Wednesday, November 09, 2011

California Lawyers Are The Tops Part I

Today's column is about something all of us in the legal profession know well, "erratum." When spoken, it sounds euphonious. "Erratum," as you all know, is a fancy Latin word for screw-up. But first a parenthetic observation followed by a question. It is permissible to say "screw-up" in any venue. Its ubiquitous counterpart is used with abandon in HBO dramas, and is apparently an essential expletive for stand-up comics. Yet, it is eschewed in the commercial media, and shunned in some refined circles. Why is that?

Now back to the subject. Erratum is an error or mistake. I wade through a brief the size of a telephone book and . . . . Sorry, but here is another interruption with a question from a young law school graduate, "What's a telephone book?" Answer, "Imagine taking all the words from War and Peace on your Kindle or iPad and printing them on pages and binding them together in a book." Follow-up question from same young graduate, "What's War and Peace?" Answer, "Look it up on Wikipedia."

Once again, back to the column. I read… to be more accurate, I slog through the turgid prose of a humungous brief drafted by a lawyer or, more likely, a committee of lawyers. A week later, I find on my desk a slender binder bearing the same caption as the oversized brief I tackled the previous week. Printed on the cover of this thin, seemingly innocuous binder is the dreaded word "Errata." Oh my heavens, the plural of "erratum."

The errata or mistakes are listed in several pages referencing sheets or pages in the original brief. The errata brief may point out that a certain number of cases cited were depublished, or never published in the first place. In any event, they are not citable. One great signature erratum that makes judges cower is the lawyer's neglect in failing to insert the word "not" in many seemingly affirmative statements, thus changing the entire meaning of the legal argument.

I imagine lawyers find it annoying to hear judges complain about their errata. So today's column is, among other things, about a judge's errata, to wit, my own.

Like most of my columns, last month's column was about many closely and tightly related subjects, like MICRA, California's Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act, and the Los Angeles Lawyers Philharmonic. Because of a "typo" (no excuse), I stated that MICRA limited non-economic damages to $25,000. Of course, the amount is $250,000. Many careful readers caught the erratum, including Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Alan Goodman. But he reasoned that my "typo" was not really an error. The Legislature's failure to raise the non-economic cap from the inception of MICRA in 1975 makes its present value around $25,000. Judge Goodman is a brilliant and creative jurist.

My next erratum occurred when I attended the Daily Journal reception for the "Top 100" lawyers in California at the posh Beverly Hills Hotel. I pulled up to the parking valet who opened the driver's door for me. As I emerged from the car, the valet quickly opened the back door, skillfully pulled my coat off its hanger, and effortlessly slid the sleeves of the coat up my arms that I had conveniently stretched out in parallel position behind my back. This was a class event.

I dodged a Lamborghini and side-stepped a Rolls-Royce competing for the next attendant. I avoided eye contact with the lawyer protesting at the entrance to the hotel. His placard read, "UNFAIR TO ME, THE TOP 101st LAWYER IN CALIFORNIA." Because I had arrived early, I dropped in for a drink at the swank Polo Lounge before attending the reception. While sipping a cocktail and feasting on a bowl of guacamole, my idle thoughts led me to ponder how a lawyer makes the top 100. After receiving the check for my drink and the avocado, I lunged from the Polo Lounge.

Was it the exorbitant amount of the check that distracted me and led to my second erratum? I went to the table at the reception desk to collect my name tag. Would the tag read, "Justice Arthur Gilbert," "Presiding Justice Arthur Gilbert," or "Star Columnist Arthur Gilbert"? No matter, the vivacious young woman seated behind the reception desk could not locate my name tag. I had no choice but to settle for a stark white paste-on tag upon which she scrawled in thin blue ink, "A. Gilbert." I was assigned table #11. A photographer took my picture. I thought it strange that I did not know a soul there. At almost the same time, it dawned on me, and the effervescent woman at the reception desk, that I was at the wrong reception. I, in fact, had not contributed $100,000 to the charity for which the dinner at this reception was being held. They removed my place at table #11 and deleted my photograph.

I found my way to the Daily Journal reception down the hall. I went to the reception desk. Couldn't find my name tag. But that didn't matter. I was glad to be there. I have an affinity for this event because I have been told that I am one of the Daily Journal's top 100 columnists. Rumor has it that I am No. 99.

Again the question popped into my mind, how does a lawyer make the top 100? I asked the Daily Journal's distinguished editor, David Houston, what criteria were used in the evaluation. He smiled and suggested I try the quiche caviar.

I must acknowledge that the "top 100" are an impressive array of dedicated professionals. But there are over 170,000 active lawyers in California. I want the 169,900 or so lawyers out there to know there is nothing wrong with being in the top 200 or 500 or 10,000. Being a member of the State Bar makes you tops. And do not be resentful if you are not in the colorful supplement to the Los Angeles Times that features the greatest, most phenomenal, spectacular, successful, awesome, stupendous lawyers in all creation, lawyers who bring in verdicts of billions of dollars to vast numbers of satisfied clients. Know that by virtue of your profession you are in a noble calling, bringing aid and guidance to people in need.

I suppose, however, it is natural for some lawyers who do not make the top 100 to feel slighted, particularly those who in one year are included, but in the next year are not. I know what it feels like. It happened to me. One year I was included in the 100 top judges, but the next year I was not. I inquired, how could this happen? I was told it was an erratum.

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