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Archive for March, 2011

In defense of old cats

I am a supporter of the No Kill movement, even if I have on occasion been a critic.  I nevertheless wholeheartedly support the goal of ending all needless killing of animals in shelters (a good summary of the definition of “No Kill” is here, and an interesting critique of the very concept of “No Kill” is here.)

Zeta goes for a rideI’ve lost a pet before, and I’ve had the experience of having to give up a pet as well (an experience I will write about some day when I’m ready.)  I’ve also had the experience of adopting an amazing, wonderful shelter animal, who is with me today.  So I am troubled beyond words by a Craigslist posting from yesterday entitled “need vet who will put my pets to sleep”:

I have 5 older cats. My house is being forclosed, long story. Is there a vet anywhere who will simply put the cats to sleep for me? I don’t want to take them to the shelter where they will be put to sleep because of their age.

In the event the posting is taken down, I saved a screenshot:

I wish it could go without saying that convenience is not a good reason to put pets “to sleep” (a passive-aggressive phrasing if ever there was one.)  I suppose I could understand a desire to not put a pet through the stress of going to a shelter at all, but I do not find that convincing.  There is no indication that these cats are sick or suffering; they’re just older than the owner thinks is preferable to prospective adopters.  I don’t know how much effort the owner has put into seeking out other adoption or foster possibilities, but I know euthanasia ought to be a last resort used sometime after never.

This is not a legal issue for me so much as an ethical or moral one.  The state of animal law is still such that animals are treated as personal property, even though they are protected by animal cruelty laws.  An owner of a pet still has certain life and death power.  I sincerely hope that we can come to a point where no one would ever even consider euthanizing an animal solely for want of a place to send it.  At least one example shows that any kind of dog or cat could find a loving home: the story of Ashley Owen Hill and Annie is a powerful testament to hope for all pets:

Annie had never known happiness. She had been beaten, neglected, and starved all of her life, and then she was dumped at a shelter to die. Annie waited on death row, terrified and lonely, crying every night for someone to help her. She was very ill, and the pound asked if I was willing to take her. Yep, I’m on my way.

[snip]

When I saw Annie, it was obvious that she was very sick. She was underweight, coughing, and having trouble breathing, in addition to skin and eye issues. The vet told me that Annie had advanced heartworm disease, congestive heart failure, and several other severe medical conditions. It was highly unlikely that she would pull through any of the treatments, and she would suffer tremendously throughout the process. The vet asked me if I wanted to go ahead with euthanasia. “No. I’ll bring her back next week. Before she goes to Heaven, she needs to know love.”

[snip]

That week, Annie slept in the bed with me. She ate the best food. She played as much as her little heart could stand. She laid next to me on the couch for belly rubs. She laughed at funny movies with me. That week, Annie was special. That week, Annie was home, for the first time in her life.

[snip]

I buried Annie in my backyard next to Rudy. She died on September 14, 2010. But the week before her death, she finally lived.

It is worth it to read that whole post.  Now everyone get out there and give an animal a home.

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Tips for legal job seekers (from a guy who isn’t hiring)

The job market for lawyers and recent law school graduates is, how shall I say it, poo right now.  I’m not certain it is going to rise above the level of poo any time in the near future.  Sure, some New Big Thing will come along, form a bubble, and lots of lawyers will get jobs in IPO real estate Next Big Thing Law for a while, until that bubble bursts, and then, poo again.  Still, law can be a rewarding career if you’re either resourceful or lucky (or both).  Part of being resourceful is going beyond normal job postings and selling yourself, but unfortunately that also includes the scourge of unsolicited résumés.

