Thursday, July 29, 2010

How Many Lawyers Does It Take to Fill a Boise Courtroom?

Posted By on Thu, Jul 29, 2010 at 3:49 PM

How to describe the MDL panel hearing?

At times it was not unlike choosing sides on a playground. More than a hundred egos being whittled down to a precious few to represent one "team." And at times it was not unlike trying to lure an Olympics to your home city.

Yes, it was a bit surreal. As one attorney told me: "Anytime you hear a seven-figure lawyer say they're arriving an hour early, you know something big is up."

Boise was chosen just by pure luck. On occasion, Multidistrict Litigation Panels are selected to consider consolidating major lawsuits in high-profile federal cases. The MDL's rotate from city to city, and Boise was up. Thus began the "why Boise conversation?"

By now, you may have heard of last weekend's blog on the Wall Street Journal website, which questioned if Boise even had a five-star hotel. The Chairman of the MDL, Justice John Heyburn II addressed the question as the proceedings got underway.

"Just because they don't charge $350 a night, doesn't mean it's not a five star hotel." Heyburn also got in another zinger later into the hearing. "You can't get a good $100 meal here, but you can get a good $35 meal here."

But the somber reason for the proceedings was never lost.

Steven Larson, a Florida attorney said, "The whole world is watching."

Before arguments got underway, a major issue had to be settled: How are all sides represented in a very short time-frame? The MDL Panel made it quite clear that they would not spend much more than an hour on the case. That's right, an hour.

So, attorneys had do something they're not accustom to: get along with one another. Attorneys began huddling in groups of three, or six, or ten, or more. They were attempting to find "common ground." Lawyers were instructed to consolidate shared viewpoints, especially if they agreed what city the trial (or trials) should be held in. And then an administrator for the court started handing out very short time allotments.

"You have three minutes. You have two minutes. You have one minute," he said.

Within a few minutes, the seven justices entered the courtroom and sat at a two-tier bench; four on top, three below.

And then it began, with the majority of the attorneys arguing why a trial should be held in Houston, or Miami, or New Orleans, or Mobile. They boasted about their airports, and their fine federal judges. But even when they were given very short time-frames, some attorneys made impassioned pleas:

"Our culture rises as a gumbo of Cajuns, Creole, French, German and Spanish," said Louisiana attorney Russ Herman. "We rise out of our myth and mystery ... which is now threatened. This disaster threatens our hope and faith, and that's why New Orleans is the best avenue for justice."

"Mobile is the correct choice," said attorney Robert Cunningham of Alabama. "Mobile is the dead center of the impact of the oil center."

"Florida represents 90 percent of the losses," said Rudy Moscowitz of, you guessed it, Florida.

"Lafayette is the compromise location between New Orleans and Houston," said Pat Morrow of the western district of Louisiana.

And the defendants were in the room as well. As in BP. As in Haliburton. Andrew Langan of the high-profile firm Kirkland & Ellis LLP of Chicago is one of BP's top lawyers.

"All the defendants (BP, Haliburton, etc.) have headquarters in Houston. That's why Houston would be ideal."

In a little more than an hour and a half it was over. We witnessed possibly the most expensive hour and a half in modern legal history.

We'll have much more on the proceedings in next week's BW,

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