After a lengthy hiatus, we’re back on track with our Shingular Sensations, where we focus on solos who have achieved important victories or are otherwise doing interesting work. This month, we feature a pair of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania based solos: Michele Grant [MG] of GrantMyersLLC.com – “The Artists Law Firm,” a full-service, talent-side firm focusing on representation of creators and performers, and providing assistance to 501c(3) non-profits and Leo Mulvihill [LM] of Law Office of Leo Mulvihill, handling criminal defense work and representation of local businesses. Michele and Leo teamed up to represent a local theatre and wound up arguing the case on national television – the People’s Court. Here, Michele and Leo share how they found this client, what it was like to handle a case on t.v., how they collaborated and advice for other new solos starting out. For additional details, you can also read the .
1. Can you share a little bit about how you first met this client, and how you met each other?
[MG]A friend of mine from undergrad used to work as a marketing associate for the theatre. She suggested to the theatre directors that they ask me to join the board, and I was offered a position on the board in January 2010.
Leo was one year behind me in law school (Drexel).
[LM] I got to know this client by attending the theater. The Frankford Avenue arts corridor runs straight up through my neighborhood (Fishtown, Philadelphia), and on it is the Walking Fish Theater. I got to know the Walking Fish by attending its shows with my wife. It was great, because we only had to go around the corner to see an excellently produced show. Moreover, it felt great that I could support local artists in a community that has historically been underserved by the arts.
I’ve known Michele since law school, as she graduated the year ahead of me. Though we had a few classes together, we never got to know each other terribly well. That changed when I saw on our law school announcement page that Michele had been selected and invited to join the Board of Directors of B. Someday productions, the nonprofit company that runs the Walking Fish Theater. I immediately sent her an e-mail, noting my excitement for her, and wondering how I could get involved with the theater that was literally around the corner of my house. I was invited to attend meetings of the Board of Directors, and eventually I was elected on to it. Now, I serve as secretary and legal counsel to the Board of Directors of the theater.
2. Can you share a little bit about the origins of the dispute and your initial efforts for resolution. Why did you decide to try to resolve the dispute amicably at first instead of simply filing suit?
[MG] The theatre has been looking to expand its physical capacity for a few years. This space, a block or so away and across the street, looked promising. The landlord (oddly) required a deposit before he would offer us a lease. The theatre directors complied, but then neither party wanted to go through with the lease. The landlord seemed uncomfortable with working with the theatre, and the theatre’s board of directors decided to nix the expansion plan for the time being, mostly for financial reasons.
The theatre directors attempted to resolve by e-mail and phone calls. Leo attempted to resolve through increasingly forceful letters. Leo and I conferred quite a bit, for a while, just between the two of us, then asked the board for permission to file suit. Though we knew we had a good case and would very likely prevail, we also knew that it would be a long, drawn-out process to get any money back — we’d probably have to get a sheriff’s sale or lien, and it would be months before we saw any compensation. (We guessed early on that the landlord had taken the cash and spent it on Christmas presents or a heating bill, so he was essentially judgment-proof.) We also risked losing goodwill in the neighborhood. We felt that the landlord forced our hand.
[LM] The dispute started back in November of 2010. At that point, the board of directors was looking for a new space for the theater so we would be able to expand and better serve our mission of bringing arts to the neighborhood.
Luckily, around the corner from our current location, we saw loft space that we could afford to rent. The landlord for the space initially demanded a $1500 deposit before he would allow us to see an actual lease the property. Although we were wary of this, we advised the board that so long as the deposit would be returned to us in case we did not rent this space, that we should proceed so that we might be able to review the lease of property. Needless to say, the landlord never provided the lease.
And the landlord kept our deposit for months and refused to respond to any of our communications. At that point, we decided to send out some “lawyer letters” to the landlord asking for money back. We hoped to resolve the situation amicably, as we work within a tightly-knit community and we didn’t want the rumor mill to manufacture a story that we were going around suing everyone in neighborhood. The Board of Directors discussed whether to file suit, and we agreed that we should give the landlord some time to return the deposit to us. We wanted to make sure that he could save face in case he had either spent the money were no longer had it available to return to us.
