Why Some Lawyers and Their Clients are Reluctant to Engage Appellate Counsel, Part 2: “It’s Just Litigation.”

(NOTE: This post is the second in a series. To read the announcement of the series and/or leave your ideas for subsequent installments, click here.)

In my first post in this series, I broke down lawyers’ reasons for not engaging appellate counsel into two broad categories: those related to ability and those related to economics. Today, we will examine a reason related to ability:

It’s just litigation”, or “Hey, I’m a litigator, and appeals are litigation, so I can do it.

Are appeals litigation?  Well, let’s see.  Adverse parties?  Check.  Legal and/or factual disputes?  Check.  Courtroom and judges?  Check.  Judgments?  Check.  Yeah, I’d say that appeals are litigation.

That said, they are a continuation of litigation, and with crossing the boundary from trial court to court of appeal, the parties and their attorneys enter a new realm.  That realm has multiple judges hearing the same case, no juries, no discovery, few motions, and an emphasis on persuasive writing that is rivaled in the trial court only on dispositive motions.

As I  noted in my first post, many lawyers are comfortable, and  quite able, on both sides of the divide.  Neither this post nor any other in the series is meant to deride the skills of trial lawyers.

But there are pitfalls that await the lawyer who assumes appellate practice is no different than trial practice.  Perhaps the biggest is the standard of review.

Pitfalls in the Standard of Review.

The trial lawyer entering the appellate landscape for the first time may have difficulty navigating through it.  That can result in wasting time (and, for the client, hourly fees) on useless activities or argument, even a failure to even recognize the burden he or she faces on appeal.

One such useless exercise in the court of appeal that happens with shocking regularity is to argue to the court as if the three justices are a jury: this witness is believable, this one is not; that evidence should be disregarded; the other side’s story makes no sense, etc.  How do I know this happens?  I’ve talked to a couple of appellate justices — not a large enough sample to be of statistical significance, admittedly — who told me this happens regularly. Not necessarily frequently, but regularly.

This approach betrays the lawyer’s lack of familiarity with the most fundamental brick in the appellate arsenal: the standard of review.  Which is why I was so stunned by the justices’ revelations, even though I have seen appellant’s briefs that didn’t even mention the standard of review.  (Occasionally, you might even see a court neglect to state it!)

Simply put, an appeal isn’t your second chance to try the case.  It’s merely an opportunity to convince the court of appeal that the trial court erred and that the error prejudiced your client.

Of course, the evidence in the trial court can come into play in the court of appeal, just in a different way (usually).  But even in cases of substantial evidence review — in which the court of appeal will reverse if there is no substantial evidence to support a finding required by the judgment — persuasion based on credibility is generally out of place.

What’s more, unfamiliarity with the standards of review on appeal might cause a lawyer to miss good arguments entirely.  An undue concentration on the evidence produced at trial may lead the trial attorney to miss important issues preserved for appeal on a less deferential standard of review, and thus presenting a greater chance of success on appeal.  Is there a legal issue you’ve missed because you are so wound up in the presentation of evidence at trial?  If so, you’ve missed an opportunity to obtain “de novo” review, under which the court gives no deference to the trial court — your best shot at success.  In fact, that legal issue may be hidden within a more deferential standard — whether the trial court abused its discretion, or whether substantial evidence supports the judgment, may in turn rely on a question of law subject to de novo review.

Simply put, the simplicity of the standard of review structure — de novo review, abuse of discretion, and substantial evidence — masks a lot of nuance not readily discernible to someone unfamiliar with appellate practice.  It’s far more than a “smell test”.  Indeed, parties regularly argue over the applicable standard, either because the nature of the issue is misleading or because the applicable standard for a given judgment has not been established (such as here, here, or here, for example).  If it were really simple all the time, would there be a book on the subject?

I haven’t discussed some other pitfalls, mostly for the sake of brevity (if you can call this post brief).  Perhaps I will give this particular reason for not engaging appellate counsel — “it’s just litigation” — a few more posts of its own.

Preferences.

Finally, the trial lawyer may find that he or she simply does not like the appellate process.  As I noted in my first post:

Some trial lawyers just plain don’t like doing appeals.  For some, it may be because appeals lack everything they like about litigation: frequent confrontation, lots of court appearances, sleuthing through discovery, and lots of twists and turns.  Appellate practice usually isn’t a hotbed of excitement.

If your strengths lie in frequent confrontation, then maybe apeals aren’t for you, either as a matter of preference or a matter of skill set.  (This is especially true if you don’t like spending time in the law library or writing, but I’ll address that preference in a future post.)

The Client’s Perspective.

The client consideration that parallels the lawyer’s belief that “it’s just litigation” is really an absence of consideration.  That is, many clients may see no difference at all between their trial court action and the appeal.  The client is only likely to note the differences if the lawyer points them out.  And if the lawyer doesn’t see them, the lawyer cannot point them out.  Under these circumstances, the only time many clients are likely to seek an appellate attorney is if the client is genuinely displeased with the trial lawyer’s services.

However, I think this situation is changing over time.  I suspect that clients, like all consumers, are becoming more and more knowledgeable all the time about the services they receive.  The inquiries I receive from lay readers of my blog tell me that clients are learning that there is a difference between trial work and appellate work.

Clients almost always want a specialist when one is available.  An employment discrimination plaintiff doesn’t seek a personal injury lawyer when a plaintiff’s employment lawyer is available.  Over time, I expect more and more clients will seek new representation on appeal, and won’t need their trial lawyers to put them on notice of the differences between trial and appellate work.  They will challenge their trial lawyers’ unspoken assumption that the trial lawyer is always the right person to handle the appeal.

(NOTE: To access all posts in this series to date, click here.  Finally, allow me to again solicit your participation.  If you’d like to offer a topic for a post in this series, leave your comment in this post or, preferably, in the post announcing this series.  And don’t hesitate to repeat a topic someone has already left.  That will tell me there is greater interest in that topic.)

Client parallel: unawareness of appellate specialization

8 Responses to Why Some Lawyers and Their Clients are Reluctant to Engage Appellate Counsel, Part 2: “It’s Just Litigation.”
  1. Joe
    September 24, 2008 | 7:24 am

    I think part of the challenge is that litigators often believe that they can handle any form of litigation, whether it’s healthcare, intellectual property, entertainment, etc. The legal world is increasingly specialized, and litigators of all types must come to grip with that fact, whether civil or criminal.

  2. klerk
    September 27, 2008 | 8:44 pm

    The Ninth Circuit makes a standards of review outline publically available here.

  3. Buffalo New York Lawyers
    September 30, 2008 | 5:10 am

    As a partner in a general practice firm, I can attest to your statement that “Clients almost always want a specialist when one is available”.

  4. D. Todd Smith
    October 8, 2008 | 6:10 am

    I’d like to add something to the discussion, In my view, an appellate specialist brings three things to the table that trial lawyers and their counsel don’t always appreciate fully:

    1. knowledge of and familiarity with the appellate-court system, rules, and players;

    2. special training and skill in the art of written and oral appellate advocacy; and

    3. a dispassionate, neutral viewpoint helpful to an honest evaluation of the case.

    These factors can add tremendous value and, when the outcome could go either way, bolster the chances of success.

  5. Greg May
    October 8, 2008 | 12:03 pm

    Todd,

    No doubt about it, those are the “Big 3.”

    You’ll notice as the series progresses that I am tackling them in smaller chunks. The above post really covers just one facet of your #1. Next week’s installment will cover another facet of your #1: the trial lawyer’s sense that the case requires an expert in the substantive area of the law at issue.

    As you probably already know, this week’s post is related to your #3.

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