"He has good instincts, but sometimes that's not enough," Roberts said. "The practice of law is changing, but he's not changing with it. Belli made his reputation by thinking on his feet, doing a lot of seat-of-the-pants stuff in trial. But because of new laws on discovery (disclosure of evidence before trial), a lot of that sting of surprise has been taken away from lawyers. Now all the groundwork, preparation and investigation a lawyer has to do today before trial to bring a good suit . . . I don't think Belli is doing."
Reasons for Problems
Former Belli attorney David Rosenberg said he believes that Belli's firm has been beset by problems because Belli tends to hire inexperienced lawyers, overburden them with work and not allow them to spend the money to properly prepare cases.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday January 3, 1988 Home Edition Part 1 Page 2 Column 6 Metro Desk 2 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
A Nov. 29 article in The Times about attorney Melvin Belli, which referred to malpractice suits filed against Belli and lawyers who have been associated with him, did not specify the associates involved. Current Belli associates Richard E. Brown, George O. Fekete, Steven A. Fabbro, Philip C. Gallagher and Kevin R. McLean are not defendants in any malpractice suit.
"Many nights I woke up in a sweat because I was afraid of a malpractice suit," said Rosenberg, who is involved in a legal dispute with Belli over clients. "You had so many cases you couldn't give them the attention they needed. Anytime we spent money we had to get authorization from Belli. And he simply wouldn't spend the money most of the time. You couldn't get the funds to spend on investigations, depositions . . . everything you need to work up the case properly.
"At one time, other attorneys were intimidated by the Belli name," he said. "Now they know that as the case approaches trial, Belli's attorneys won't have the case worked up." As a result, Rosenberg believes, Belli and his associates will often "settle for less than full value."
Belli said he has had problems, not because he overworked his attorneys or refused to spend money on cases, but because he made some mistakes in his hiring of lawyers, which he said have been corrected. And, he acknowledged, he no longer makes the day-to-day financial decisions in his office, and has delegated more authority to his managing attorney.
But during the last decade, former associates said, Belli's own work--even in trial, previously his strong suit--also has been inconsistent. Attorneys who have opposed him and those who have tried cases with him say he often shows up at the last minute, seemingly unprepared and more concerned about publicity than the case at hand.
"We tried a case together in Las Vegas and he flew in the night before," Belli's former associate, Kiernan, recalled. "He didn't have a clue what the case was about. We were in the judge's chambers the next day in a last-minute settlement conference and we all hear a snoring. I looked over and I see Belli sleeping.
"The judge was very polite and said: 'Mr. Belli, I think you'd be more comfortable in another chair.' Belli woke up, looked at me and said, 'Why don't you call this TV station, tell them I'm in town and see if they want to interview me.' "
The case--a malpractice suit against an optometrist in Las Vegas who failed to refer a patient with glaucoma to specialists--"was an easy one that should have been won," Kiernan said. But Belli and Kiernan's client lost. Contributing to the loss, Kiernan believes, was Belli's lack of preparation. Kiernan said he thought Belli botched the cross-examination of the defendant and gave a "totally confusing" closing argument.
Denies He Was Unprepared
When asked about the case, Belli was unable to recall it specifically, but insisted that he never goes to trial unprepared.
Inadequate preparation, however, was a central issue in another dispute involving Belli. In this case, the accusation came from a client--and it led to a malpractice suit against Belli.
According to former client Sandra Baumgartner and arbitrators in San Jose who heard her medical malpractice case, Belli was poorly prepared and failed to present adequate expert witnesses. Baumgartner sued him for legal malpractice and settled last year out of court. The agreement prohibited discussion of the settlement terms, but a source close to the case said the amount was about $75,000.
Baumgartner had suffered from complications after thyroid surgery and Belli filed suit against the surgeon and the hospital where the operation was performed. He claimed that the surgery was unnecessary and that the surgeon incompetently performed the operation.
The original medical malpractice case was scheduled for arbitration--which is similar to a trial--on a Monday. On the Wednesday before the hearing, Baumgartner said, she still had not discussed the case with Belli in detail. She called his office and they told her to come in on Friday. While she was in Belli's office, the opposing attorney called. Baumgartner recalled that he told the attorney, "I haven't even picked up the case to look at yet."
'Get Me a Surgeon'
Then Belli asked his paralegal assistant the name of the surgeon who was scheduled to testify for Baumgartner. The paralegal told Belli that no surgeon had been contacted. Belli began shouting, Baumgartner said, "I can't try a surgery case without a surgeon. Get me a surgeon."