Helen Bloch authors an article for the Women’s Bar Association of Illinois newsletter, 2016 Winter Edition

What Every Lawyer Should Know About Practicing in the First Municipal District

By Helen B. Bloch

Navigating the 11th floor of the Daley Center can be a challenge for every attorney.    To the right of the elevators are the “small claims” courts and to the left is “housing court.”  Each side has its niche; and, all contain heavy calls.  The 11th floor is just one location at the Daley Center that contains courtrooms that comprise the First Municipal District.  Collections are heard on the 14th floor, jury and motion calls on the 15th floor, and forcible entry and detainer on the 13th and 14th floors.  For the attorney who finds an occasional case that lands in one of these courtrooms, it can be daunting because of the sheer number of attorneys who practice in the First Municipal District, many of whom know one another and are familiar with the nuances of the courtrooms and judges.    


As of February 9, 2016, the First Municipal District became a bit easier to navigate thanks to the WBAI who, along with its generous host, Sidley Austin, arranged for the Honorable E. Kenneth Wright Jr. to moderate a panel of eight fine judges who sit in the diverse courtrooms of the First Municipal District.   The panel was separated between jury and non-jury calls.  The jury panelists included the Honorable Alison Conlon, Eve Reilly, Joseph Panarese and Jim Ryan, while the non-jury panelists included the Honorable Jerry Esrig, Daniel Kubasiak, Diana Rosario, and Patricia Sheahan.  This panel discussion was one of six judicial presentations planned for the current bar year.  The WBAI previously hosted the Law, Domestic Relations, Federal, and Chancery panel discussions or presentations.  Criminal Law, both federal and state, is the next and last judicial presentation, which is scheduled for April 27, 2016. 


A significant consensus among the panelists was that parties should be prepared to provide evidence of service of process on all cases and to have available a copy of previous pleadings and orders that were entered when one steps up to the bench.  Surprisingly, many of the judges found that attorneys who appear in front of them are not always prepared even when cases are set for trial. 


In addition to providing advice, the judges were interested in receiving feedback from the attorneys in the audience.  One such kernel included that judges should try to speak to the parties’ clients about settlement.  Many clients for reasons of pride and principle will not heed the advice of their attorneys and settle.  If, however, the same words were to come from a judge, more parties would consider settlement and avoid trial. 


In cases that go to trial, thoughtful closing arguments are imperative.  One judge commented that he could tell how the jury will decide based on the summation of an attorney, even if everyone knows that closing argument is not evidence.  Thus, it was re-enforced that preparation is all too important. 


While Municipal cases generally are considered “small,” there is no such thing as “small” when one goes to trial.  By way of background, anything above $50,000 usually is heard in the Law division.  This is an administrative division and not jurisdictional.  As such, judges on the 11th floor have presided over cases that exceed $100,000.  Regardless of the amount, the judges encourage the parties to provide visual aids such as pictures of accident scenes and copies of relevant documents to the judge and jurors when showing witnesses a particular piece of evidence.  It makes all the difference in the world as to how a case will be decided if juries fully understand the facts and evidence of a given case.  Moreover, if it is not feasible to have a witness present, such as a doctor, the judges caution attorneys to avoid reading long evidentiary depositions into the record.  Often times the jury will get lost and stop paying attention.  Litigants are advised to get to the points of contention as quickly as possible before endeavoring to establish all points that counsel feel are relevant.  There may be situations where less is more effective in certain situations.


Depending on the court rooms, many of the litigants in Municipal are pro-se.  A study that was conducted shows that if pro-se litigants are allowed to speak their minds and then are given an explanation for a ruling, they will feel much better about the legal process even if the ruling is not favorable to them.  Accordingly, it is important to the judges that pro-se litigants feel as though he/she had her/his day in court. 


With regard to pro-se parties, they do seek juries and therefore, will participate in jury trials without representation.  According to Judge Tom Donnelly, who was present in the audience, this is a wonderful opportunity for attorneys to obtain jury trial experience.  He and Judge Wright work together to appoint attorneys to represent pro-se litigants in jury trials.  For those practitioners who are interested in obtaining such experience, simply contact Judge Wright in 1301 or Judge Donnelly. 


Finally, if one feels that a judge is challenging, Judge Wright recommends speaking with the judge rather than motioning for a substitution of attorney. 


As in all areas of law, prepare, prepare, prepare- even if you are covering for another attorney.  In the advent of “court call” companies, where law firms (especially solo practitioners) utilize a company’s service that provides coverage, many of the judges will ask about the case and will expect to be filled-in.  It is not because the judge is trying to be difficult.  Rather, in Municipal courts, there is such a tremendous volume of cases that the judge needs background information as to a specific case. Furthermore, utilizing a “covering” attorney to prolong a case is not advantageous to attorneys in the long run.  Small claims cases are meant to have an expedited trial schedule.  Specifically, anything $10,000 or less, litigants need leave of court to engage in discovery.  Some litigants abuse the court system and this abbreviated schedule by using the court status calls to collect money owed from litigants.  Thus, continuing a small claim case is usually granted, but within reason.  While it is also important to advise a judge if you are covering for a colleague, still be prepared to apprise the judge with the progress of the case that you are covering. 


As having practiced in Municipal courts on both sides of the 11th floor, in collections and in forcible entry and detainer, the “regulars” are usually very professional and will be helpful if you seek their advice.  Notwithstanding, even in today’s day of technology, nothing can replace sitting in the courtroom in advance of your matter and observing how cases in that courtroom are handled prior to your first appearance.  Reading the standing orders of the various judges too is beneficial prior to appearing on a matter that you know will be pending in Municipal.  If you follow these points, the First Municipal District no longer will appear overwhelming to you! 


Helen Bloch founded the Law Offices of Helen Bloch, P.C. in 2007, which is a general practice firm that helps clients in various matters including employment, real estate and land use, business counseling, and corporate services.  After beginning her legal career at the City of Chicago where she litigated cases in the Municipal Prosecutions, Building and Land Use Litigation, and Torts divisions, Helen was an associate at Bellows and Bellows, P.C. where she represented clients in divorce, business disputes, employment, estate planning, securities, and other matters. 



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