Lawyer, spare a dime? Due to budget cuts, attorneys in Kleiner case paid for jurors’ lunch, laptops

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kleinerOne lunchtime during the Pao trial, Kleiner attorney Lynne Hermle told me something remarkable: On that particular day, Kleiner was picking up the tab for the jurors’ lunch.

The idea — that attorneys for the defense would be providing jurors with free food — seemed so jarring that I had to call Kleiner’s press spokesperson for confirmation: How is that possible? How is that legal?

In fact, Kleiner’s flack assured me, the arrangement was totally possible and absolutely legal. Due to courtroom cutbacks, attorneys for Pao and Kleiner had agreed to split certain court costs between them, including the cost of feeding those sitting in judgement on their clients.  Sure enough, the very next day I saw plaintiff’s attorney Alan Exelrod hand his credit card to court clerk Linda Fong for this purpose.

(I was curious, as I’m sure you are, what the jurors’ daily menu looked like. “Everything! sandwiches, salads, soups…,” the wonderful cashier of the courthouse’s Mint cafe told me.)

As it turns out, it’s common for the parties in cases heard at San Francisco Superior Court to pay for jury food, always has been. In days of yore, attorneys, jurors and judicial staff would often dine together at a swank restaurant down the block.  A more recent development is that court reporter fees in civil trials are now shared among the parties – this because statewide budget cuts in 2011 forced the court to lay off 29 of its own scribes. The parties in the Pao trial were far from impoverished but, even so, plaintiff’s attorney Therese Lawless told me her side couldn’t afford to buy the daily transcripts they were paying the reporter to produce. Anyone who wants a transcript must pay, by the day. They cost roughly a dollar a page.

The budget shortfall – a $ 22.3 million reduction in the five years to 2013, when the total budget was $ 75.1 million – continues, but the worst has passed. The workforce was reduced by 14 percent in 2011 and those jobs aren’t coming back. Ten of the court’s 25 civil departments remain closed indefinitely. In 2013 the California legislature restored some funding, but also deemed the San Francisco court one of six “donor courts”. Under this designation it will lose an additional $ 7.8 million by 2018, to be distributed to other California courts.  Another issue is that filing volume is down, for reasons that include a preference for private mediation due to the backlogs that immediately followed the original budget cuts. This impacts future budgets, as workload is a key variable in a new allocation and accountability formula adopted in 2013.

There were signs during the Pao trial that the triage is working. As recently as last fall, attorneys, parties, staff and attendees could be seen lined up around the corner of McAllister and Polk Streets before the building opened in the morning, the result of a crunch in court hours that has since been alleviated. Due to understaffed courtrooms, trial dates in San Francisco were notoriously imprecise, but now have resumed their regularity. The remaining court employees have taken on additional duties to ensure justice remains as accessible as possible.

During the past month, the core team of Judge Harold Kahn, clerk Linda Fong and Communications Director Ann Donlan successfully hid any seams in the workflow. Kahn and Fong handled motions and issuing rulings on evenings and over weekends; Donlan ramped up her use of the official court Twitter feed to appease burgeoning press demands, and took it upon herself to keep the courtroom water-cooler filled.

The court has been able to mitigate the impact of the cuts in part through technological fixes. E-filing became mandatory last year, and has reduced backlog. They are in the midst of unifying the case management system under a single software.

And yet, the Pao trial showed more clearly than most the difference in resources available to the wealthy parties in the case and the court in which they were being heard. At one point, the Kleiner Perkins team expressed frustration at learning that hundreds of pages of exhibits were expected to be shared with jurors on paper. As is the VC’s habit when faced with a “pain point,” Kleiner proposed a technical solution: They would provided a non-connectable laptop to the jury during deliberations, verifiably blank except for the electronic copies of the evidence admitted during trial. Unable to afford the technology required to make it easy for jurors to access and digest the volumes of documents, the court readily agreed.

PandoDaily

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