Records show huge drop in civil court jury trials
Posted: Wednesday, March 2, 2011 8:01 pm
NASHVILLE (AP) — Some longtime lawyers miss what they describe as the good old days, when lawsuits meant battling out legal disputes in jury trials.
Attorneys Bob Walker and John Branham of Nashville recall the time when they would argue multiple cases in a week, sometimes in a day.
Times have changed.
Courtroom skills have given way to a trend of settling disputes through mediation and other means aimed at saving litigants time and money.
Branham, an attorney at Bone McAllester Norton in Nashville, told The Tennessean the trial work has become “kind of a dying art.”
There were 384 jury trials in state civil courts in Tennessee last year, about 1,000 less than a decade ago. There were 5,325 civil and criminal jury trials in U.S. district courts in 2008, down from 6,839 in 2000 and 9,844 in 1990.
Branham said there is much more focus on litigation including pretrial motions.
Nancy Jones said the trend away from trials was a reason she left a law firm to lead the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility in 2007.
“What it really boiled down to is, when you wake up in the morning, and you haven’t had a trial in nine years, can you look at yourself in the mirror and call yourself a trial lawyer?” she said.
Todd Campbell, chief U.S. District Court judge for the Middle District of Tennessee, said the trend is not only a concern for lawyers and firms, but also for the general public. Campbell said he is proud that his court is among the leaders in the number of trials completed per judgeship.
The court was 15th out of 94 federal districts in 2009.
“I’m not part of that new-age, touchy-feely, let’s all hug and arbitrate (mindset),” Campbell said. “There’s an important social function to people having an open forum to air their grievances in a democracy.”
Richard Murrell, president-elect of the Tennessee Association of Professional Mediators, said the concerns are overblown.
“Those opportunities to be in court are going to be there,” he said. “I don’t think you’re going to see the complete evaporation of the adversarial arena.”
In situations that don’t require it, Murrell said it’s good to have options besides the jury trial that allow two sides to address their interests.
Alternative dispute resolution also saves time. It takes an average of 22 months from the filing of a lawsuit for it to reach trial in Nashville’s federal district court, compared to 15 months in 1992.
Some lawyers say the change also poses a tough challenge for firms trying to get young associates trial experience.
Walker said conducting discovery in a case used to result in hundreds of pages being delivered to the office in boxes, but now he’s more likely to get millions of pages on CDs. That can cause cases to drag out, costs to go up and settlement to look more attractive.
“We take pro bono matters to get lawyers experience,” said Bob Mendes head of MGLAW and president of the Nashville Bar Association.
Kathryn Barnett, managing partner of Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein in Nashville, said attorneys unaccustomed to going to trial are more prone to make mistakes in earlier stages of the process.
“If you don’t try cases, then it’s difficult to understand the importance of all the steps along the way,” she said.
Barnett previously worked as a public defender and Jones as a federal prosecutor. Those options still provide opportunities for young lawyers to get trial experience, as do criminal defense and family law, but Jones said many lawyers shy away from heinous criminal cases or messy domestic disputes.
Information from: The Tennessean, http://www.tennessean.com
Published in The Messenger 3.2.11