To spiff up its image, the Association of Trial Lawyers of America is considering changing its name to the American Association for Justice.
"You asked us to fight back against the attacks on the civil justice system. We are now doing that - with a national public education and communications campaign to educate the public on the value of the civil justice system and the lawyers that work in it," wrote ATLA president Ken Suggs to members last month.
Suggs said he was proud to be a trial lawyer. "But the name of our association must be about what we do, not who our members are," he wrote.
In June, ATLA's board of governors voted 91-5 to recommend the name change, according to Suggs' letter. ATLA members will vote on the proposal when they gather for an annual convention in Seattle July 15-19.
Skeptics view the maneuver as a PR ploy and doubt that a name change will reflect a shift in the spirit or purpose of the organization.
"If a shark called itself a kitten fish I would still not put my daughter in to play with it," said Victor Schwartz, president of the American Tort Reform Association.
Schwartz said if trial lawyers are interested in battling injustice, he "would love to talk with them."
He said he would welcome the opportunity to discuss forum shopping, limits on damages and joint liability, for instance.
"They want to run from the name of what they are," he said. "They do trial work."
Schwartz said he understood why trial lawyers opted for a name change years ago from ATLS (American Trial Lawyers Society). The organization's icon was Atlas holding up the world. But he doesn't get why they want to part with the term "trial lawyer."
"It isn't a bad name," Schwartz said.
Suggs told members that ATLA launched a communications campaign last year and conducted research on how to reframe the civil justice debate. He also said that national professional organizations change their names "all the time."
"We're making a difference with the media, driving our storyline, hitting back with ads on television and in newspapers, using new media like the internet and blogs to target new audiences and taking the fight to the home turf of our opponents in Congress," Suggs wrote.
"The insurance companies, the big oil and drug companies and their CEOs have spent billions of dollars to define us over the last 50 years. I know you've seen the result of their smear campaign," he wrote.
"The goal of our campaign is to tell the public the true story about who we are and what we are fighting for. Doing so requires redefining how the public sees us as well as how they see our opponents. We know from our research that if our message is or seems to be only about helping lawyers, we lose. But the public wins if this is about fighting to level the playing field, holding corporate wrongdoers accountable, and ultimately fighting for justice."