Blogs > The Law Blogger

The Law Blogger is a law-related blog that informs and discusses current matters of legal interest to readers of The Oakland Press and to consumers of legal services in the community. We hope readers will  find it entertaining but also informative. The Law Blogger does not, however, impart legal advice, as only attorneys are licensed to provide legal counsel.
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Monday, November 21, 2011

Consumers of Legal Services Force Change in Law School Curriculum

Last Sunday's NYT had yet another above the fold, law school-related headline: What They Don't Teach Law Students: Lawyering.  In a sustained economic downturn, corporations (and individuals) that have reduced their legal budgets want lawyers with practical knowledge; not theoretical brilliance.

The academic template for law schools has been around, with very little change, since Harvard Law School branded the so-called "case method" in the late 19th Century.  This traditional legal pedagogy was memorialized in the 1973 movie, The Paper Chase.

The Socratic case method calls for students to read and break down cases that illustrate a particular, albeit ancient or esoteric, legal principle.  A law professor calls on students who must answer hard questions about the cases they have briefed.  The law students are forced to reason and think on their feet, like a lawyer in a courtroom.

The Socratic case method does not teach the student, however, how to handle contemporary problems faced by real-life clients in today's unforgiving marketplace.  Today, the cost-conscious consumer makes every effort to avoid the courtroom.

In our era of sustained economic downturn, the traditional law school model is under attack from two sides: there are very few legal jobs waiting for the legions of debt-burdened graduating law students; and clients generally do not want to see first or second year lawyers' time on their monthly invoices.

In response, many law schools have attempted practical innovations, introducing a "legal writing across the curriculum" component, and developing various legal clinics where students represent actual clients.  The effort has been to produce market-tested graduates.

Former Vanderbilt Law School Dean Edward Rubin has isolated the following areas where corporate clients are demanding better training from the academy:
  • A better understanding of modern litigation which now includes an e-discovery component, diligent fact gathering, and a settlement process designed to avoid court; 
  • Deeper knowledge of transactional law, including how to properly draft, evaluate and challenge a contract; 
  • How to perform basic corporate due diligence in the modern government regulatory context; 
  • Stronger legal writing skills (age-old complaint); and 
  • Getting a clue about the economics of a law practice.
Locally, both the Wayne State University Law School, and the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law (this blogger's alma mater) have robust legal writing programs and have been leaders in developing urban clinics which provide students with practical experience serving real clients.

Like any customer, law clients want excellent service for a reasonable fee.  Hiring a law firm that implements cutting edge, cost-sensitive technique is more important than ever in reducing a corporation's or an individual's legal bills.

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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

High Income Child Support

In 1988, the federal Family Support Act required all states to enact presumptive child support "guidelines" in order to preserve federal funding on a variety of family-oriented programs.  Since then, Michigan has adopted the Michigan Child Support Formula.

In response to the Act, some states adopted support formulas that "top-out" for high earners.  Here in Michigan, for example, child support can only be calculated for an annual income of $422,916 or less.

In addition, the MCSF takes away most of the court's discretion in setting child support.  Absent compelling factors, support is determined through a straight-forward application of the MCSF.

In the case of some high-earning families, litigants have cried foul, asserting that when a parent earns millions of dollars, his children should share in that wealth.  This is particularly the case where the high income is short-lived; like with most professional athletes.

Like Michigan, Florida, Nebraska, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming all use a straight formulaic approach [with a cap] to the calculation of child support.  Other states utilize a percentage approach where the child support obligation just keeps going up; keeping pace with the parent's high income.

Recognizing this problem, some states have specific statutes that address high income households.  These statutes usually provide the family court judge with some good old-fashioned "discretion" to determine the child support obligation in accord with the "best interests of the child."

But what really is in the best interests of little "Richie Rich"?  Some of life's best lessons are learned with less, not more.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Oakland County Circuit Court Appoints Ombudsman

For the first time in its long history, the Oakland County Circuit Court has appointed an Attorney Ombudsman to serve as a liaison between the county's bench and the bar.  Southfield Attorney Joel Serlin has the distinction of being the first Ombudsman to the Oakland Circuit beginning December 1, 2011.

