What ever happened to all those jury verdict reporters?

By Richard Neubauer

Originally published in Advocate Magazine for Consumer Attorneys, 2003.

Reprinted here with permission.

As I wandered through the Consumer Attorneys of Los Angeles (CAALA) convention in Las Vegas, a grey-haired guy walked up, grabbed my arm, and said, “Hey, you’re Neubauer, right? You published that jury verdict sheet. What’s happened to all those damn things?”

Well, they’re gone – most of them, at least. But let’s take a step backwards. If you practiced trial law in Southern California in the second half of the Twentieth Century, you read jury verdict reports. The publications, all family-owned and operated, were more frequently called “jury sheets” and “brag sheets,” the later term originating from the fact that the winner of a trial usually sent in the verdict report to be published. The other side was given the opportunity to corroborate or dispute the report, but often as not the loser never responded to requests for comment.

Aside from bragging, the “sheets” had several real values. Lawyers used them to learn what juries had awarded for specific injuries (for instance, the jury value of a fractured femur for a 30 year-old school teacher). Researching jury verdicts was useful for finding an expert for your case or impeaching the other side’s expert, as well as for spotting and tracking new trends in tort litigation. Verdict reports could help determine if a judge leaned towards plaintiffs or defendants, served as a sourcebook for lawyer-to-lawyer referrals, and were used by insurance companies to see if a plaintiff’s attorney had a track record in trial and hence his settlement demand should be given serious heed.

My wife and I published one such reporter, “Confidential Report For Attorneys - CRA” or as it was known by old-timers, the “Yellow Sheet,” because it was originally mimeographed on yellow legal-sized sheets by its founder, E. Wayne Shannon, a retired Air Force officer. Starting in 1964, Shannon and his wife, Nitasha, hired law students to collect information from LA County branch courthouses. When that method of collection became too costly, they started relying on reports submitted to them by the attorneys who tried the cases. The couple published the “sheet” until their divorce, whereupon she took it over for several years. My wife and I bought CRA in 1989, later enhancing the service with a searchable database of verdicts on a CD-ROM called, appropriately enough, Verdicts on Disk.

It was a nice little business. We even had a national association of state jury verdict publishers, all mom and pop operations, and we would go to some nice hotel for a meeting every year (deciding where to hold the next year’s meeting was the biggest item on the agenda).

In 1999 we sold Confidential Report for Attorneys to the rather quiet businessman who would become the king of jury verdict reporters in California, Mark Haslam. Haslam, who spent his earlier years working for automotive trade publications, had quietly began buying up jury verdict reporters around 1988, when he and his brother Donald, a prominent family law attorney in Ontario, California, purchased Plaintiff’s Confidential Report from Jack and Cheryl Gordon. (Yes, having two verdict reporters with similar names was confusing, and more than once we received subscription payments intended for the other publication, so we entered them as a new subscription to our reporter. Haslam later folded Plaintiff’s into his other verdict reporter.)

In 1990 the Haslams bought Verdictum Juris from its founding family, the O’Briens. Eldon O’Brien, a former insurance adjuster and private investigator, started printing the little brown book twice monthly in 1979, becoming well known for his tongue in cheek headlines: He Cut Me OFF!...Kill Him! That for the wrongful death of a drunk pick up truck driver who cut off a patrol car and was pursued, shot and killed by the patrol officer, resulting in a verdict of $3.6 million in 1994.

O’Brien later compiled his little brown books into an annual big green book called O’Brien’s Evaluator and sold thousands of them. O’Brien was a well-known figure at the annual LATLA Las Vegas Convention (LATLA is Los Angeles Trial Lawyers Association, the former name of CAALA) where he’d hobnob with all the big name trial attorneys, many of whom he honored with his annual award, the Verdictum Juris Trial Lawyer of the Year.

In 1992, the Haslams made a third acquisition, Tri-Service, a weekly reporter on the downtown LA courts dating back to 1982. Tri-Service wasn’t much on typography – it pretty much ran on a typewriter and a Xerox machine – but its founder, criminal defense attorney Mel LaValley, was first on the street with the big downtown verdicts, paying a reporter to haunt the Central Courthouse and get the scoop as soon the courtroom doors burst open.

