DRI: A Strong Voice For The Defense Bar

Thursday, November 21, 2013 - 13:26
J. Michael Weston

J. Michael Weston

The Editor interviews J. Michael Weston, President, DRI – The Voice of the Defense Bar, and Member, Lederer Weston Craig PLC.   

Editor: Mike, tell us about your practice and the locations of your firm’s offices.

Weston: I defend product liability, commercial litigation, professional liability, torts, insurance disputes, bad faith litigation and insurance coverage. Our firm has offices in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and we cover the entire state of Iowa and also some of the surrounding states – the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Wisconsin, Minnesota and a little bit of Illinois.

Editor: Please tell our readers about your involvement with DRI.

Weston: I have been a member of DRI since 1985. I was the president of the Iowa Defense Counsel Association and became the DRI Iowa state representative. I served in that role for about three years until 2007. In 2007, I was elected as a national director of DRI. Prior to that, I worked on membership issues for the organization and also did some long-range planning. As a national director, I focused on the public policy committee. In 2010, I was elected second vice president of DRI, which is the entry-level position that leads you through the chairs to the presidency. I became president in October of this year.

Editor: What do you hope to accomplish during your term as president of DRI?

Weston: Because we have a rich heritage, we are able to build on the many successes that we have enjoyed going forward and achieve new ones. One example is that on August 15, the Advisory Committee on Federal Rules (Advisory Committee) published important changes in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure regarding discovery that would level the playing field for our clients while proposing a solution to the very expensive problem of over-preservation. We are working closely with our defense bar partners and Lawyers for Civil Justice to get the proposed rules changes adopted with some refinements in the language.  

We have been widely recognized over the past several years as a true Voice of the Defense Bar as a result of the amicus briefs we have filed with the U.S. Supreme Court and also some of the federal circuit courts. We hope to continue to do that. We were rated by SCOTUSBlog last year as being sixth among more than 1,600 organizations in terms of the number of amicus briefs filed with the Supreme Court.

We are also concerned about the diminishing number of jury trials in the country and we work closely with the American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA) to make certain that the right to a jury trial is preserved and advanced. Finally, we want to continue to improve the careers of our members – to provide them with the finest continuing legal education and networking opportunities that we can.

Editor: To what extent has DRI been involved in seeking rules changes that would reduce the cost of e-discovery?

Weston: The Advisory Committee is looking at changes to Rule 26 that will redefine the scope of discovery in federal courts. This process costs Americans billions of dollars each year. The broad scope of discovery has allowed interested parties to discover information that may never see the light of day in a courtroom. This gives the plaintiff the right to go from haystack to haystack, looking for the needle. This is far too expensive.

The Advisory Committee has proposed changes that require the court to sit down with the parties at the outset of litigation and decide what discovery would be required for a particular case based upon the allegations, the amount in controversy, the size of the parties, and their ability to engage in electronic discovery. At the same time, The National Judicial Center is organizing a task force consisting of the justices from every state to look at the state rules in the light of the federal reforms proposed by the Advisory Committee.

Editor: Has DRI addressed issues relating to the quality of the judiciary?

Weston: We believe that the judiciary should be paid adequately to attract the very best judges and that our courts should be adequately staffed and have the administrative infrastructure necessary to do their jobs.

DRI supports rules and procedures that will bring the very best to the bench. We were involved in these issues in Kansas. The Kansas legislature tried to politicize the selection of their appellate judges. We worked with the Kansas Bar and the Kansas Association of Defense Counsel to try to defeat that proposal. We intercede if a state seeks our assistance.

Editor: What is DRI doing to strengthen the jury system?

Weston: We are looking at the different levels of jury trials within a state to see if we can create proportionate systems where smaller cases can be tried more efficiently. We are working with the American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA) and some other groups to advance proposals that small cases (perhaps involving $100,000 or less in controversy) be litigated and tried more efficiently.

Editor: Why is membership in DRI particularly attractive to corporate counsel?

Weston: Several years ago, we started our corporate counsel committee so that they would have an opportunity to work with one another on the issues they confront. We also invite corporate counsel to attend our seminars without cost. Not only do we offer education, but our corporate counsel committee offers the networking and camaraderie of working with other corporate counsel who face similar challenges.

