This is the business we have chosen

John J. Hopkins Jul. 30, 2006, 5:18am

The Association of Trial Lawyers of America - ATLA - met in convention in Seattle during the week of July 17th. In an act of panic and unbelievable cowardice that would embarrass even the French, by a 2-1 margin ATLA's Board of Governors voted to drop "Trial Lawyers" from the name, changing to the "American Association for Justice."

As the vehicle for today's column, I have chosen the 1997 film "Good Will Hunting," the overrated, self-indulgent buddy movie that gave Robin Williams an Oscar, and Matt Damon stardom, both dubious propositions at best. While the picture was less than stellar, the title gives rise to discussions of the subject at hand.

It is no secret that the public opinion of lawyers -- trial lawyers in particular -- is at an all time low, no doubt the effects of the incessant and so very effective campaigns by the Dark Side.

Led by the Chamber of Commerce, the unceasing barrage of lies and slanderous distortion has succeeded in poisoning the public mind against lawyers, resulting in a marked loss of good will.

Bar associations and other legal organizations on a local, state and national level have wrestled with the problem of how to enhance the image of lawyers, how to win back a reputation stolen by deceit. In short, the business of Good Will Hunting.

The problem is that too often a solution is proposed that is nothing but cotton candy fluff, like the ATLA name change. Focus groups have shown that the name "trial lawyer" carries a negative stigma, with all the attractiveness of the plague, to be shunned at all costs.

Funny, in the 1991 film "A Few Good Men" when he was one of "two Marines on trial for their lives," faced with a devastating cross examination and woefully under-prepared by his lawyer, PFC Louden Downey "NEEDED A TRIAL LAWYER!!" 15 years pass and we became expendable..

Obviously, the forest cannot be seen for the trees, so I guess we should run Forrest, run.

The problem is not the name, but what we have allowed it to stand for. Instead of courageous souls standing up for the individual against corporate indifference or the power of the State, it now means unbridled greed, with a myopic allegiance to political allies whose only grace is to maintain the status quo.

Instead of Abraham Lincoln or Atticus Finch as its face, it has become Steven Tillery and John Simmons. No amount of philanthropy will cover the blemishes that are systemic. After all, Al Capone gave to the Little Sisters of the Poor. To give the devil his due, Victor Schwartz of the American Tort Reform Association, no friend here, said it best: "You can change the name from tiger shark to kitten fish, but my kids are still not getting in the pool."

I am led to believe that the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association -- ITLA -- is contemplating a similar name change. I am further led to believe that President Judy Cates of Swansea, while personally in favor of such a move, intends to solicit membership opinions from throughout the state through a series of meetings.

I applaud such a move, and at the risk of jumping the gun, offer my two cents worth now. I harken back to the turn of the century newspaper icon, Mr. Dooley.

The creation of satirist Finley Peter Dunne, Mr. Dooley dispensed liquor and homespun advice to the readers of the Chicago Journal and the Chicago Post. In analyzing this problem, he might well have said.... "Suppose ye had the problem of a skunk crawlin' under the porch and dyin'. Now the Frenchman would spray the area with his ode Cologne, hoping to hide the smell. But the Irishman, knowing something was indecent below, would hold his nose, go to work and clear out the mess once and for all."

Madame President, we have a dead skunk under the porch, metaphorically speaking of course. The problem is the attitude that believes that the purpose of the courts is the generation of attorney fees, without regard how or why.

Such an attitude is not limited to class actions or territorially tenuous toxic torts, but includes the churning of files by defense firms, with specious motions and dubious objections, as well as the family lawyer, milking the beleaguered divorce client so badly that they come away with not only the pain of dissolution, but contempt for the system that legitimizes it.

While reform is needed on many levels, we are plaintiff's lawyers, and the focus should be so narrowed. Support must be not for the French perfume of name change, but the real reforms that stem the tide of avarice over professionalism.

We need to do much more than simply increase the advertising budget, but support reforms rooted in self restraint and respect for the system. This will be hard and will involve the pain of self-criticism at the highest level. But it will be worth it, for by doing so, the truly valid claims can have a fair day in court, without the negative baggage, so undeserved, unsolicited, and unauthorized. The rising tide will surely lift all boats. Thus endeth the lesson.

Being a trial lawyer is clearly a choice deliberately made. In the words of Hyman Roth in "Godfather II" ... "it is the business we have chosen." It is what we do.

Our enemies take delight in this showing of weakness, a sense of shame, an admission that "trial lawyer" is the mark of Cain. Only continued erosion of the role of the law as the legitimate arbitrator of civil disputes will be the end product of such self-defeating actions.

Let us hope that the insanity goes no further than Seattle.

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Organizations in this Story

American Association for Justice
777 6th Street Northwest
Washington, DC 20001

Illinois Trial Lawyers Association
401 W Edwards St
Springfield, IL 62704

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