[Editor’s Note: SPW Legal Editor Tiffany Comprés, who practices with the renowned international produce trade law firm, Sandler, Travis & Rosenberg, P.A in Miami, writes regularly about produce law matters. Feel free to send questions for a private or public reply here]
Understanding the role and importance of local counsel in a legal dispute is especially critical to optimize the chances of success in any legal dispute that is not in your hometown. Most of you are dealing with buyers and sellers in different cities, states, and even countries, so this is particularly applicable to you.
First things first: What is local counsel? Local counsel is an attorney that is physically present and practices currently and continuously in a particular city. Local counsel knows the ins and outs of that city’s legal system, the players, and the local customs.
Why is this important? Wouldn’t it be better to have your regular attorney handle the issue, and save the money and time it will take to get a new attorney “up to speed”?
In many jurisdictions, such as California, attorneys that are not barred in California can only appear in California state and federal courts if they work with an attorney who is barred in California. That California attorney is also required to “appear” in the case and often has sole authority to file documents with the court.
Local Counsel Provides That Little Something Extra
Beyond that, you want local counsel on your case. For example, I recently had a case in which a client needed to enforce an international arbitration award in the United States and collect on it against the U.S. defendant. We needed to file the case in New Jersey for several reasons, including because that’s where the defendant’s assets were located. Even though I am not barred in New Jersey, the client wanted me to handle the case because they trust my work.
Still, I needed local counsel under New Jersey rules. Local counsel helped us make sure we didn’t run afoul of the detailed (and not always obvious) local rules, as he knew all them all. It would have cost my client much more to have me read all the rules carefully to make sure we were compliant (rules like font size, names of briefings, deadlines, available remedies, for example, can all vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction).
The judge on our case knew him and held him in high regard, and he, in turn, knew all the judge’s idiosyncrasies, pet peeves, and preferences, which allowed us to be more persuasive because we could tailor our argument to this particular judge.
So How Do You Choose Good Local Counsel?
We won, and local counsel played a huge role in that win. He was my teammate, and he always had my back.
So how do you go about selecting good local counsel? Trust your attorney, since s/he will be working closely with local counsel and should have a good working relationship him/her.
Aside from the obvious (knowing the legal culture and rules in their city very well), local counsel should be someone who understands that the role may not be to spearhead the case, which can result in too many cooks in the kitchen, power struggles, and overblown bills.
Make sure the scope of responsibility is clearly stated in the engagement agreement, as the ethics rules governing attorneys make every attorney equally responsible otherwise, which can encourage unnecessary billing in an effort to avoid liability. Lead counsel and local counsel must discuss and resolve numerous practical issues, such as:
Who will respond to court notices and orders? Who will communicate with the client and draft pleadings? What procedure will be in place for local counsel to review drafts of proposed filings, and who will do research on issues as they arise? Much of this will depend on the case – if the case depends heavily on state law, then local counsel may play a larger role. If the case relies mostly on federal law, local counsel’s focus may be on the procedural level.
Remember that generally there is a finite amount of work to be done on a case, and sometimes it is more effective and less expensive to have different attorneys handling aspects within their respective areas of expertise than one attorney handling all of it, even aspects with which she has little experience.
[This column is published for the purposes of providing a general understanding of the law. It is in no way a substitute for individual legal consultation and anyone with a legal problem should not rely on these answers but should instead consult their attorney. If you have a legal problem and do not know an attorney, call your local Bar Association’s Lawyer Referral Service.]