3. What was the turning point that made you realize that it was necessary to file suit?
[MG] The landlord became increasingly insulting in phone calls and letters. Also, the theatre was badly hit by losing the money — it’s a very small non-profit that struggles for funding. It became clear that the landlord would not willingly pay back the money, so the board decided that it would rather wait for the judicial process to go through (hearing + judgment + failure to pay + sheriff’s intervention) than to not get any of the money back at all.
[LM] I first sent the landlord a demand letter in December 2010. Mind you, he had our security deposit since early November, and had been posting Craigslist ads for the property this entire time (in fact, he posted a craigslist enter the property same day we gave in the $1500 deposit). In that letter I simply went over the facts: he had promised to return our security deposit if we didn’t want to rent the property, or he didn’t want to rent us, and he still had not done so. I simply asked that he return the security deposit to us or face a lawsuit.
Well, four months, several letters, and a phone call or two later, no progress happened. The landlord offered us a meager $500 “in good faith” to settle the matter. I took a settlement offer to the Board of Directors, which rejected the offer. I then sent the landlord one final letter, noting that we would be suing him for the amount of the deposit, and possibly for triple damages under Pennsylvania’s unfair trade practices and consumer protection law, in which case he could also be responsible for punitive damages, attorneys fees, and costs. After that letter, he called me up angrily, and called me a shakedown artist, a gangster, and a bottom feeder. That was the first time anyone really laid into me in my professional career; now I look back and laugh and I consider it an honor.
4. You had to advise the client’s Board of Directors about the need for a lawsuit. Can you describe how you laid out the issues for the Board?
[MG] Pretty much like #3. If we didn’t pursue in court, there appeared to be zero chance that we’d get the money back. If we did go to court, there would be a small risk that we’d look bad in the eyes of the neighbors, but we thought we had a good chance to win a favorable judgment. Even though it could take months to see the money, we thought that “very good chance to win” beat “no chance he’ll pay us out of the goodness of his heart.”
[LM] It was very simple. We understood that the landlord was not going to return our money after we asked nicely. We told the board that filing suit could lead to a couple of alternative situations. First, we could win and get all the money that were owed. Or, we could lose and get nothing and be out our filing fees. But no matter what, there was no way that we were going to get our money back without filing suit against the landlord.
We made sure that the board was aware that even if we won our entire claim in Philadelphia Municipal Court (the court of jurisdiction for claims up to around $10,000), we could still be in a quandary because we have to enforce the judgment against the landlord. And if the landlord had no extra money, then we’d be up the creek.
Despite the possible downsides we needed that money back; we are a small nonprofit and every dollar counts. So we ultimately decided the file suit.
5. How did this matter go from an ordinary suit in a local court to a nationally televised case on the Peoples’ Court?
[MG] Apparently the show’s producers watch docket filings in local small claims court. In Philadelphia, that is Municipal Court. They invited us up, and the landlord accepted the invitation as well.
[LM] It all happened really quickly. About two weeks before set trial date, the managing artistic director of the theater received a call from the People’s Court, asking if we were interested to be on their show to resolve our claim against landlord.
Apparently, the People’s Court trolls small claims dockets from across the country and picks out the ones that they think will be interesting; our case just in interesting enough. We took the matter to the Board of Directors, which approved taking the case to the People’s Court.
6. When you were contacted by the Peoples’ Court, what recommendation did you make to your client and why?
[MG] We immediately recommended that we go on the show, for two reasons. One, we knew we had a good case, and we guessed we’d win. But the landlord was probably judgment-proof, so we’d have to get a sheriff’s lien or pursue a sheriff’s sale to get our money back. With the People’s Court, the TV show would pay our judgment plus an appearance fee if we won; and even if we lost, we’d get an appearance fee.
Two, it was good publicity for the theatre. The directors would get a chance to plug their work on national TV, and they could alert the local media to their appearance. If they lost — which we didn’t think they would — they could just “forget” to talk about it much. But the strategy paid off: the theatre got a mention in one of the local weekly papers; it’s been a hot topic on the theatre’s Facebook page, and Leo and I have been able to talk about it as well as the theatre prepares to open its latest show next Friday (6 May).
