Hitting the ball out of the park at trial may feel good for a lawyer, but ditching the adversarial approach and hashing out a settlement often reaps the biggest rewards, according to Holland & Knight partner Stephen Hanlon, who for 22 years has exclusively handled pro bono cases at the firm.
The proof is in the pudding, and Hanlon has plenty of pudding. He and a team of lawyers from the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana brought a class action on behalf of pretrial juvenile detainees held in horrific conditions at a center in New Orleans, ultimately securing better staff training, better educational opportunities for detainees and a brand-new facility. But those concessions came after hours of discussions with lawmakers and city officials and a 2009 settlement.
“We got relief we would have never gotten in a million years at trial,” said Hanlon, who continues to monitor the settlement. “Typically, if I can get my opponent to breakfast, lunch or dinner, and figure out who their favorite football team is, then I can resolve things out of court.”
That strategy worked well in Presley v. Epps, a class action on behalf of inmates in a notorious maximum-security unit of the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, where they were held in 23-hour-a-day lockdown. Most of the 1,000 inmates should have been in the prison’s general population, according to the suit that Hanlon brought with attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union.
The case settled in 2010 following extensive discussions with Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps. Nearly all of those inmates — 800 — have since been moved into the general population, and a new system for use of force in the prison has been implemented, as has a program by which inmates can work toward better housing in exchange for good behavior.
Sometimes going to trial can’t be avoided, however, and Hanlon is awaiting a decision by the Missouri Supreme Court in a case he argued in December on behalf of Missouri public defenders. Hanlon hopes for a precedent-setting acceptance of the ABA’s new indigent defense guidelines, which limit workloads.
“The public defenders…are handling a hundred or more cases, and it’s grossly excessive,” Hanlon said. “They are providing the illusion of a lawyer, which is extremely dangerous.”