an issue, you have to wait in line with all the others.

Abraham Lincoln once said that “A lawyer’s time and advice are his stock in trade.” Indeed.

Perhaps one day, maybe even in my lifetime, the courts will figure out how to stop squandering all of our time and wasting so much damn money (time = money).

There are a couple of options:

1.  Schedule the conferences at staggered times. If a lawyer has a conflict,work it out at least 3 days before. Sanction those that are late; or

2.  Many of the conferences can be done by phone without the court. At least 90% of the details, and often 100%, can be worked out by the lawyers. Let the remainder, those that need intervention, be done by conference call with the judge.

The only problem with this is that much of the defense bar still bills by the hour. Those of us that work on contingency have every incentive to get the job done efficiently. The late-arriving lawyer in today’s conference, if she billed today’s appearance, probably claimed at least three hours for it as we didn’t get out until about 12:15. Don’t forget to add the travel time.  But we could have been done by 10:15. And if a court forced the lawyers to do this stuff by phone, we could have done it in even less time.

Now magnify all that lawyers’ time against the huge caseloads that sit in the New York City courts. The millions of dollars in wasted legal time add up fast. That is time spent just sitting there in addition to the travel time.

While it is true that it would cost additional money for the courts to implement this solution, it could be paid for by raising the bi-annual registration fees of the bar. They currently sit at $350, to be increased to $375 come September. But I’d gladly pay $500, if it saves me the wasted time in the courthouse. It would be, perhaps, the single most cost-effective fee increase in the history of the New York courts.

11 thoughts on “Professionalism (Or Lack Thereof) In The Courthouse. And A Solution

  1. The plaintiffs’ bar is complicit in the constant, lengthy delays in court appearances. Overworked plaintiffs’ firms hire per diem attys. to “cover” lesser conferences for them, and the per diems only make money themselves if they can handles several conferences in different courtrooms at the same time (just like the defense attys.) Staggered conference times would be a solution if there was enforcement of the start times, but hardly anybody really wants enforcement. Our courts are totally indifferent to the enormous waste of professional time, and many judges are not exactly models of punctuality, themselves. It is an ingrained, intractable problem.

  2. It is an ingrained, intractable problem.

    I agree it is ingrained. I refuse to concede intractable.

    The advent of modern telephone conference calls should have put this crap out of business long ago. And with the ease of creating electronic forms, and fillable PDFs, there is no excuse for not moving forward. Almost all preliminary conferences and status conferences can be handled this way.

    Then the courts can use their time more economically and usefully for motions, pre-motion conferences and settlement conferences.

  3. We have the same issues in Florida! Just the other day I spent 45 mins. on an opposing counsel who was running late. I called his office twice, e-mailed him three (3) times asking where he was and received no response. When he finally showed up, he gave me attitude and told me he was at another hearing! I did not believe him for various reasons (we had communicated a few times the day before and he never mentioned he would be at another hearing; he did not have any other file or papers with him, etc.). Unfortunately, some attorneys just lack common courtesy and professionalism.

  4. Eric, I agree with your article and I agree with the two posts as well. As one who regularly practices in Queens County as well as the other counties in New York City, its a common problem. Hardly anyone appears in Queens at 9:30am and if one appears at that time, you’re waiting at a minimum for at least a half an hour before your opponent appears. There are 11:30am conferences in Queens but very few judges have these conferences at this time. The problem also is that the preliminary and compliance conference appearances are not strictly time sensitive unlike a motion appearance which has a calendar call. You have an hour and a half window in Queens to appear for a 9:30am preliminary conference. The latest one can arrive for a 9:30am conference is at 11am without any consequences. Its very possible that you could be sitting there for an hour to an hour and half before you opponent appears for your conference.
    The fact is that if an attorney has multiple appearances then the conferences, due to the lack of time restriction, usually are not high priority appearances compared to the trial and motion appearances. Usually, the attorney in this instance leaves his/her name on the calendar with their cell phone number if one needs to contact them. Also, the problem is that there is a whole economic support base for this system enabling everyone from Court officers, per diem attorneys, clerks, and so forth to earn a living. For this reason, it will be very difficult to change the status quo. The only practical solution is to call your adversary on the day before and ask if he/she can appear the next morning on time and when you arrive at 9:30am the next day, cross your fingers, say a prayer, and wait.