[LM]We said go for it. Frankly, it was a win-win situation. First off, we would receive a sum of money whether we won or lost, which is a heck of a lot better then had we tried the case in Philadelphia Municipal Court. Next, if we won the show itself would pay out the judgment. This was fantastic, as we wouldn’t have to chase down a landlord to enforce a judgment against him, incurring further expenses and taking more time that we could devote to running the theater.
And we figured it would be good exposure for the theater as well, to be seen on national television. Altogether, there really was no downside to having the case heard on the People’s Court.
7. Did you have concerns about how your client might be portrayed on TV or that the case would not be treated seriously?
[MG] The director that had negotiated with the landlord did not have a lot of television experience, if any. But I knew that he is a professional who would be able to put on his best side for the proceeding and for the camera. Honestly, I had no concerns that the show or the judge would not take us seriously. It was a pretty ordinary dispute with no scandalous details, no “roommates from hell” or cheating partners, nothing inflammatory. In fact, I think we were all a little surprised that the show had chosen our case.
[LM] The thought never really crossed my mind, for a few reasons I guess. First, we had a good story. We were a nonprofit theater, in a traditionally under-served section of the city, whose money had essentially been stolen by landlord. The law was on our side, the facts were on our side, and our clients were savvy at performing for an audience. And while the People’s Court is an entertaining daytime TV show, Judge Millian has served as a licensed attorney and as a judge, so I knew that she would understand the underlying story in this case. I never had any concerns that the case would be taken seriously, because it was really in the television shows best interest to treat every case seriously – if not for the gravity of the case, then for the sake of good television. Finally, our clients are likable people, and I knew they would come across as such on television.
8. How does the Peoples’ Court work behind the scenes? Did you prepare for the trial as you would for a case in local municipal court? How do the procedures compare? Did you expect that the court will apply local state law – or more general common law principles?
[MG] We were held in a low-budget green room with a few other plaintiffs (one party from Chicago, another from Boston). We never did figure out where defendants waited. We had makeup done for the cameras, mostly to keep the shiny away, and then were led to another green room right outside the set-I-mean-courtroom. We were taken to the “door” and shown how to do our dramatic entrance, and then we waited some more. When it was our time to go on, we did our dramatic entrance while the pre-recorded announcer read a quib of our case for the audience, and then watched while the landlord came in for his dramatic entrance. And of course the courtroom is a TV set, with only the minimal trappings of what a courtroom needs.
As for preparation, Leo did a lot of work for this case! He prepared an evidence packet for the show that included his letters to the landlord, e-mails between the directors and the landlord, a copy of the blank form lease the landlord had given us, etc. Then Leo looked up the state consumer protection statute and found some caselaw that applied it to a commercial lease, so he added a claim for triple damages and attorney’s fees to the initial filing.
As for procedures, “evidence” was handled more like discovery. It’s a binding arbitration. They find your case in small claims court, and both sides agree to have it removed to Judge Milian’s venue, where her decision will be final. Then afterward they do the paperwork to close out the case in your small claims court.
In the end, it felt a lot like Municipal Court, except for the paper notices tacked up everywhere that said “TAKE YOUR EVIDENCE WITH YOU.” It was short and to the point; the judge interrupted both parties as they spoke (granted, with more showmanship than in Municipal Court); and the case was over and done with before we knew it.
[LM] I prepared the case almost exactly as I would have done for a Municipal Court trial. I had a 76 page binder of exhibits that I provided to the judge and to my clients. Within it was every e-mail, letter, craigslist posting, or any other document relevant to our case.
The procedure was a bit looser than our Common Pleas Court in Pennsylvania, but seems to generally follow the looser guidelines in our Municipal Court. Essentially, the judge gave us our opportunity to tell her story, asked a few questions, and then gave the defense the opportunity to present his story. It was a little bizarre because the litigants discussed the case with the judge, rather than the attorneys. But Michele and I sat off to the side of the podium prepared to answer any questions the judge had.