In announcing the appointment, Chief Judge Nanci Grant said:
Our bench is excited to participate in the inaugural ombudsman program.  We embrace the program, and the opportunity presented, as an illustration of the importance attached to the transparency and accountability of the bench and bar - to each other, of course, but more importantly to the administration of justice in Oakland County.
The role of this ombudsman will be to address the administrative and case management issues raised by the Oakland County bar.  The OCBA proposed the notion of appointing an ombudsman over a year ago. When the proposal was formally presented to the Oakland judges, it received overwhelming support.

The purpose underpinning the program will be to provide a discreet forum for attorneys practicing before the Oakland bench to address matters for which there is no other avenue in which to seek redress of their various concerns.  The ombudsman is independent of the judiciary and maintains confidentiality relative to the requests  made to his office.

This development is just another example of how practicing law in Oakland County is a distinct professional pleasure.  We welcome this development; kudos to the OCBA and all the Oakland County Circuit Judges.

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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Clarkston Legal Presents at ICLE's 10th Annual Family Law Instutite

On Friday, I presented on the topic of social media in the family law context to 500 Michigan lawyers attending ICLE's 10th Annual Family Law Institute at the Inn at St. John's in Plymouth, MI.

Part of the presentation dealt with the national and local "influencers" in the area of social media and the law; particularly family law.  Some of the more dynamic profiles of attorneys utilizing the social media were  profiled and discussed.

Lawyers are utilizing sites like Google+, YouTube, Linked In and Facebook to promote their content, expertise and profile.  Law-related sites such as JD Supra, Nolo, and Avvo were also profiled.

The second half of the presentation touched on issues of privacy and the expectation of privacy, or lack thereof.  The top social media sites referenced above install pieces of tracking software onto users computers.  The WSJ shined a bright light on this practice in its 2010 series, "What They Know".

Forensic recovery of electronically stored information (ESI) was one of the areas of primary focus.  Many divorce clients now present with information obtained through a violation of the spouse's privacy rights; the attorney must not accept such evidence.

Other clients destroy evidence or illegally scrub electronic information in transit with key-stroke programs such as the "evidence eliminator" which boasts that not even the FBI could recover scrubbed data.

One focus on whether evidence of bad conduct that may be relevant, or critical, to a custody dispute, is the source of the information.  ESI on a "family" computer has no expectation of privacy and is thus admissible in the family court.

Finally, the presentation surveyed recent litigation and case law arising from evidentiary disputes in family courts.  Some of the cases involved sexting, other cases involved cyber-bullying.

In all, it was a successful presentation made to an interested group of attorneys looking to put it all together in the social media context.

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Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Wayne County Circuit Court Rolls Out E-Filing

Yesterday, the Wayne Circuit Court joined Oakland and a few other select counties that accept electronic case and document filings.  For the time being, however, only Wayne County's contract case filings, coded with the "CK" case code, are mandatory e-file cases; the rest of the docket still requires old-fashioned paper.

Oakland County has had e-filing for years; it has personally saved me hundreds of man-hours and my clients thousands of dollars.  There are still docket pockets in Oakland County, however, that have resisted the e-filing system.  Divorces with children, for example, have eluded Oakland County's e-file requirement.

An attorney must do a few proactive things to successfully get on board with the e-filing requirements.  First, invest in a good computer system and Internet connection.  Second, go to the training sessions routinely offered by the courts and bring your support staff.

While e-filing is here to stay, some critics assert that e-filing requirements reduce access to the court system for in pro per litigants who lack sufficient computing capital for electronic filing.  For these folks, there is still a paper option, but there are additional hoops to jump through.  Folks just need to get on board.

There can be no doubt that electronic filing is here to stay.  The federal system has been completely electronic via the PACER system for a decade; the Michigan appellate courts have been on an electronic filing system [albeit a different one from the county courts] for years and it works great.

Although we are still several years off from a 100% electronic filing system, it's coming.  The next hurdle for attorneys will be to make the commitment to a completely paperless law office.