I rather like young lawyers, with their enthusiasm, “can do” attitudes and extraordinarily flexible work schedules.  That said, I am not, have never been, and do not anticipate ever being in a position where I need to hire associates.  Okay, I actually might need some lawyers on board with me in the future, but please don’t base your plans around me.  The number has actually slowed down in the past year, but I have been the recipient of a great many unsolicited cover letters and résumés, printed on bond or linen paper and mailed, as though the internet never happened.  Jay Shepherd at Above the Law takes on this phenomenon, asking “Does anyone seriously think that I’m going take them more seriously because they used cream-colored, 100% cloth, 24-pound bond paper? I’m not.”  He offers eleven tips for would-be applicants’ cover letters, and since imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, here are the highlights:

1. Spell my frikkin’ name right.
2. Don’t say “Enclosed please find my current résumé.”
3. Don’t tell me how great you are.
4. Instead, tell me how great it would be for you to work here.
5. Make sure you know what I do for a living.
6. Speaking of which, mention something you learned when you Googled me.
7. I know what you did last summer.
8. Ignore well-meaning but dumb advice from your law school.
9. Don’t recite your résumé in your cover letter.
10. Tell me how you’re different.
11. Finally, write like yourself.

If you can master those items, you are well on your way to, uh, something.  Like I’ve said, I have never hired an attorney at my firm.  If I start getting some good cover letters, though, who knows?

So with all that said, to all prospective associates of the Law Office of David C. Wells out there who might have Googled this page, I am eager to be impressed.  To anyone who has applied for a job at my firm in the past, I kept all of your letters.  Really.

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Two things you should know about divorce (part 2)

Last week, I talked about the first of two things you should know about divorce: that a divorce is a lawsuit just like any other lawsuit, with lawyers, judges, document review and (if you’re on television) dramatic background music. Now let’s move on to the second thing you should understand about divorce: that it is unlike any other kind of lawsuit under the sun.

2. A divorce is nothing like a lawsuit

In a typical civil lawsuit, after a trial there is a clear winner and loser: person A sues person B for breaching a contract, and the jury finds for person A and awards him/her damages. In a suit for divorce and/or child custody, there are too many issues and too many “shades of gray” for a simple winner/loser analogy. Suppose a wife and mother “wins” custody of her children, but the husband/father is ordered to pay ½ the amount of child support that she had requested? Suppose each spouse wants the house awarded to them, and a judge orders the house sold and the proceeds split 50/50?

When filing a lawsuit, a lawyer (or plaintiff) must state claims for which a court is allowed to provide a remedy—this could include breach of contract, negligence, assault & battery , and so on. A divorce suit can include claims such as these, such as fraud or assault, but most of the time they present completely different sorts of questions: how to divide the assets (made even more complicated in community property states like Texas), and how to deal with the task of parenting children post-divorce. These issues are very different from those found in any other type of lawsuit.

Another difference involves the parties to the suit themselves—in a suit for, say assault & battery, once the lawsuit is resolved, it is unlikely that the two parties would want anything to do with each other, and there is often no reason to think they would need to see one another again. After a divorce, it may be inevitable that the now-ex-spouses will continue to see one another for some time, especially if there are children involved. If parents of an infant go through a nasty divorce, they still have 18 or more years of interacting with one another in order to raise the child (this of course assumes both parents want a role in raising the child, but courts usually don’t give a parent an out on this issue, and I like to believe that parents will stick around for their kids in some form or another.) The sort of animosity usually developed in a lawsuit does not serve the parties to a divorce well.
In many, but not all, non-divorce lawsuits, a court is being asked to make a decision based on past events, reviewing whether one party is entitled to compensation in some form for a past act. Divorce undoubtedly involves acts and events from the past, but there is a key component that solely involves the future—in particular, the future of the spouses’ care for the child(ren). By taking a divorce and/or child custody dispute before a judge, spouses/parents are asking a stranger, who has never met these people before and may never see them again, to make decisions affecting huge parts of their lives and their child(ren)’s lives. My particular county, Travis County, Texas, has a central docket system , meaning that you may not know for certain who your judge will be until the day of your trial. It is one thing to ask a judge you have never met to decide whether events occurring a year ago constitute a breach of contract. It is quite another thing to ask that judge to decide how best to handle your child’s future summer vacations.

