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Lawyers take legal debates online
Headline News | 2007/01/07 18:38

Retired judge Stan Billingsley pores through news accounts daily to find the law behind the story. He's part of a new and growing medium that hopes to fill a gap in news coverage and encourage discussion of the law: legal blogs.

Last week, after studying case law and interviewing the lawyer for the Executive Branch Ethics Commission, Billingsley concluded on news.lawreader.com that the commission has no legal basis to continue legal proceedings against Dan Druen in light of Gov. Ernie Fletcher's pardon of him in the merit hiring investigation.

He's previously defended Chief Justice Joseph Lambert for writing a controversial footnote to a Supreme Court opinion and blasted a Western Kentucky judge for jailing illegal immigrants.

"We look at the law behind the issues," Billingsley said. "We are certainly not partisan in respect to political philosophy, but we do have the driving concept of, 'If you're going to state the law, state it correctly.'"

At least six Kentucky law blogs, or blawgs, have emerged in the last two years, regularly posting digests of court decisions, analyses of statutes and dissections of legal theories. Others are popping up around the country and internationally.

They provide online the kind of in-depth, regular legal analysis usually available only in limited-access media.

Blawggers say they also are motivated by loftier ambitions of improving their profession. Three Kentucky blawggers who were recently interviewed say that what they do is an extension of what civic-minded lawyers have always done: encourage a scholarly discussion of the law.

But now that debate occurs daily rather than in periodicals and journals.

Blawggers have attempted to distinguish themselves from their partisan political counterparts. Louisville personal-injury lawyer Michael Stevens, who publishes kentuckylawblog.com, recently wrote that he doesn't want to be called a blogger anymore because of the baggage associated with it.

Blogs, short for Web logs, are online diaries or journals that allow readers to respond to and comment on the writer's posts.

Blawgs mostly are geared toward lawyers and not a general audience -- unless, say, you have a strange fascination with the intricacies of divorce law. For that, go to Divorce Law Journal at http:// louisvilledivorce.typepad.com.

Billingsley started his free blog to drive traffic to his commercial Web site, lawreader.com, an online law library. It has a search engine for Kentucky's laws and rules of evidence, synopses of appeals court cases and examples of jury instructions, pleadings and other documents commonly filed by attorneys.

"We get the same comment time after time: 'Now I can compete with the big firms,'" Billingsley said. "A single practitioner cannot afford to maintain a big law library."

The Web site saves lawyers time, not to mention inconvenient trips to Frankfort, he said.

The local blawgs are generally light on political commentary, though they do analyze and digest court decisions. They've also defended judges who they say have been criticized unfairly.

"We are doing this for the love of the profession," said Diana Skaggs, who publishes Divorce Law Journal. "We are all aware of the undermining of the public confidence in the judiciary. We see the need for public confidence in our judiciary, and we have an excellent judiciary."

Billingsley defended Lambert last summer for tucking into an unrelated ruling a footnote that said the governor enjoys absolute immunity and may face prosecution only if impeached first. Billingsley disagreed with the footnote but said it's common for judges to comment on legal matters that are not directly related to the case at hand.

The blawggers frequently analyze the law behind major news stories. Billingsley, for example, posted Kentucky cases involving the Bible in the courtroom after a Mississippi jury consulted a Bible while deliberating whether to give the death penalty to a woman who murdered her husband.

Stevens links to court stories across the state -- appeals, court decisions and other law related news such as forums and local bar events. He says his site fills a void left by state bar publications that publish only monthly or quarterly.

"I enjoy thinking about the law, writing about the law and sharing this information with other lawyers," he said.

Blawgs have generated some controversy among those concerned that they constitute lawyer advertising, which is regulated by state bar associations. Lawyers are required to submit advertisements to the Kentucky Bar Association for review and pay a $50 fee, leading to initial fears that blawggers would have to pay $50 per post.

The bar's advertising commission has ruled that is not necessary, but it does require lawyer bloggers to register their "about" pages, which typically contain biographies and links to law firm Web sites.

Robert L. Elliott, a Lexington lawyer who is on the advertising commission, said law blogs "are kind of a new game in town." He said the bar has not yet developed hard rules for how to handle them.

Law blogs are not necessarily lawyer advertising, depending on their content, he said. But Elliott said some blawgs do appear to be nothing more than advertisements, though he declined to point to specific sites.

Lexington lawyer Benjamin Cowgill, who publishes Legal Ethics Newsletter at legalethics.info, said law blogs have no more ethical issues than lawyer Web sites. Cowgill's site triggered the bar association's review of its advertising regulations.

Cowgill says if Thomas Jefferson were alive today, he'd be a blawgger.

"He would be thrilled to live at a time when it is possible to share information with interested people throughout the world, simply by sitting down at his desk and writing at a keyboard," Cowgill wrote in an e-mail.



Bi-coastal U.S. law firm merger off
Headline News | 2007/01/06 01:13

A bi-coastal U.S. law firm merger that would have created a 1,200-lawyer national firm with annual revenue of $1 billion has been called off, the firms say.

Dewey Ballantine of New York and San Francisco`s Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe called off the merger less than three months after the firms` executive committees backed the combination, The American Lawyer reported.

Since the initial agreement, a number of 'significant challenges' arose, the firms said. Adding to the strain, more than 10 Dewey partners left, though not all departures were merger-related, the American Lawyer said.

A former partner attributed the breakdown of the merger to a leak early in the discussions between the two firms.

