The $10,000 phone call

In my story today about a collection dispute between two lawyers, I was unable to include some interesting expert witness testimony.

Leonard H. Shapiro, a longtime criminal defense lawyer in Owings Mills, testified for the defense about the $10,000 legal fee at the heart of the case. George Michael Perez paid that amount to T. Wray McCurdy up front to defend Perez against arson charges filed by prosecutors in June 2007.

The sides dispute whether the money was an engagement or retainer fee. Shapiro, who called it an engagement fee based on the contract, said that was a reasonable amount regardless of what type of fee it was because of the complex nature of arson cases.

“Almost always you’re dealing with expert testimony and lots of discovery,” he said. “They are circumstantial cases developed through evidence.”

Under cross-examination by Michael T. Wyatt, Shapiro said retainer fees are different in a criminal case than in a divorce case. A criminal retainer does not have to be earned, he said, and there are some cases where an entire fee is required up front.

Shapiro then hypothetically made himself a lawyer who received a $10,000 fee to defend a client against arson charges. Shapiro said that money would be a reasonable fee if he called the State’s Attorney’s office and pointed out the flaws in prosecutors’ case, which ultimately led to the charges being dropped.

“Is $10,000 for a phone call reasonable?” Wyatt asked.

“In certain circumstances, it could be,” Shapiro replied.

Thoughts from the peanut gallery?

Best expert witness ever

Legendary comedian Soupy Sales died last week at the age of 83. Sales is perhaps best known as the master of the pie-in-the-face and estimated he had been hit more than 19,000 times, according to his obituary in The Washington Post.

You might say Sales could be considered an authority on pie throwing with all of his experience. And he almost was, according to this nugget from The Post’s obit:

He became something of an expert on the messy staple of slapstick comedy and once testified at a Navy court-martial on behalf of a sailor accused of throwing a pie in an officer’s face. The military court was not amused, and the sailor was convicted.

No word if the sailor turned to the pie-throwing experts from Dewey, Cheatum & Howe on appeal.

Hot tubbing at trial

The term “hot tubbing” doesn’t just apply to time spent in a warm tub with a few of your closest friends anymore. It is also a way to present expert testimony at trial.

According to a New York Times article — one in a series on the American legal system — the U.S. is one of the few countries in the world that uses “partisan” experts, hired by each side, in criminal and civil trials.

Australians, by contrast, have developed a procedure dubbed “hot tubbing.” Partisan experts are still used, but they testify together at trial. They discuss the case and answer questions from the judge and lawyers, as well as questions posed to each other.

Justice Peter McClellan of the Land and Environmental Court of New South Wales says that when experts are hot tubbing, “[y]ou can feel the release of the tension which normally infects the evidence-gathering process.”

Same goes for that bubbly tub experience.

CHRISTINA DORAN, Assistant Legal Editor