I really had no idea as to what law the judge was going to apply. While everything looks like a courtroom, as you know, it’s binding arbitration. It seemed like the judge was ready to apply Pennsylvania law, and had read the law that I attached to our binder of exhibits. I didn’t expect that she would get so specific as to ask for actual case law, so I made a little blunder by not having a Pennsylvania Supreme Court case handy in print -though I had the case saved on my FastCase iPhone app. Unfortunately, they made us turn off our phones on set, so that didn’t do me any good at all.
9. Were you given any special guidance on how to dress for the cameras? What did you ultimately decide to wear – and is it typical of how you would appear in court?
[MG] I never got any guidance as to what to wear. Perhaps there was some in the paperwork that the show sent to the directors, but I never saw it. As someone who’d been involved in the entertainment industry before law school (I’m a second-career attorney), I knew better than to wear something with a small pattern, like houndstooth or gingham, or to wear chroma key green. I wore a black pantsuit with a fine-gauge purple sweater underneath, chunky but small hoop earrings, and black loafers. If it had been court, I would have worn pumps, and depending on the weather I may have gone with a buttoned blouse.
[LM] We weren’t given any special guidance on how to dress. But I figured that I should treat this as I would any other court appearance.
I kept it pretty conservative. I wore a navy Brooks Brothers sack suit, black shoes, a white shirt, and a red and blue striped tie–I call it my DA look.
I figured that by keeping it CBD (conservative business dress) there’d be no chance that I’d direct unnecessary attention to myself, and instead let the case stand on its merits.
10. Can you share a little background about Judge Milian [if you know]? Did she handle the case as a “real life” judge would?
[LM] All I know about Judge Milan is what I’ve learned from watching her on the People’s Court and from reading her Wikipedia article. From what I understand, she served not only as an attorney, but as a judge, and is a law school professor. She really seems to knows her stuff, and she’s entertaining enough to step into the shoes of such People’s Court greats as Judge Wapner, Ed Koch, and Jerry Scheidlin (Judge Judy’s husband).
With the exception of a little television flare, and relaxation of Courtroom procedure, Juge Milian seemed to handle the case exactly as a judge in Philadelphia Municipal Court would have.
11. According to the press release, Judge Milian praised a letter written by Leo. Did she offer any feedback on why she was impressed by it?
[LM] Ha, ha, yes – that was my moment in the spotlight. She said something along the lines that it was an excellent lawyer letter because it itemized the discussions between my client and the landlord. Additionally I had a line in there that noted that I assumed the landlord agreed with everything laid out in the letter unless he objected to the letter in writing. In the several letters that I sent to the landlord, I ensured to include this language and hope to use it against him at trial, if necessary.
12. What was the outcome of the case? Do you think you would have achieved the same result in your local court?
[LM]We got a judgment in the amount of $1500, which is all we wanted in the first place.
I did file a claim for triple damages under the Pennsylvania unfair trade practices and consumer protection law, but the judge didn’t buy that argument, and denied the triple damages and attorneys fees claim.
That’s about the best outcome we could have hoped for as far as I’m concerned. And if we had received the same judgment in Municipal Court, I would have been just as pleased as I am now.
[MG] We won on the merits. I think we would have won in Municipal Court. If not, I would not have advised filing in the first place.
13. What has been the client’s reaction and the aftermath of the case? And most importantly, has it aired yet – and if not, when will it air?
[MG] The clients — the theatre’s board — were very excited and happy. We do not yet have an air date.
[LM] Our client was overjoyed. As I noted, all we wanted was her $1500 back. We got that, we got to be on TV, and we’re hoping to turn the debut airing of the episode into a fundraiser for this year as well. So all in all, things worked out better than expected.
We are still waiting to hear the air date from the production company. I will be sure to let you know when we find out.
14. You are both relatively new attorneys. Was your less-seasoned status ever an issue in advising the Board? Did you take any special steps to establish credibility with your clients? What advice do you have for newer lawyers who represent small businesses or need to interact with a Board of Directors?
