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Jacobs & Dow, LLC

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Looking Good

Former Senator Bill Bradley, politics aside, when playing for the New York Knicks, knew how to make those around him look good and by doing so improve his team. By doing his job, moving without the ball to the right place at the right time, Bradley helped Walt Frazier, Earl Monroe, Willis Reed and Dave Debusschere look good and helped the Knicks become champions.

In our business, making others look good often helps to get the job done, usually at almost no cost. Unfortunately, more than a few judges and many lawyers ignore this fact with disappointing frequency. With judges I think it happens for two reasons. One, because they forget or ignore the tensions that often develop between attorney and client; and, two, because they don’t appreciate how much clients are impressed by what judges say and do.

Good judges know how to make lawyers look good in front of their clients. Judge Zampano was one of the masters. He knew when a judge threw a verbal bouquet at a lawyer it made the lawyer look good and the client happy. Many times Judge Zampano began sentencing remarks in criminal cases saying something like, “Young man, when I came out on the bench I was prepared to send you to jail, but after hearing from your lawyer I have decided to give you probation. Your lawyer’s done a fine job for you. You are a very lucky man.”

When settling civil cases the words were different but the sentiments the same. “I want both sides to know that your lawyers have fought hard for each of you. They have represented you very, very well. Because they were so good I was convinced if this case went to trial either side could win big or lose big. That’s why I recommended a settlement in this case; and I can tell you I consider the terms of this settlement to be fair to both sides.”

I like to think that when judges say things like this—especially in cases in which I’m involved—the compliment is sincere. But it’s more than that. The good judges know that kudos from the bench mean clients will walk out of court, if not completely satisfied, at least feeling their lawyer has done a good job. Good judges understand that this takes less than a minute, costs nothing, and produces terrific dividends for everyone. Maybe not as good as winning Power Ball, but good.

Good judges know these verbal seeds fall on fertile ground. First, and maybe least important, the lawyer half-believes it and feels good. Second, the client is at least satisfied with the lawyer and may come back to that lawyer next time or even refer another client. Third, satisfied parties mean less subsequent litigation to jam up the system—- fewer habeas corpus writs, motions to reopen, spurious appeals, or actions to enforce settlements instigated by conversations with a neighbor whose similar case generated more money. Fourth, these remarks create a better atmosphere in which to practice. There’s more than enough agita in our practices. If judges can defuse even a little by a few kind words, they should do so.

Many judges know this instinctively. Judge Richards now in Meriden or Judge Kaplan in New Haven; Judge Clifford; my former partner, Judge Gruendel, on the domestic side; Judge Thompson; Judge Silbert. And, of course, the peerless Judge John Reynolds, who personifies this skill. [Author’s note: Judges whose names not listed here should know that they were included by me in the original draft of this column but the editor of this publication, Attorney Jonathan Einhorn, is responsible for deleting their names. They are encouraged to direct their complaints directly to him.]

Judges aren’t the only ones who can make others look good. There is a flipside to this coin. Lawyers, too, share a responsibility. Judges coming up for reappointment are often threatened with questions from legislators about specific decisions made or opinions rendered, of times years ago. When trial judges are faced with difficult decisions — a sensitive Accelerated Rehabilitation application, sensitive custody cases, or controversial search issues — lawyers on the winning side have an obligation to provide a strong record to support and justify the judge’s actions. If lawyers claim entitlement to verbal bouquets in the interests of making clients happy, judges justifiably can expect to be provided with a record strong enough to protect them from the Monday-morning quarterbacking of legislators from North Bozrah or East Bolton when they appear for reappointment and are threatened with possibly losing a pension, a job and a parking space because of a decision made six years ago and now forgotten.

Prosecutors fall into this category as well. Often holding all the cards, they have the power to make things run smoothly. Unfortunately, in their zeal to extract pleas and impose punishment, some prosecutors forget a case will move more easily if the defendant feels he or she has gained something—dismissal of two or three lesser charges, an extra week before incarceration, a toned-down factual basis for the plea. Good prosecutors know that a lawyer has to bring something back to the clients, even if it’s cosmetic, just to make the client feel their lawyer has gained them something. By making the lawyer look good prosecutors can get their desired result, easily and at no cost.

Perception, as they say, is reality. It’s often not so much what is as what it appears to be.