Editor: How important is DRI’s Corporate Counsel Committee in the policymaking process at DRI?

Weston: It is an important voice. In the case of our efforts to change the federal rules to reduce the burdens of the e-discovery process, our corporate members provide us with the information about what really happens to their businesses when they are paralyzed by overreaching discovery requests. Also, our corporate membership led us to expand into Europe more energetically than we otherwise would have.

Editor: What is DRI doing to encourage more involvement of women and minorities in the profession?

Weston: Two of our most vibrant committees in DRI are our Women in the Law and Diversity Committees. Both have very outstanding people leading those efforts and offer great programs and seminars. We are placing more minorities and women in key positions throughout our organization so that they will be prepared to lead the defense bar in the future.

Editor: Tell us about the amicus briefs filed by DRI.

Weston: DRI typically files between 15 and 20 amicus briefs each year in the United States Supreme Court or the federal circuit courts. Occasionally, we will file an amicus brief in the highest court within a state when asked to by our members in that state. We try to focus our amicus efforts on cases that may establish principles that affect our clients’ rights to have fair trials on the merits. Let me give you a couple of examples.

In the Dukes v. Walmart case that was handed down a couple years ago, we filed an amicus brief against certification because the plaintiffs were attempting to lump the treatment of Walmart employees in different stores by different managers throughout the country into one trial and one tribunal, which was unfair.

Recently we filed an amicus brief in the Sears/Whirlpool washing machine cases. In those cases, the issue was whether or not the district courts should have certified a class before they did an analysis to determine what substantive law was applicable. We felt that our corporate clients were entitled to be judged under the substantive law, both statutory and case law, of the jurisdiction in which they do business.

Editor: Describe your Center for Law and Public Policy.

Weston: The Center for Law and Public Policy is our think tank. It studies issues that affect our system of justice such as e-discovery that I discussed earlier. It looks at developments in the law and what position we should take on them. It then sees that our position is effectively communicated to the legal profession and the general public. The Center is starting its second year, and we are already getting a fair amount of attention in the press for the positions that DRI is taking. The Center just conducted its second annual survey of Americans on the civil justice system, including their views on class actions, attitudes toward business in litigation, judicial funding and the right to a jury trial.

Editor: Tell us about DRI’s global presence.

Weston: DRI International is our global committee. We are in 30 countries at present and have a very active European presence that is growing all the time. Earlier this year, we put on an International Arbitration Forum in Prague in which we brought together some of the very best arbitrators on the continent to talk about the strengths and weaknesses of the arbitration process. Our next program will be in Amsterdam in May of 2014. We have not chosen a topic yet, but it will be on an up-to-the-minute, cutting-edge issue about an international practice.

Editors: What role does DRI play in Lawyers for Civil Justice (LCJ)?

Weston: LCJ is an organization that is made up of the leadership of DRI, the Federation of Defense and Corporate Counsel, and the International Association of Defense Counsel, corporate counsel from over 30 major international corporations and individual member attorneys who have joined to advocate systemic changes in the rules and processes that govern our courts as well as to influence state and federal legislation that affects litigation. LCJ is very actively involved in the federal rules change process. It has worked tirelessly for the past decade with the Advisory Committee.

Editor: I had the impression that the Lawyers for Civil Justice’s policies are actively implemented in the various states by the defense counsel organizations, including DRI.

Weston: Well, typically the positions that we take with LCJ are positions we take individually as organizations. So while LCJ does not necessarily advocate state-by-state as the defense organizations do – most particularly DRI – their advocacy at the federal level is consistent. The vast majority of our states adopt and model their court rules of civil procedure after the federal rules. So whenever LCJ works to change a rule, whether it is limitations on discovery or lessening the power of a court to sanction a party for conduct that should not be sanctionable, those changes in the federal system will make their way into the state courts.

Editor: Tell us about DRI's white papers and reports.

Weston: When our Center for Law and Public Policy finds an issue that is very important to the civil justice system, we write a definitive piece or white paper on it. An example is our white paper called Without Fear or Favor, which was first published by DRI in 2005 and then updated in 2010. It looked at our judicial selection process around the country. We also have published other white papers over the years. We are now working on a white paper on class actions.