Down in San Diego, meanwhile, they had their own monthly verdict reporter, run by attorney Spencer Busby from his penthouse law offices. Trial Trends was one of the first reporters to include not only trials but also binding arbitration matters. And yes, the Haslams bought Busby’s publication, too, in the late ‘90’s.

Southern California wasn’t home to all the jury sheets, however. The oldest and largest of them all, Jury Verdicts Weekly, was founded in 1956 and printed in Santa Rosa by the Raymond family. Many larger defense firms favored the “blue book” for its frequency, it’s law journal-like appearance, and its decided tilt towards the defense side of the aisle. It seemed to be the one reporter that defense attorneys would report a case to even if they lost. The Haslam brothers bought it from Ken Raymond in 1998, outbidding a well-established jury verdict publisher from Long Island, New York, and keeping ownership out of the hands of those pushy New Yorkers – at least for a while.

Confused yet? There’s more. In 1991, a bunch of fellows up in the Bay Area, led by attorney/investor P. Kurt Peterson decided that there wasn’t a verdict reporter in California that offered “a balanced presentation of trial information” and so they started one, Trials Digest. At first, it had glossy paper and looked like a slick magazine – a radical departure from the “sheets.” Its stated goal was to publish every Superior Court civil case in California. Needing a database of historical cases for research purposes, Trials Digest took over a long-time Sacramento-based reporter, The Gavel, which had concentrated on Northern California cases. The Gavel’s former owner, John Hartney, had made an arrangement with Eldon O’Brien down in Southern California to sell each other’s case reports for research purposes, and that arrangement accrued to the benefit of Trials Digest, giving them a statewide database (much to the displeasure of Haslam, who had purchased O’Brien’s Verdictum Juris).

Well, glossy paper or not, Trials Digest soon ran into financial trouble and its backers tried to sell it (I know, because they offered it to me). Finding no takers at the offered price, the operation was downscaled so publication could continue. Today, it is run by Todd Wolfe from a small Oakland office and is the only California owned and operated jury verdict reporter. That is unless you consider the Los Angeles Daily Journal.

When the Daily Journal (DJ) entered the verdict reporting field in 1993, it brought jury verdict reports to the legal masses, raising their visibility and validating their importance. Corporate lawyers who had never seen a verdict report suddenly found themselves reading about the David and Goliath battles going on in the civil courts. The DJ soon turned Verdicts & Settlements into a tabloid-sized supplement, including profiles on leading attorneys and articles on major trials. The DJ’s move cost us small publishers a lot of money as some subscribers to the DJ decided they no longer needed a subscription to a verdict reporter. More importantly, it brought verdict research services rather than subscription income to the top line of our P&L statements, as the DJ didn’t offer research. Subscriptions to print publications took a further hit when Lexis and Westlaw began licensing verdict data from our verdict reporters, sending us a nice royalty check every month. Attorneys who only wanted information and not the “news” craved by verdict junkies could now go to Lexis rather than subscribe to a reporter.

So what happened to all the verdict reporters? The Daily Journal ceased publication of its Verdicts & Settlements section in 2002, and now incorporates about 25 verdict reports into its weekly Daily Journal Extra tabloid section.

Mark Haslam continued to run all of his reporters as separate publications, consolidating their offices and research operations, but giving little indication to readers that ownership had ever changed. In the case of Verdictum Juris this went on for years, with Eldon O’Brien still showing up for the annual Las Vegas convention as if nothing had changed. A smart move by Mr. Haslam. Then came the offer he couldn’t refuse.

One of America’s largest legal publishers, New York-based American Lawyer Media (ALM), became interested in the verdict business, and went on a shopping spree for major verdict publishers across the country. They offered to buy out the Haslams. Soon after that deal closed in January 2001, all of the California publications were consolidated into one title – Jury Verdicts Weekly. Today, even that venerable name has disappeared, with ALM renaming it VerdictSearch: The California Reporter. At this writing there is still a small office in San Diego, but the decisions are made on Madison Avenue in New York, where a young woman, Kristin Antush, presides over most of the verdict publishing and research business done in and for California.

It seems like a trend: first Wells Fargo and Bank of America were bought up by out-of-state banking behemoths, then our own PacBell became SBC (of San Antonio, Texas), and finally the jury verdict reporters moved to Manhattan. What’s next? Hollywood moving to Trenton, New Jersey?