By: Katherine Sullivan | Staff Writer
On Tuesday, March 7, 2017, Staffer Katherine met with Justice Vito M. DeStefano (“Judge DeStefano”) of the Commercial Division of Supreme Court, Nassau County to discuss his background, experience in the Commercial Division, and his advice for new lawyers entering the legal field.
Judge Stefano’s Background
Judge DeStefano has presided in the Nassau County Commercial Division for approximately four years. Before entering the Commercial Division, Judge DeStefano presided in matrimonial and regular civil parts of the Supreme Court. Prior to his election to Supreme Court in 2007, he served as a District Court Judge for four years, where he presided over arraignments of felony and misdemeanor cases, felony “knockdowns,” trials on misdemeanor criminal and civil cases, landlord/tenant matters, small claims matters, and town violation cases. Before ascending to the bench, Judge DeStefano was a senior associate at a major law firm handling insurance litigation of all types and appellate litigation. Before the firm, Judge DeStefano graduated from Brooklyn Law School in 1996 and served as an Appellate Court Attorney at the Appellate Division, Second Judicial Department.
Litigation in the Commercial Division
During the interview, Staffer Katherine asked Judge DeStefano about the differences between commercial litigation and other litigation types that he has experienced in his career. In response, Judge DeStefano stated that litigation in the Commercial Division breeds complexity.
For Judge DeStefano, the complications lie in the frequent motion practice and the complexity of the cases compared to other areas of litigation. Indeed, Judge DeStefano explained that the motions are often complex because of the subject matter, the amounts in controversy, and the extensive resources of the parties.
By way of introduction, the Supreme Court Commercial Division only accepts commercial matters that meet high monetary thresholds. In Nassau County, the monetary threshold is $200,000. This monetary threshold is second only to New York County, which has a monetary threshold of $500,000. Naturally, as the disputes often concern large damages claims, the parties have more at stake and will often engage in extensive motion practice on a myriad of issues. As the Commercial Division has been in existence for little more than 20 years, the case law continues to develop.
With less controlling and persuasive authority available from New York courts, Judge DeStefano frequently must refer to court decisions outside his jurisdiction. Not surprisingly, the Commercial Division judges often look to Delaware case law, comprised of decisions by judges with extensive specialization and knowledge of commercial law, for guidance.
When Judge DeStefano is not on Trial
When Judge DeStefano is not on trial, he spends a majority of his time in conferences with attorneys. These conferences will vary from status conferences, discovery conferences, and settlement conferences. He also spends a majority of his day researching law and writing decisions. Often, Judge DeStefano will work closely with his law secretary in drafting his decisions due to the large volume of motions made in the Commercial Division.
Since Judge DeStefano has had a long judicial career, Staffer Katherine then inquired about his plans when he entered law school. Judge DeStefano admits that in law school, he thought that becoming a judge would be wonderful and amazing, however, he did not plan in law school to become a judge. It was not until he worked as a Court Attorney at the Appellate Division, Second Department, that he believed that serving as a judge was possible.
Advice to Graduating 3L Law Students
After learning about Judge DeStefano’s successful career, Staffer Katherine naturally inquired about advice the Judge could share with graduating law students seeking to enter the workforce.
According to Judge DeStefano, the best advice new lawyers should heed is to “adopt the attitude of a servant.” In the eyes of the Judge, the attitude of a servant will maintain an attorney’s enthusiasm for learning about the law, no matter the area of practice. If a person can adopt this attitude, that lawyer will be well-liked, respected, learn the law, serve the law, and have a good practice. By adopting this attitude, Judge DeStefano has truly enjoyed working in every area of law and has learned so much in every area. He confesses that he still has a lot to learn.
Judge DeStefano ended the informational interview with a discussion of the practical mistakes he witnesses as a member on the bench. First, he noted that the most common mistake attorneys make is the lack of attention to detail in parties’ pleadings. On both the criminal and civil side, parties continually fail to frame proper pleadings.
Second, Judge DeStefano opined that when he first became a judge, he was surprised to observe that attorneys do not cite to legal authority for their client’s relief. While this happens less in the Commercial Division, it has happened in all areas that he has presided in as a judge.
Judge DeStefano’s final words of advice for new attorneys supplemented his second piece of advice. Judge DeStefano stated that he has been asked, “a thousand times,” to grant relief that is unsupported by the law. He will often provide the following response to such attorneys: “Do you have any statutory or other authority for the relief you seek?” The attorneys would often provide the following responses: “this is the way we have always done it” or “inherent authority of the court.”
For Judge DeStefano, such responses are unacceptable and signal to the court that the attorney has failed to prepare the necessary work to support his or her contention or request. This lack of preparation only disserves the client and violates the Rules of Professional Conduct.
Her time with the Judge only reaffirmed a key ingredient to success: preparation is vital to your work.