[MG] Working with people in the arts was a goal of mine when I started law school. I had been involved in the local film scene for years, and I wanted to use my degree to work with filmmakers and other artists when I was done. When I started on the board, I had been licensed for only about 3 months — but I was familiar with arts organizations, the board had no other attorneys on it, and I was confident that I could look things up and ask mentors any questions that I needed to. I never felt that the board hesitated to take me on for the reason that I was a new attorney.
I think joining a non-profit organization’s board is an excellent, excellent move for a new attorney. Non-profits need help, especially small community organizations. There is a reason for the stereotype of the artist who doesn’t have a head for business, and an attorney’s active presence on the board can help ground the board, keep it realistic, and provide it an avenue for fundraising.
The only caveat I have — seriously, the only one — is that I absolutely must track my hours. All of the time I spend on the theatre is pro bono: attending board meetings, preparing documents, organizing donor lists, preparing for The People’s Court, going to New York, etc. I told the board when they invited me that I would be able to give only 20 hours per month, because I can’t give up more unpaid time than that. So I track my hours and dole them out carefully during the month. Then I compare these unbillable hours to what else I’m doing every quarter. As a small business owner, I have to know where my time is going and whether or not it’s profitable.
[LM]Our relatively green careers were never never an issue with the board. Michele has already been a business owner, so she understands business practice and human interaction really well. And I’m willing to put in whatever time is necessary to learn the ropes to get the best result my client. Moreover, because I worked for the Philadelphia Defenders Association in their clinical program during my third year of law school, I’ve been in court more often than the average new law graduate. Pair that with my own court appearances since I’ve started my own practice, and my time spent working with judges, and I felt relatively comfortable performing in court and advising clients.
Newer lawyers should get out into their community and jump into a business association or Board of Directors as soon as they are able. Not only does it build your reputation in the community, and allow you to help your potential client base, it forces you to learn quickly and to use the practical skills that you’ve acquired in practice on an everyday basis to assist with the growth of the nonprofit company.
15. As I’ve previously posted at MyShingle, board service offers many benefits to solos. What has been your experience on the Board? And given that you both serve on the Board and represent it, did you encounter any conflicts, and if so, how did you address them?
[MG] Remember that friend of mine from undergrad who was a marketing associate, who recommended that the board approach me for membership? There was a paycheck dispute between her and the directors. I had to tell the board and the directors that if they wanted to pursue legal options against my friend, they would have to talk to my firm partner. This was not because of a conflict under the Pennsylvania Rules for Professional Conduct, but because I didn’t want to risk a 10-year friendship and related ties to a large circle of friends, some of whom I’ve known since childhood, over a 2-year professional commitment to the theatre. And sadly, I had to tell my friend that I could not talk to her at all about her employment there, because of my ethical duty to the board. In the end, the board decided not to pursue the matter — the amount of money was very small — but it was uncomfortable while it was still up in the air.
Because of that dispute, I have a hard time promoting the theatre, developing new board members, and fundraising among that particular circle of friends. It has seriously limited my options for resources. Many of us have known one another for almost 20 years and we get together frequently, but the theatre and my experiences on the board aren’t comfortable topics of conversation when we’re together. When I’ve sought out new members for the board, I’ve had to look elsewhere among my professional and personal contacts.
[LM] I currently serve as the board secretary and ensure that I keep proper minutes.
Though I work pro bono for the board, we have a written agreement between us that outlines my scope of service to the board. Additionally, I’ve explained to everybody on the board that I represent the company itself, not any individual board member. And so far, we’ve had no issues whatsoever.
16. How did you meet each other, and why did you decide to team up on this matter?
[MG]We met at law school (Drexel) in 2008, when I was a 2L and he was a 1L. I think I first met Leo at a student club informational meeting. We are the only two attorneys on the board, so it seemed natural that we’d bounce ideas off each other and coordinate the board’s strategy together.
[LM] Michele I really bounce ideas off one another in order to get the best result for our client. I think I have a tendency to be a little more aggressive when it comes to matters than Michele, so she would help rein me in and make my approach more reasoned and leveled.
The agreement that I have with the board provides that I will give them up to 20 hours a month in pro bono service. I’m happy to do this, as it not only builds goodwill the board, but helps me build my law practice.