The combined firm, whose name would have been Dewey Orrick, would have ranked among the 10 largest law firms in the United States.



U.S. law firm again at center of big CEO payout
Headline News | 2007/01/03 21:49

Law firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz is again at the center of a massive and controversial CEO payout, representing the board of Home Depot Inc.that gave its departing boss a $210 million goodbye.

Wachtell's work for Home Depot marks the third time in recent years that it gave advice to boards during other large payout controversies, including executive ousters at Morgan Stanley and the New York Stock Exchange.

Home Depot confirmed Wachtell is representing its board. Wachtell, a respected New York city corporate law firm led by prominent takeover attorney Martin Lipton, did not respond to a call seeking comment on Home Depot.

The home improvement retailer said on Wednesday that Chairman and Chief Executive Robert Nardelli had resigned after a year of heavy criticism of the company's underperformance and Nardelli's pay package. The company also found past problems with its stock option grants.

Nardelli's $210 million exit package sparked widespread criticism and thrust Wachtell back in the CEO pay spotlight.

Martin Lipton was also chairman of the legal-advisory committee of the NYSE, where former Chairman Richard Grasso was forced out in 2003 after a furor over his $187.5 million pay package.



Many Californians handle their own divorces
Headline News | 2006/12/31 20:58

Rising legal fees, fewer legal aid services and a do-it-yourself mentality are driving more Californians to handle their own divorces, but sometimes not very successfully.

Court officials and legal experts worry that tens of thousands of former California couples don't realize their divorces weren't finalized after they tried to end their marriages. Many more, officials say, simply let their cases languish because they're stumped by complex paperwork and court procedures.

"People just don't get it done. They don't know how to get it done," said L.A. County Superior Court Judge Mark Juhas. "That's troubling. There are legal ramifications to continuing to be married."

About 80 percent of people in California who file for divorce handle their own paperwork, according to court officials. It's estimated that about a third of all petitions have not been finalized.

Richard Zorza, who coordinates a national network of organizations working on self-representation, said one reason people are increasingly handling their own civil court matters is rising lawyer fees.

He also blamed decreasing legal aid services for poor people, and a "Home Depot philosophy of people feeling they can do things on their own."

But the legal system, Zorza said, is complex and shouldn't be navigated by people without legal training.

In San Diego County, one of the few counties where statistics are available, 46 percent of people represented themselves in divorces in 1992; by 2000 that figure had climbed to 77 percent.

At a legal services center in Van Nuys, Calif., officials say they see 20 people a month who incorrectly thought they were divorced.

"They come in screaming," said Norma Valencia, a paralegal at the center operated by Neighborhood Legal Services. "They say, 'You don't understand my situation. I want a divorce right now.'"

Other couple have showed up weeping that they've remarried without a completed divorce and they're afraid to tell their new spouses.

Getting divorced in California requires filing divorce papers, serving them on the spouse and then writing and processing a judgment with the court. A divorce cannot become final until at least six months after the date the papers are served.

Juhas has tried to tackle the problem of divorces that haven't gone through by calling about 100 people a month and asking them if they need help.

About 10 percent say they've reconciled, and about 30 percent ignore him. But more than half want to be divorced but need help, he said.

Court officials also have launched self-help programs so people can get divorced.



SEC Announces Administrative Judge McEwen To Retire
Headline News | 2006/12/29 20:24

Administrative Law Judge Lillian A. McEwen has announced that she is retiring from her position with the SEC, effective Jan. 3, 2007. Since her appointment in September 1995, Judge McEwen has presided over, and issued initial decisions in, scores of administrative proceedings brought by the SEC’s Division of Enforcement. She also served on multiple occasions as the SEC delegate to the Federal Administrative Law Judges Conference and was a founding member of Judicial Council, which is affiliated with the Washington Bar Association.

Prior to her appointment to the SEC, Judge McEwen served as an administrative law judge with the Social Security Administration in Fresno, Calif., from July 1994 to March 1995, at which time she was promoted to Hearing Office Chief Administrative Law Judge in New Haven, Conn. Judge McEwen began her legal career in 1975 as an Assistant United States Attorney in Washington, D.C. From 1979 to 1982, she was counsel to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, where she worked extensively with Senator Joseph R. Biden, Jr., on criminal forfeiture and racketeering legislation. Judge McEwen then practiced criminal law privately from 1983 to 1989 and 1993 to 1994. During 1989 through 1992, she was an Assistant Professor of Law at the District of Columbia School of Law.



Court Reprimands Ohio Governor Over Gifts
Headline News | 2006/12/29 03:17

Governor Bob Taft (R-OH) Wednesday received a public reprimand from the Ohio Supreme Court for ethics violations stemming from charges that he received over 50 gifts worth up to $6,000 during four years in office. The reprimand will be a permanent mark on his record as an attorney, but while the justices had the option of issuing a stronger punishment in their 6-0 opinion, they cited Taft's previously clean record as a lawyer and otherwise unblemished record in public office.

In 2005, Taft pleaded no contest and was fined for the original charges, however in April of this year a disciplinary action was initiated by the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, part of the Ohio Supreme Court tasked with monitoring lawyer behavior. That office determined that Taft had violated the Ohio Code of Professional Responsibility by accepting the gifts. Taft did not seek re-election due to term limits, and is leaving office in less than 2 weeks. He has said that he would be more interested in teaching than in returning to practicing law.



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