Color us encouraged that some of West Virginia’s most prominent plaintiff’s attorneys have suddenly become image-conscious. And we don’t mean more mindful of how smooth they look in those late-night television commercials.

Harvey Peyton, president of the West Virginia Trial Lawyers Association (WVTLA), has pushed the group to adopt and now is hoping his 600 fellow members embrace a new “Code of Prohibited Conduct.”

The Code, approved unanimously by WVTLA's Board of Governors, is intended to set some clear ground rules for the slicksters and serial lawsuit filers among them. Namely, clean up your acts-- or you are out of our group.

Mr. Peyton, of Nitro, has said publicly that he thinks perception matters-- and he doesn't like the perception average folks have of West Virginia trial lawyers. Officially condemning frivolous lawsuit filing, ambulance-chasing, and trying cases in the media, the code is a first step in his image rehab project. He plans to take on lawyer advertising next.

Mr. Peyton's broader concept—- that lawyers have a responsibility to rein in their own when they get out of line—- is plain prescient.

He has probably seen how other “professional” groups—- like corporate directors and equity analysts—- have paid the price for letting outsiders sort out their dirty laundry.

Bored legislators and ambitious attorneys general are always glad to fashion their own solutions for press-ready problems they hardly know. Thank Sarbanes-Oxley for a recently painful example.

For lawyers, who we should all hold to the highest of standards as privileged, sworn officers of the court, self-regulation should mean more than writing up a conduct code. It should mean more than goals and promises; it should mean accountability.

Reckless or extortionate lawyers need to know that our courts exist to dispense justice, not provide settlement leverage so they can get rich. Abusive actions should have real consequences; consequences that are best internally-dispensed.

Groups like WVTLA need to openly push abusive lawyers-- no matter how wealthy or powerful-- to find another career. We mean forced out of the legal business—- by other lawyers themselves.

Now that would be some kind of “tort reform.”

Godspeed, Mr. Peyton. The messenger always needs it.

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