Every year, the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA) publishes a top 10 list of what it calls “Judicial Hellholes.” As the ATRA describes them, these courts “have been considered places where judges systematically apply laws and court procedures in an unfair and unbalanced manner, generally against defendants in civil lawsuits.” If you believe the lists, these jurisdictions are the worst of the worst—places where trial lawyers allegedly finance judges and where populist juries won’t give defendant corporations a snowball’s chance in hell of winning a case.
For the past two years running, the Complex Litigation Center of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas has topped the ATRA’s list. But as someone who has spent most of his career living and practicing in Philadelphia, my perspective on this so-called “hellhole” is different. Although some of you may pity me for suffering the horrible fate of working in such a place, just know that Philadelphia is not bad at all; in fact, it’s a great place to practice law. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the hellhole distinction is more myth than reality. Take it from someone who’s practiced there.
So with that in mind, here’s how to use the Philadelphia court’s efficiency to your advantage:
- Do not file reflexive motions to dismiss and obtain summary judgment. Seek an early judicial assessment of your claim’s or your adversary’s claim only if you are confident it will succeed. Sometimes, the first reaction is to file preliminary objections, our equivalent of a motion to dismiss. This can be a mistake. Losing an early assessment strengthens your adversary's case. At the very least, it gives them confidence and increases the chances that they’ll keep fighting until the final verdict has been rendered.
- Setting an early trial date may be seen as a disadvantage to some, but by committing to an early date, you communicate strength to opposing counsel, which may encourage settlement. It also helps to set a deadline for pre-trial activity if the case does go to trial. This way it won’t drag on for multiple presidential terms. Defendants should want enough time to properly prepare their case, but not so much that they are burdened with unnecessary and disadvantageous costs.
- Pursue limitations on discovery, including limits on the number of interrogatories, document requests and depositions. Every deposition drives up legal expenses. Deep-pocketed defendants may be inclined to abuse their financial advantage and wear their opponents down into submission. This strategy ignores the fact that many plaintiffs possess strong convictions and a willingness to prove they’re right, regardless of costs. Coupled with lawyers working on a contingency basis, the “discover them to death” approach can easily backfire.
- Early judicial intervention can be a benefit. You have to pick your issues, but, by involving the court on as frequent a basis as necessary, you minimize the chances that you will not be ready for trial when the trial date arrives. You don’t do yourselves any favors with judges by dragging out discovery. Working through discovery in an efficient manner shows the bench you’re working with them, not against them.
- Prepare for trial, not for settlement. By employing this strategy, you actually improve your chances of not going to trial. The more polished the case you bring to the courthouse steps, the more likely you’ll settle on those steps. Come prepared to go to trial, and you may find yourself pleasantly surprised by a settlement.
- If the case goes to trial, be efficient there, too. Don’t underestimate the power of getting to the point. Most jurors just want to go home. Be open and honest while understanding unnecessary details won’t endear you to the jury and won’t help the argument you’re trying to make. Follow a rule that all public speakers live by (or should): Tell them what you’re going to say, say it, and then tell them what you said. Nothing more.