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The dissolution of Heller Ehrman is an event that makes me quite sad. The September 2008 article in The Wall Street Journal stated one reason for the dissolution was that several major cases the firm had been working on were settled, and therefore the firm now had much less litigation work on its plate.
I really liked Heller and the people there. It was, in its time, a great firm to work for as a litigator. With this recent news, what really burns in my mind is the idea that a firm could suddenly go kaput due to cases settling.
I have been involved in litigation several times as both a litigator and as the CEO of EmploymentScape. In speaking with attorneys (outside counsel), I am always struck by how expensive they can make litigation. The work they do is often unnecessary or extraneous, and the goal of many law firms (and I say many, not all) often seems to be to get cases and start milking them for fees, until the client will no longer pay and/or the case settles. Incredibly, what seems to happen with most litigation, after discovery and motions, is the parties settle and the resulting net gains or losses from the settlement are no different than if the parties had not litigated at all.
None of this is to say I have any issue with the judicial system or law firms in general. My concern, however, is that when a law firm begun in the late 1800s like Heller Ehrman goes down the drain because cases settle, something is seriously wrong. Law firms should try to avoid unnecessary litigation and to promote settlement. Settlement is important, and it’s what clients generally prefer. Settlement does not waste valuable time and money in the way full-blown litigation can.
I am reminded of a situation many years ago, before I was in law school. I was at a high school graduation party, talking with my friend’s father, who happened to be an attorney, about a speeding ticket I’d gotten. He told me a speeding ticket was very serious, and he spent about fifteen minutes telling me all of the steps he needed to take to defend me–and then he got to the part about what his work would cost, which was more than $500. That was a good amount of money, especially in those days. I walked away from that conversation wondering what would be the better outcome for me. In the end, I paid the speeding ticket, which I think was $65. No big deal. Yet some lawyers tend to make small matters into big matters, always in search of those billable hours. This really does not suit their clients. Nor does this suit the judicial system. In watching Heller’s demise, I wondered what its failure said about the firm and the way in which many law firms do business today. I am left thinking maybe events like this will change the way we look at litigation and settlement. I think this is a good thing, though the result for Heller Ehrman was not.
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