    • Kevin:

      I’m familiar with the system. But I’m sick of it due to its extraordinary inefficiency. There is no reason to waste 3 hours in court when most stuff can be done by phone in 1/2 hour or less.

  5. Great post, Eric. It is an ingrained problem. It could be changed, but there is not the will to do so.

    First, why were you in court to begin with? To fill out a PC order – and PC’s are pretty useless. You just fill in dates on a pre-drafted form. Why spend a morning in court for that? When I practiced in Mass., there were no PC’s, and in fact, you never went to court except for a pre-trial conference. The court automatically issued the parties a tracking order that set a discovery end date and other deadlines. The attorneys were supposed to follow that or file a motion to extend the deadline.

    The problem is that court orders are not enforced in NYC and so attorneys have to go to PC’s and keep coming back in for status and compliance conferences. For instance, if a court order does not specify an exact deposition date, the to-be deposed party will not appear. (I am a plaintiff’s attorney so I believe defendant’s are at fault).

    As court orders are not enforced, there is a culture of laxity that pervades the system, so that attorneys feel free to saunter into a part whenever they feel like it. Another factor is that reputation hardly matters in NYC, and so attorneys do not suffer a black mark if they appear late and judges do not care.

    Attorneys would not flout court orders and standards of professionalism in federal court. In state court it is anything goes. And so we wait around for meaningless conferences that should not be scheduled in the first place.

  6. Having witnessed this problem first hand for the last 25 years, I am convinced that there is little incentive for the court system to change since it might involve the need for fewer judges, clerks and law secretaries. Too many livlihoods are at stake. It took a long time for New York State to close a number of inpatient psychiatric facilities despite inpatient census at less than half of capacity. I was convinced then, as I am now, that there was too much at stake for state employees, to allow the system to change. It took about 35 years. So, with a little luck, and when the citizenry realizes just how much they pay for this extraordinarily expensive and inefficient system, we might have compulsory exchange of all docs at the beginning of the suit, independent scheduling with only the assistance of a magistrate if necessary, and no motion practice without permission of chambers among other reforms which would make the system more efficient.

  7. That’s so right. Judges are so pompous, but it’s even worst when you can’t get a hold of the opposing counsel. It’s like people could care less about having any kind of professional decorum:
    [link that had nothing to do with the post deleted by editor]

  8. First, on what basis do you say that “much” of the defense bar bills by the hour? The fact is that the majority of the conferences in any of the Supreme Court parts in the five boroughs probably involve routine auto and premises liability cases. In my experience, most of these cases are defended by staff counsel for the various insurers, who are not billing by the hour, or defense counsel who are working on flat fee programs where they are not billing by the hour. Thus, I think it’s unfair to blame the defense bar for the problem you cite. As one of the posters noted above, the problem lies as much with plaintiffs’ firms hiring per diem attorneys, that they pay very little to, who can only make money if they cover 10-15 apperances on any given morning. In my opinion, the real culprit are the courts, and their political benefactors, who have an economic incentive to keep the systeme the way it is. And when I say the courts, I just don’t mean the judges, but also the law secretaries, the clerks and the court officers as well. The more activity at the courthouse, whether it’s efficient or not, the more there is a need for all of the personnel mentioned above to keep it going. With the courts being one of the last vestiges of real, hardcore, political patronage in New York it’s hard to envision the system changing anytime soon.

  9. As a NY attorney who practices in the city and up in the Hudson Valley I can tell you that there are several counties where PCs are handled by mail and discovery conferences by telephone.

    As someone who has practiced both defense and plaintiff work I can also assure you that tardiness and unprofessional conduct comes equally from both sides.

  10. As a NY attorney who practices in the city and up in the Hudson Valley I can tell you that there are several counties where PCs are handled by mail and discovery conferences by telephone.

    How civilized.

    As someone who has practiced both defense and plaintiff work I can also assure you that tardiness and unprofessional conduct comes equally from both sides.

    So I hear. But I only see the bad defense firms, since I’m doing the plaintiff’s side.