Michele and I didn’t use anything to technologically advanced—just cell phones and e-mail. And Adobe Acrobat helps too.
The best advice I have for solo and small firm lawyers looking to work together is to listen to one another. Often, though the two of you may have wildly different approaches to the same legal issue, you can work together to facilitate a result that would be better than if either of you had done it alone.
17. Can you share some of the nuts and bolts of your collaboration? For example, how did you coordinate with each other and the client? What kind of retainer agreement did you have in place? Did you use any special technology to facilitate your collaboration? And what advice do you have for solo or small firm lawyers who want to work together?
We did a lot by e-mail, being careful to leave the directors in or out of the loop when we needed to. I do not have a retainer agreement in place with the board, but Leo does. He’s the attorney of record on the filing; I’ve served more as a consultant, due to my pre-law school experience as a litigation paralegal. Even though Leo is a year behind me in practice, he’s had more in-court experience than I have. On the other hand, I had spent a few years as a paralegal and knew some sabre-rattling tactics we could use to see if we couldn’t get the money back before we played our final trump card of going to court. By sending multiple letters and threats to sue before we finally did sue, we had a good book of evidence of the landlord’s intent not to rent to the theatre directors and not to give us the money back, which ended up being useful at The People’s Court.
The most important thing to remember is to put your ego aside when it comes to dealing with another attorney and remember who the client is: in our case, a small, underfunded theatre who could really use that deposit money that the landlord walked away with. Though it will probably be a good idea to have one person be the “lead” attorney, the client wins if both attorneys fully use their knowledge and experience on the case.
18. Did you ever expect that you would have this type of opportunity when you were in law school? And where do you see yourselves heading with your respective practices in the future?
[MG] This kind of thing is exactly what I wanted to do when I entered law school: that is, to work with artists and organizations that can’t afford Philly BigLaw but who need services, advice, and representation. I expect to move on to another organization’s board early next year, when my term expires. I’ll add more artists and arts organizations to our list of clients. While we’ll probably never get a member of our firm representing the Philadelphia Orchestra or joining its board, we do aim to be an important Philadelphia boutique law firm that artists go to for help.
[LM]I’ve been watching the people’s court since I was a little kid, but I never thought that I would had the chance to appear on it. As of now, we’ve had three attorneys from Drexel Law appear on the People’s Court. I think this makes us the highest per capita People’s Court appearance law school in the nation. Is there a US news ranking for that? 😀
I hope to continue building my neighborhood practice and helping my neighbors in the Fishtown, Port Richmond, and Kensington areas of Philadelphia.
19. Do you have any final words of advice for newer lawyers who want to start a firm, either alone or with a partner?
[MG] Running your own firm is a pain. I don’t like being an entrepreneur; I did it in the 1990s when Internet money was flowing like water, but I wasn’t a fan even then. Most days I wish I was just doing work for someone and collecting a paycheck, because I hate the paperwork and bother that comes from operating my own business.
If you’re afraid of the dreaded resume gap, then it’s a good way to avoid that perceived problem, even if you are, in reality, underemployed. Also, it makes you look like a go-getter.
As for a firm partner, pick a friend, but not your best friend. Definitely do not pick a romantic interest, and if anything starts brewing, stop it right away — whether “it” is the firm or the romance. Pick someone who’s a good lawyer or a good entrepreneur or both, but don’t pick someone just because you like them and think you’ll get along. I met my firm partner during the summer before law school, and we were lucky enough to be assigned to the same section. During classes and while socializing outside of class, we saw that we were both people with integrity, who held similar values and politics, and who showed up and played nice with group work and didn’t blow deadlines. We did our 2L summer stint in the same public-interest office and found that we were decent lawyers, to boot. And we both have lives outside of work that keep us from hanging around each other too much.
[LM]Do your homework. Read as many books as possible about managing a law practice. Join the SoloSez listserv. Read the GP Solo magazine. Read the Law Practice Management magazine. You can never have enough information before deciding to venture out on your own. Remember that you alone are the face of your company. You alone are representing your firm. And you alone are responsible for bringing in business.
Finally, have fun with it.