Pashman Stein Walder Hayden is the product of a 2016 merger between two small but powerful litigation firms, Pashman Stein and Walder Hayden. The firm had significant appellate victories in criminal, insurance and employment matters, though some of its splashiest engagements, as described below, involved efforts to push forward open public records law.
**The responses were provided by managing partner Michael Stein.**
What were some of the department’s most satisfying successes of 2017, and why?
Pashman Stein Walder Hayden successfully represented clients in five merits cases before the Supreme Court of New Jersey in 2017, and Supreme Court victories are always special, but one of those victories—North Jersey Media Group, Inc. v. Township of Lyndhurst, 229 N.J. 541 (2017)—was particularly satisfying. PSWH represented The Record, the state’s second-largest newspaper, in an action challenging the state’s refusal to release its records relating to a high-speed police chase and shooting under the Open Public Records Act or the common law. The trial court ordered the state to release use of force reports, dash camera footage, and the names of the officers who shot and killed the suspect. The Appellate Division, however, granted the state’s motion for leave to file an interlocutory appeal and reversed the trial court in a published decision that drastically limited transparency and rendered almost all police records confidential. In the most highly anticipated OPRA case in many years, perhaps ever, the Supreme Court reversed the Appellate Division and held that The Record was entitled to use of force reports, the names of the police officers involved in the shooting, and dash cam videos of the incident. Importantly, the Supreme Court’s decision restored transparency over police use of force incidents. As a result of the decision, the attorney general has issued a new directive to all law enforcement agencies requiring them to disclose dash camera and body camera videos of police-involved shootings within 20 days in most instances. The New York Times wrote an editorial praising the decision.
Being a Litigation Department of the Year means more than providing good counsel. How does your group go a step further for clients?
Acquiring and retaining top talent and then dispensing good and sound counsel is, as your question suggests, just the foundation on which superior services to clients rest. Our own view is that each of the very top litigation departments share a passion for our profession, a love of the game and a clear understanding of the vital importance of developing and implementing an action plan that embraces both long- and short-term tactics and strategies designed to optimize the likelihood of meeting clients’ objectives. Our department’s collaborative efforts are infused with an energy, an excitement, an enthusiasm that can only come from a genuine pride in our profession and a full-on engagement in the high-stakes practice of litigation. It is those qualities that we look for in our lawyers, and it is those qualities that enable us to bleed for our clients and leave it all out on the field. Separately, our collaborative efforts are defined by our strategic brainstorming sessions. To state the obvious, what we do is an art, not a science. And it is in the creative and artistic part of our practice that we believe we really distinguish ourselves.
In an era of increasing law practice portability, what does it mean to be an effective litigator in New Jersey?
Regardless of whether law practice portability is increasing or not, our own view is that our answer to No. 2 above captures most of what it takes to be an effective litigator. To the extent response No. 2 appears to focus a bit more on big-picture items, we would add that in order to be an effective litigator day to day, as well as in the long game, a lawyer must have the capacity to sweat the details, to be relentless in his or her determination to overcome all challenges and obstacles in a mono-focused effort to get to the finish line, and to not just have the intelligence necessary to do the job but, more importantly, to have and to exercise good judgment.
Is it true that clients now more than ever wish to avoid litigation, and if so, how do law firms manage the business of operating a litigation department in the new marketplace?
In our long experience, clients generally have always preferred to avoid litigation if possible. To the extent this question is inviting comment on how we manage the unpredictability of litigation and the equally unpredictable nature of annual litigation revenue production, we would respond by saying that it is a tremendous challenge. Estimating expenses has always been fairly simple. But estimating litigation revenue is highly speculative, and often is informed by historical revenue numbers that, as a matter of logic, ought not necessarily foretell future revenues. In the end, we rely in some measure on faith that our good work will continue to strengthen our reputation and expand our visibility as one of the best litigation groups in the region, which, in turn, will increase the likelihood that the calls will keep coming.
Litigators are extraordinarily busy people. What does the firm do to ensure that they remain engaged with pro bono work, their communities and their families?
The answer to this question pertains to transactional lawyers as well as litigators. The truth is that private law firm practice, particularly at fairly sizable firms, can be quite unforgiving and labor intensive. A priority of our firm is to create an institution that we can be proud of, one of high character and one that will endure. In order to meet those objectives, we aim day in and day out to reaffirm how much we value all of our employees, and to sustain a special and unique atmosphere that leaves our employees feeling lucky to be working at PSWH. Encouraging a healthy work-life balance is central to our efforts in that regard. We have among the most, if not the most, generous maternity/paternity policies in the state—20 weeks paid, plus a ramp-up and flex time option to help new moms and dads transition back. This not only promotes a healthy work/life balance, but it also sends a strong message internally and to the outside world that we are trying our hardest to create the kind of environment that is inviting and hospitable to women, and one that will attract the best and brightest women to our firm. We have a personal trainer come to the office gym three times a week, and we subsidize off-site organized fitness efforts. We subsidize and otherwise promote participation in community organizations, charitable and otherwise. And we have one of the most visible pro bono practices in the state, providing action and substance to our belief that giving back to the community is a responsibility that goes along with the practice of law and, more, that pro bono work can and should give more meaning and enrich the professional experience.
Technology and other factors have changed work capabilities and habits. How do you offer flexibility while also effectively managing attorneys and others professionals?
The answer to this one is pretty simple. We treat our lawyers like professionals. We trust that they will timely fulfill all of their work responsibilities and, for the most part, we do not much care where they do it. To be clear, we do believe that fairly regular presence at one of the physical offices is an important part of the PSWH experience, and that something is lost if there is not a certain amount of in-person contact. Nevertheless, lawyers regularly take advantage of technological innovations by working from home or while away on a trip, thus enabling them to attend more easily the activities of their kids and otherwise be away from the office without having to worry about face time or meeting their professional responsibilities.