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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Prisoner Has No Right to Miranda Warning During Prison "Investigation"

Homemade Prison Shanks
I have appellate clients doing time at the MDOC's Carson City Correctional Facility in Montcalm County.  One summer day a few years back, when I had just cleared the facility, a gang fight broke out in the yard which led to warning shots being fired from the gun tower and a 2-day lockdown.

Last month, the Michigan Court of Appeals decided a case involving the MDOC's attempt to get to the bottom of those gang disputes.  In the process, the intermediate appellate court touched on the nerve of an accused's right to have legal counsel prior to making statements to police.

In People v Cortez, the defendant, a prisoner at Carson City, underwent a cell shake-down which yielded two shanks from around his bunk.  Cortez was removed to a segregation unit and subsequently interviewed by an MDOC official who attempted to obtain information from the inmate relating to where the shanks came from and who was behind the gang violence.

In his statement, Cortez initially denied any knowledge of the shivs, then had a change of heart and told all, providing details about the gangs and the shivs.  He was charged with two counts of prisoner in possession of a weapon.

At his jury trial [yes, he utilized his right to crank-up a jury trial], Cortez's lawyer attempted to keep out his statements on the basis they were made during a custodial interrogation but without the benefit of Miranda warnings.

You remember Miranda v Arizona; the seminal criminal procedure and constitutional law case from the 1960s SCOTUS, requiring police to provide an accused suspect of his right to remain silent and to obtain a lawyer prior to answering any questions.

Anyway, the Court of Appeals upheld the trial court's decision to allow the MDOC official testify about his questioning of Cortez; the questioning was characterized by the prosecutor as designed to elicit information about the gang violence within the facility and not to obtain evidence of Cortez's guilt.  Cortez's SADO attorney argued that the questioning was clearly intended for use in his subsequent prosecution.

The Court of Appeals held that Cortez was not entitled to Miranda warnings on the basis that he was not in "custodial interrogation" when he was, er, "interviewed" by the prison official; that the prison official was not the equivalent of the state police, nor was he acting on behalf of the state police, who later took over the case;  that the MDOC official's sole concern was prison safety, not gathering evidence against Cortez.

So, within the confines of a prison at least, an accused should not expect to be provided the seminal warnings that a police officer normally would provide about having a right to remain silent and to speak to an attorney before answering questions.

Hopefully, the holding in the case will be restricted to the context of the prison setting.  We don't want safer prisons at the expense of our constitutional rights out here in "the World".

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Sunday, November 6, 2011

Michigan Court of Appeals Rules State Clerk Must Testify in DWLS Cases

In a 2-1 decision, the Michigan Court of Appeals recently ruled that a certificate mailed to a state driver, notifying him of his suspended license, is "testimonial" as that term is used in the constitution thus, the Secretary of State must produce it's clerk at a trial for driving on a suspended license.

The case, People v Nunley, arose in a district court in Washtenaw County.  The prosecutor attempted to introduce notice of the defendant's suspension, without calling a clerk from the Secretary of State's office to lay the proper foundation for the entry of that key document.

Both the district court and the circuit court denied the prosecutor's request to admit the document of suspension; a key element in any DWLS case.

The Court of Appeals panel reasoned that because the prosecutor must establish that the motorist received notice as an element of the crime, it held that introduction of the actual notice document, without producing the necessary foundational witness, violated the accused's right under the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to confront and cross examine all witnesses.

In a well-reasoned 7-page dissent, Presiding Judge Henry Saad concluded that the notice was not "testimonial" under the analysis of seminal U.S. Supreme Court caselaw.  Judge Saad characterized the notice as merely "administrative" and emphasized that, when the notice was sent to Mr. Nunley, no crime had yet been committed [i.e. Nunley had yet to drive on his newly suspended license].  As such, the notice could not be testimonial in nature.

The result of this decision is that the prosecutor must now secure the appearance of the state clerk from Lansing in order to obtain a DWLS conviction.  Should the administrative costs of securing a conviction alter the analysis of the accused's constitutional right to confrontation of witnesses?  We think not.

The Washtenaw County Prosecutor has promised further appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court.

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