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Advice From the Bench

A hit local chapter session goes national at CLM’s Annual Conference

May 16, 2022 Photo

“Be prepared” is not only the Scout Motto, but also sound advice for young attorneys heading to the courtroom. What does being adequately prepared for court proceedings look like in practical terms? Two judges shared their insights during a session at CLM’s Annual Conference in Palm Desert, California titled, “A View From the Bench.”

The session—moderated by Baltimore-based attorneys Patricia McHugh Lambert and Valerie E. Taylor from Pessin Katz Law, P.A.—featured Judge Judith C. Ensor from the Circuit Court for Baltimore County, Maryland; and Judge Mark F. Scurti from the District Court for Baltimore City, Maryland.

Directing their advice to young professionals, Judge Ensor and Judge Scurti stressed some keys to being prepared before coming into court, including conferring with opposing counsel prior to appearing in front of the judge to work out any outstanding issues and to hopefully come to the court ready to present the evidence. Judge Ensor also mentioned the value of attorneys introducing themselves to the judge’s courtroom clerk and law clerk upon entering the courtroom, not only because it is polite, but also because it could yield important information about what the judge may like or dislike. Finally, both Judge Ensor and Judge Scurti stressed the importance of maintaining professional and amicable relationships with clients and with counsel to ensure the best possible legal process for all parties involved.

Judge Ensor and Judge Scurti offered prudent advice on various other topics, such as how to most effectively facilitate settlement, ways in which COVID-19 has impacted the practice of law both in and out of the courtroom, tips for presenting one’s case to both a judge and a jury, and even some “dos” and “don’ts” for younger practitioners who are just beginning to build a practice.

When asked about tips to successfully facilitate settlement, Judge Ensor stressed the importance of preparing in advance with your client to both manage expectations and to ensure that, as counsel, you have the authority to settle before coming to the table. She said this is a time when all parties need to work together, be reasonable, and be realistic with their positions. Judge Ensor also shared that it is important for the parties to communicate prior to coming to the settlement table because, if new pieces of information are shared during these discussions, it can be detrimental to a successful settlement. Additionally, while this may seem obvious, counsel should ensure that they are bringing someone to the settlement who has the authority to settle.

Judge Scurti, as a district court judge and the sole fact finder, shared tips for the effective presentation of a case and evidence to a judge. He emphasized the importance of using demonstrative exhibits that help establish a point, particularly if it is very crucial to the case. Since counsel typically has every detail of the case committed to memory, it is easy to forget that this is the first time the judge is being presented with the information. Therefore, presenting it in a very clear and simple manner, while highlighting the main points, is critical.

For example, if the litigation involves a car accident, using a visual tool like a poster board to show the intersection of the specific place where, and the way, the accident occurred could be useful and very effective. It is best for one’s case if the material facts and circumstances are easily understood by the judge, he said.

Judge Ensor also offered tips for effective presentation of evidence to a jury. One tip that stood out: Lawyers should create a binder for each juror ahead of time that contains the documents they are going to reference so that jurors can follow along during the trial. Judge Ensor mentioned that she does not see this very often, but when she does, it has proven extremely effective. 

During the presentation at CLM’s Annual Conference, one session attendee asked if the judges had seen higher verdicts during and post-COVID-19. Surprisingly, the response was no—verdicts have generally stayed consistent.

A more light-hearted question came from another audience member: “What advice would you [the judges] offer attorneys who are handling court appearances before cranky/grumpy judges?” Both judges responded that, while there is generally not much one can do about this, focusing on things within an attorney’s control, such as being prepared and maintaining professionalism, will definitely help get them the best result.

Toward the end of the session, Taylor joined the panel and answered the following question: “If we are back at the CLM Annual Conference in five years presenting ‘A View From the Bench,’ what topics do you think would be at the forefront of our discussion?” Taylor commented that she anticipates some of the courtroom changes from COVID-19 remaining in place, particularly those related to the use of technology to conduct hearings. Many practitioners, litigants, and professionals see the long-term benefits of utilizing technology to be more efficient and cost-effective.

Judge Scurti agreed, and encouraged the use of more innovative technology in the courtroom. Judge Ensor has a more traditional view, and, while she sees the benefits of technology, she is also a proponent of going back to the pre-COVID-19 manner of conducting hearings and trials.

From Local to National

This Annual Conference session stemmed from a similar rendition of “A View From the Bench” that was held in October 2021 and hosted by CLM’s Maryland Chapter. That session was held via Zoom due to the ongoing pandemic. The guest judges shared their insights on various topics, such as tips for effectively facilitating settlement, how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the practice of law both in and out of the courtroom, tips for presentation of evidence to both a judge and a jury, and some practical “dos” and “don’ts” for young and older practitioners alike.

Following that session, the CLM Maryland Chapter leadership received excellent feedback from both practitioners and claims professionals in attendance. Part of the discussion focused on the relationship between claims professionals and the attorneys hired to assist them with their claims. The judges highlighted the importance of claims professionals and attorneys working in tandem to ensure the most efficient and effective results.

The discussion with members of the bench—who have extensive experience not only as former practitioners in the field, but also as judges presiding over these types of cases—helped claims professionals learn how to best navigate the legal field while also developing, fostering, and maintaining professional and productive relationships.

The success of the local chapter session led to an invitation to present at the CLM Annual Conference, which allowed for a productive and fruitful conversation at the national level for CLM’s legal practitioners and insurance professionals alike. 

About The Authors
Valerie E. Taylor

Valerie E. Taylor is an attorney at Pessin Katz Law, P.A.  vtaylor@pklaw.com

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