Trial Lawyers Are Out For Fresh Blood
Connecticut Law Tribune
Monday, June 14, 2010
Copyright 2010, ALM Properties, Inc.
Printed for: New CTLA president wants younger members, more civility
In the quarter-century he’s been a trial lawyer at Hartford’s RisCassi & Davis, partner David W. Cooney has handled the full range of accident, medical malpractice, and wrongful death cases. Winning or settling million-dollar matters has become a regular accomplishment.
On June 7, Cooney became president of the Connecticut Trial Lawyers Association and plans to make it more inviting to younger members.
Cooney teaches trial advocacy at the University of Connecticut School of Law and has been dedicated to learning as much as to teaching. Twenty years after earning his J.D. at UConn, he earned an M.A. from Wesleyan University studying literature, politics, and history. He spoke last week about his plans for the trial lawyers association with Senior Writer Thomas B. Scheffey.
LAW TRIBUNE: Is the CTLA getting friendlier with the Connecticut Bar Association? I notice they didn’t schedule their annual meetings on the same day this year!
DAVID COONEY: The new president of the CBA, Ralph Monaco of New London, is one of our CTLA board members. Last year, [the top CTLA and CBA officers] had lunch back in September, sharing ideas and realizing there’s no reason for the two organizations not to work together. Even though the CBA has a much more diverse membership and interests, there is still a lot of commonality of interests. I intend to [get the leaders together] again this year.
LAW TRIBUNE: Usually the CTLA has been quicker to take a position on an issue. The CBA has to include every constituency, and that tends to cancel out its ability to take certain positions.
COONEY: When I was more active in the CBA, in the litigation section, I found that frustrating. Even when you have an issue that’s of interest to just two or three sections, you have to get the whole organization to move.
LAW TRIBUNE: Do you have some specific goals for your presidency?
COONEY: One goal is certainly to get our younger members more involved in the process. CTLA has been very fortunate to have some very dedicated, gifted, generous people who have been spending money and giving advice for 25 or 30 years. I don’t think it’s realistic to expect to keep calling on the same people who’ve been doing it for so long. As with any voluntary association, you need new blood, and you need to get younger people involved.
LAW TRIBUNE: Is the phenomenon of the vanishing trial making it harder to train young trial lawyers?
COONEY: Absolutely. In personal injury cases, 97 percent settle, so you’re looking at a very small number of cases that actually go to verdict. [Last] Monday night, when Bill Davis introduced Jim Bartolini for the Lifetime Achievement Award, he was talking about Jim starting in 1975 when we still had a court of common pleas. You could be trying two cases a week because you could not get more than $15,000. From the insurance companies’ perspective, there was not much of a downside to trying those cases. For new lawyers, it was great. You’d [get experience] picking a jury, doing openings, closings, direct examinations. I started in 1978, and they’d done away with the common pleas court that year. Even then there were not as many trials as there were five or 10 years before. And in the last 10 years, we’ve seen fewer jury trials going to verdict.
LAW TRIBUNE: Connecticut is a small state, and prides itself on having a collegial bar, but the organized bar groups have sometimes worked to improve the level of civility.
COONEY: That still is an ongoing issue. There are certain lawyers, certain law firms, that are not [known for civility]. And I think everyone who’s a trial lawyer knows who they are. My sense is that the courts are finally starting to deal with that. That for the first time they’re actually responding to motions for sanctions and disciplining lawyers, whether by way of admonition or imposing a fine.
When I was a young lawyer there were two occasions where it was quite clear that another lawyer had lied to me. I filed motions for sanctions in both instances, one in federal court and one in state court. [In one case,] the judge agreed that the lawyer had lied, and yet nothing was done but a slap on the wrist, saying don’t do it again. I found that infuriating, that you could get away with simply lying.
LAW TRIBUNE: It seriously undermines the whole process.
COONEY: But the good thing is, it’s rare. The vast majority of people you deal with you can trust. I had a business client recently from New York, and we settled the case. He asked, “How do you know it’s settled?” I said, “[The opposing counsel and I] shook hands; it’s enough for me.” In the New York business world, they want more than that. Here, if you say it’s a deal, it’s a deal. It’s a nice way to practice.
LAW TRIBUNE: What other things are you planning?
COONEY: One of the things for the coming year is to expand our public service initiative. Last year, we had a number of activities such as working with soup kitchens, and people going on a “crop walk” to raise money to provide food for local shelters. There were five or six different projects. I want to do that statewide because there are an enormous number of people with needs, and lawyers are in a position to help out. If we’re doing things as a group, it will elevate the reputation of the trial bar.