So how can a divorce be handled differently?

I am not arguing that every divorce case should be handled outside of the litigation model. For example, cases of abuse, fraud, or extreme emotional volatility are best handled within the court system.

For many divorcing spouses, there is a better way.

Collaborative law allows spouses to work out the issues of a divorce in an environment specifically designed to facilitate communication, as opposed to the lawsuit environment. Even in a mediation or settlement conference in a regular divorce lawsuit, the implicit threat of a court hearing is always just below the surface. Collaborative law involves a commitment to conflict resolution—only the spouses and the professionals they have chosen to assist them are involved in the process. Ideally, by the end of the divorce itself, the spouses can still work together on any matters requiring their attention, most obviously their children.

Make no mistake: divorce is an unhappy, emotional process. In the absence of serious conflict, it does not have to be war.

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The University of Texas climbs the law school rankings!!!

Via Above the Law, the new U.S. News Law School rankings for 2012 have been released.  While this would normally hold no interest whatsoever for me, it is worth noting that the University of Texas School of Law is ranked #14, up from #15 last year.  This puts UT Law in the famed “Top 14″ law schools (why the key number is 14 is completely beyond me.)  Whether this increases the market value of my law degree or simply affords me bragging rights remains to be seen.

University of Texas logo, fair use

I just wanted to take a moment, as a proud UT Law School alumnus, to cheer or gloat or whatever.  Everything I learned about being a lawyer I learned…uh, in Austin after law school, but I got a good start at UT Law.  Plus, I met some great people and got a nifty diploma.

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Civility, the Lawyer Way

Lawyerist has a good post on the importance of nipping personality conflicts in the bud before they turn into something uglier.

Even if you make every effort to be a polite and civil attorney, the legal profession makes it easy to have combustible relationships with opposing counsel and even other attorneys in your office.

The next time you find yourself cursing your sworn enemy, douse the fire instead of fanning the flames.

Lawyerist offers two main pieces of advice: “Make an effort to get to know the person,” and “Tackle the conflict head on.” The key concept here is communication, something sadly lacking in the way most people, uh, communicate. With the zeitgeist favoring greater civility, perhaps now is the time to tackle the issue of communication head on.

By “communication,” I mean open and honest exchange of ideas, emotions, and desires. This is something that the family lawyer is very, very familiar with. In divorce, emotions are high, and as a result, communication is often low. It may be difficult to express one’s objectives in the face of blinding rage–that should be the time for the lawyer to help foster communication, not fan the angry flames. A lawyer cannot help a client if the lawyer does not know what the client wants, and the client cannot tell the lawyer what he or she wants if the client doesn’t really know.

By tackling the communication issue, a lawyer can help a client save quite a bit of time that might have been lost to ultimately fruitless fighting or litigating. A lawyer can help a client in a divorce pare down the issues to whatever is really important to the client. Divorce is messy, but it does not have to be a hostage to the emotions of the spouses. Communication can ensure a productive relationship between the lawyer and the client, and even between the divorcing spouses.

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Two things you should know about divorce (part 1)

Divorce carries many questions with it: Where am I going to live? How am I going to pay my bills? What’s going to happen to the kids? Who is going to get the [insert asset here]? This is a widely-known and much-discussed aspect of divorce in our culture. Less frequently discussed, or even acknowledged, is that divorce carries many assumptions with it as well: that it is a nasty and brutish process; that it is unpredictable and painful, that it must result in at least one (ex-)spouse being “defeated.” The truth is that none of the assumptions often associated with divorce are inevitable, but in order to avoid many of the worst aspects of the divorce process, there are two fundamental truths you must understand: first, that a divorce is a lawsuit just like any other type of dispute taken to court; and second, that a divorce is nothing like any other dispute seen in a courthouse.

