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Work Harder to Settle Disputes Out of Court, Judge Warns Lawyers

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Times Staff Writer

An Orange County Superior Court judge, worried about a potential backlog of lawsuits, warned lawyers this week that they must work harder at settling disputes out of court.

Judge William F. McDonald, in a memo being circulated within the legal community, announced that he and other jurists who hear legal arguments in civil cases will soon demand “literal compliance” with a widely violated local rule of court. That rule requires lawyers to meet and try to iron out their differences before bringing legal motions to court.

The action is aimed at unclogging of the courts at a time when record numbers of lawsuits are being filed. In 1985-87 alone, the number of new civil claims in the county climbed from just more than 33,000 annually to almost 38,000.

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Creative Arguments Expected

Some lawyers, however, doubt that the judge’s warning will result in more productive out-of-court discussions but, instead, expect that it will spur more creative arguments by lawyers who want to convince the court that they are in compliance with the “meet and confer” rule, as it is known.

“The court realizes that a lot of lawyers aren’t meeting and conferring now, but this isn’t going to change that much,” said lawyer Robert John Rossi of Santa Ana. “The problem really has to be resolved between the attorneys themselves.”

Orange County Superior Court was one of the first courts in the state to require that lawyers make an effort to work out disputes before bringing judges into battles over legal motions. Several other judicial districts have followed suit.

Some observers say the rule has been all but ignored by many lawyers in Orange County.

Too often, Judge McDonald said in an interview Wednesday, local lawyers get around the “meet and confer” requirement with nothing more than a quick and essentially useless telephone call. The lawyers then take up huge chunks of court time with legal squabbles that could have easily been resolved by the lawyers.

In a memo dated Jan. 9 that will be published in local legal journals, McDonald declared that, beginning in March, judges will no longer tolerate a brief declaration from lawyers claiming that “we met and could not agree.”

And lawyers who do not demonstrate a “good-faith” attempt to resolve their disputes out of court will face sanctions, he said.

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“We’re hoping that this will result in a more substantial discussion between the attorneys and help the courts run more smoothly,” McDonald said.

Heading Off Problems

McDonald maintained that the law-and-motion section of Superior Court, which he oversees, has overcome previous backlog problems and that his warning is only precautionary, aimed at heading off future problems.

Nonetheless, he said, the daily workloads of the judges who handle law-and-motion matters have increased from about 15 hearings to 20 in just the last few years.

And several local lawyers, citing a backlog they consider to be a serious problem, said they often have to wait up to 2 months for a hearing, while the time lapse just a few years ago was several weeks.

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