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Practice Tip: Choking the Prosecutor Won't Get You a Continuance

By July 1, 2010

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Illinois Public Defender Henry Hams, who in 2006 held a one-year professional boxing license, apparently found dealing with a Cook County prosecutor to be more than he could handle. After the prosecutor expressed a lack of sympathy over an upcoming court date on a case, Hams allegedly shoved the prosecutor against a wall in the courthouse hallway and placed him in a chokehold.

Whatever was said must have made Hams extremely angry, as it apparently took two deputies to pry him off of the prosecutor's neck. One of the security guards suffered a minor back injury in the scuffle, while the prosecutor was taken to the hospital, where he was later treated and released.

I don't have any personal knowledge of the facts of this situation or the lawyers involved in it, so the following thoughts are merely inspired by the news coverage and are not directly about the participants. The incident, described on the ABA Journal's news blog, may be a warning sign of what can happen when high stress levels combine with a lack of professionalism among lawyers. While it is rare for attorney conflicts to erupt into physical fights, it is not uncommon for attorneys to deal with each other in a manner that would be considered rude and unprofessional in any other occupation. Most litigators can describe at least one incident where they felt like opposing counsel deserved a good punch in the nose, though most choose to resolve their conflicts in the courtroom rather than in hallway scuffles. Likewise, when an attorney feels overwhelmed and is dealing with the stresses of a heavy caseload, a perceived minor insult can become overblown in the mind of the offended party.

If some of your firm's lawyers are prone to displaying arrogance and unprofessionalism towards some of their attorney adversaries, consider whether this is really the image you want people to have of your firm. There is a big difference between being an aggressive lawyer and another type of lawyer that also starts with an a. Lawyers who are hated by other lawyers are generally the same lawyers who are hated by potential clients. Further, every time that attorney burns bridges with another lawyer in the community, you've just lost any chance of that lawyer ever referring a case to your firm. If you have an attorney on staff who thinks that being an aggressive litigator means being rude and condescending to opposing counsel, it is time to get him or her some training in ethics and professionalism.

Likewise, if one of your lawyers is getting overwhelmed, seems on edge, or is displaying too short a fuse around the office, consider whether it is time for that lawyer to get (a) counseling, (b) a lighter case load, or (c ) a vacation. Sometimes a few days away from the office is all it takes to get an otherwise good lawyer back on track. However, if you suspect there are deeper psychological issues at play, it would be worth the investment to get him or her to see a counselor. Consider adding a health management plan to your employee benefits package, to keep both the minds and bodies of your employees in top shape.

Mr. Hams invoked his right to remain silent when deputies sought to question him about the incident, according to an article in the Chicago Tribune. We'll also assume that he doesn't want to comment for this blog post. However, if you know any good stories about courthouse conflicts between lawyers getting out of control, post them in the comments section below.

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