1. A divorce is a lawsuit

I can only authoritatively speak for divorce in the state of Texas, but any where in the United States a divorce is filed like a lawsuit in your local courthouse. In Texas, a divorce case is titled “In the Matter of the Marriage of [Spouse] and [Spouse].” If there are minor children, you tack on “and in the Interest of [Child], [Child], and [Child, etc.], Children.” Some states may even title divorce cases as “[Spouse] versus [Spouse]” the same way a lawsuit arising from a breach of contract or a car accident might be titled.

Once a divorce suit is filed, the spouse filing the suit must have the papers served on the other spouse, who is now the opposing party to a lawsuit. This could be done peacefully, by the other spouse simply signing a waiver acknowledging that they received the divorce papers, but it is often done through delivery of the court paperwork by a process server or a uniformed constable or sheriff. Receiving divorce papers from a uniformed (and often armed) official is rarely a way to begin a rational process of negotiation.

Each spouse may have an attorney or not, but once the suit is filed and service is accomplished, the process of discovery begins. Again, the same rules that govern other civil disputes apply here. If one spouse wants to know what the other spouse has in the bank, they must formally request that information through the discovery process. A party can object to a request as being too broad or too burdensome, or for being irrelevant to the issues of the case. Time that could be spent constructively preparing for post-divorce life could be spent fighting over access to information. Spouses can conduct depositions of possible witnesses, including the other spouse, which are rarely a pleasant experience. If custody of the children is an issue in the divorce, the children will inevitably be drawn into the fight during this stage.

If the spouses can’t agree to a settlement, or if they try to mediate the case but are not successful in resolving some or all of the issues, then there will eventually be a trial . This could be a trial before a judge or a jury, with all the trapping of a courtroom adventure: arguments, examinations, cross-examinations, finger-pointing, and so forth. At the end of the trial, there will be a ruling or judgment, with orders covering each of the issues presented to the court. Unless there is some ground for appeal, the now ex-spouses will be bound by the final divorce decree, just like a verdict or ruling in any other trial.

At this point, it is worth asking how the many issues presented in the course of a divorce can be made to fit into the mold of a civil lawsuit. The simple answer is that they cannot, at least not in a way that allows divorcing spouses to easily move on with their lives. This brings us to the second truth about divorce (TO BE CONTINUED…)

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I indirectly make it into Above the Law…

I notified the good people at Above the Law of my last posting, and they have forwarded it on to the internet at large. Undoubtedly this is part of my fifteen minutes.

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Prima donas [sic] need not apply

I am always intrigued by trends in legal hiring. A new Austin law office has provided some entertainment in a new job posting via Craig’s List (h/t to the O’Brien Law Firm):

PLEASE DO NOT APPLY IF:
YOU THINK YOU DESERVE A BIG CORNER WINDOW OFFICE OVERLOOKING THE CITY.
YOU THINK YOU DESERVE $100K AS YOUR STARTING SALARY
YOU ARE NOT INTERESTED IN LITIGATING
YOU HAVE HORRIBLE PEOPLE SKILLS OR THINK THAT SAYING HELLO CONSTITUTES A CONVERSATION
YOU MUST WEAR A SUIT EVERY DAY TO FEEL SPECIAL
YOU REQUIRE 24 HOUR SUPERVISION ON ALL TASKS ASSIGNED
YOUR IDEA OF PROPER GRAMMAR IS SPELL CHECK
YOUR IDEA OF BEING ON TIME IS GETTING THERE WHEN YOU FEEL LIKE GETTING THERE
YOU THINK YOU ARE ABOVE ANSWERING THE OFFICE PHONE
YOU THINK A PLEADING IS WHEN SOMEONE IS BEGGING THEIR DOCTOR NOT TO INJECT THEM WITH A NEEDLE

I wish them all the best in their entry into the Austin market, and in their hiring process. I also wish them all the best with a spell checker.

In case the ad gets taken down, I preserved it for posterity.

Lawyer ad part 1 of 2

Lawyer ad part 2 of 2

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