The Power of Preparation: A Lawyer’s Story and How it Relates to You
Preparation is an important part of living a life that minimizes chaos. As I often say “life happens” which means one must be prepared (there goes that word again..) to modify plans or change things often at a moment’s notice. Emergencies occur and often things do not go as planned but that is RARELY justification for not having a plan. Preparation is a must for an attorney who competently represents clients. Allow me to share my story.
As a young attorney I was fortunate enough to land a job with what was one of the state’s most prominent plaintiff’s law firms, Donaldson & Black, P.A. I began with the firm in October 2000 where I worked in the firm’s personal injury and civil litigation department which meant I was assigned and handled a variety of cases. I represented clients in car wrecks, wrongful death cases, some medical and professional negligence, and a smattering of other civil cases. The partner to whom I reported directly was the venerable Arthur J. Donaldson better known as Art. He was (and still is) a guru on civil cases especially regarding the complex and ever-changing world of ERISA, subrogation, and liens in personal injury/wrongful death cases. He taught me an awful lot of substantive law, procedural law, tips, techniques, and tactics galore.
In 2001, being quite frustrated with the fact that many hospitals and medical providers were overcharging for medical records, Donaldson & Black, P.A. filed a putative class action suit against one of the country’s largest medical record & data copying services, Smart Corporation. The case sought to address a pattern of overcharging that was occuring across North Carolina when attorneys would request medical records and documents from hospitals and healthcare providers. Each time a client was overcharged for medical records the service would make extra (and we believed illegal) profit and in some situations the service would hold the requested records and documentation hostage until the improperly invoiced amount was paid. Art spearheaded the case and I worked closely with him on the legal research, preparation (remember that word?), filing, and discovery in the case. Eventually, as often happens in large cases, the defense filed a motion to dismiss our case. In the spring of 2002, the defense attorney’s motion was heard and despite a lively oral argument in front of a judge in Guilford County Superior Court, unfortunately for Art and I, the case was dismissed. Next (and only available) step: the North Carolina Court of Appeals.
Art and I prepared and filed the Notice of Appeal and subsequently submitted our brief supporting our belief that the case had been wrongly dismissed. The defense responded with a brief arguing the dismissal was warranted and required by law. Given the significant nature of this case—-the impact it could have upon the way medical records and documention copy services charged and their liability for having overcharged hundreds of persons in prior years—the North Carolina Court of Appeals set a date for oral arguments to be held.
As any lawyer knows oral arguments in front of an appellate court are a big deal. Often judges ask pressing and pointed questions of attorneys to help them (the judges) sift through the arguments in the respective briefs and ultimately decide on how to rule on the appeal. Getting ready for oral arguments requires a different type of preparation than one undertakes for a jury trial. Oral arguments require a thorough understanding of the facts of the case, the relevant laws, plus the implications and permutations of the relief sought by the parties. For our case, Art and I discussed the likely areas of questioning by the Court of Appeals and how we planned to answer such questions. We tried to cover the case and the topic from multiple angles so we would be at maximum preparation and readiness when we set foot in the chambers for the all-important oral arguments. Then…the storm came.
The oral arguments were set for a Monday morning in February 2003 at the Court of Appeals in downtown Raleigh. Over the weekend leading up to the hearing Art went to Virginia and reviewed our case while I was in Greensboro doing the same. We planned to meet at the office early Monday morning and ride to Raleigh for our day in court. But the storm came…..a big ice storm. Art was iced in and stuck in Virginia. Since I was in Greensboro the weather was not as bad but travel was clearly less than optimal and having to make the drive from Greensboro to Raleigh during the morning hours when the temperature was hovering around freezing was a daunting prospect but we had no choice. The Court of Appeals was still open for business and since Art could not travel to the courthouse I had to make it there and argue the case—alone. Clearly not what we had anticipated.
Fortunately I was quite prepared. Art always stressed the fact that you needed to be ready to handle a case by yourself if your colleague and/or assistant was somehow unavailable. Given the magnitude of the case and my relative youth—less than 6 years removed from law school—-I probably overprepared, if there is such. I was quite nervous as I made the treacherous drive to Raleigh and found a parking space. Never having been to the Court of Appeals before I had little idea what to expect. God, however, provided me the calm and composure to step into that courtroom and argue the case fervently and without fear. My preparation was a key reason for the calm that I had during the hearing experience. After the hearing ended I exchanged handshakes with opposing counsel and left the courthouse hoping for a ruling in favor of Art, myself, and our client.
About three months later on tax day, April 15th, the Court of Appeals issued its opinion in the case. The opinion, which can be read here, did not go in our favor as the Court ruled against us on the technical issue of standing. While Art and I may have lost the battle it appears we won the war. We learned that over time after we filed the case in 2001 the medical record copying and documentation services in North Carolina calculated their invoices in a different manner which brought them into compliance with the existing law. That is all we wanted in the first place: compliance with the law. To this day I often harken back to this case when I review an invoice for copies of medical records.
So there you have it…the power of preparation. I am sure you have your own stories of how being prepared made a big (and hopefully positive) difference in some situation you faced. If you have a legal situation or case do not proceed or make any decisions without the proper preparation. Finally, realize it is acceptable (and advisable) if during your preparation you realize that you may benefit from consulting an attorney before going any further.
Be prepared, remain encouraged, and thanks for your ongoing support. Thanks immensely, Art for all your lessons and wisdom and thanks to Art Donaldson and Janet Ward Black for taking a chance on a young attorney with the willingness to learn and the desire to win.
- Posted in: Life Lessons