The Matter of the Estate of Lee Siegel, deceased

In The Matter of the Estate of Lee Siegel, deceased, Docket No. P-480-04, Judge Gerald C. Escala, Presiding Judge of the Chancery Division for Bergen County, rendered a decision on December 8, 2005, following a two-day bench trial in an estate matter. The decision centered around attorney fee applications made in the case.

While finding the attorney fee applications themselves to be reasonable, the Court admonished the litigants and counsel for having failed to perform a reality check as they proceeded with the case toward trial. Judge Escala noted that:

“All too often, litigants leave common sense behind when they embark on litigation in which they convince themselves they are destined to prevail, oblivious to the fact that they might not be successful. They also fail to notice the sometimes astounding amount of time in legal services (and costs) they are incurring to pursue their claim. It must be because in addition to their self-conviction of the justice of their case, they also firmly believe they will not have to pay for the legal services, so they proceed vigorously without regard to the costs. Or, they have a notion that counsel fees can be assessed by the court from some unidentified source, that is, one not related to the cause at hand.”

The Court went on to explain that New Jersey follows the American Rule with regard to payment of legal fees, which requires that each side pay their own legal fees, with certain limited exceptions.

Judge Escala’s words should be seriously considered by every attorney and client that becomes involved in litigation. Our courts are not a place to litigate personal feelings or personal agendas. Economic realities must play a key, if not defining, role. The toll in terms of cost, time and emotion is often not appreciated at the outset of a case. Parties should assess the strength of their case at the outset and honestly consider the strength of the other side. Playing the devil’s advocate is a must. Attempting to settle early on through the process of mediation is a wise course to follow. It is true that certain cases will go to trial. However, all trial attorneys and litigants should heed the well written words of Judge Escala.

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