CHARLESTON -- The president of the West Virginia Trial Lawyers Association said he hopes the group's recently adopted Code of Prohibited Conduct improves the public's perception of attorneys.
"The reality is that the vast majority of lawyers – and most of our 600 members – adhere to the values in this code," said Harvey Peyton, who became president of the group in July. "But the perception is to the contrary.
"We want to impress on our members that we owe it to the people whose interests we represent."
Peyton, whose Peyton Law Firm is based in Nitro, said the idea to adopt such a code has been on his mind for a few years.
"It was the first topic on my agenda (when I took office)," he said.
Peyton, who received his law degree from West Virginia University in 1974, said the members of his group have received the code well.
"There isn't anyone who doesn't agree with the standards set forth in this code," he said. "A few members say it's a sellout to tort reform and that it's an admission that we're doing something wrong.
"But again, perception is reality. And there are some lawyers who are overly zealous in their solicitation of cases. Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1977 in Bates vs. Arizona that lawyers, like other providers of services, had the right to advertise, we have seen nearly 30 years of a constant slide in the public perception of the profession."
Kent Carper, a trial lawyer and Kanawha County Commissioner, said he supports the code.
"What's wrong with high standards for all professionals?" said Carper, who obtained his law license in 1979 and has practiced law for about 20 of the years since then. "As a personal injury lawyer, there is a perception that you're a ghoul or that you profit off other people's misfortune. And part of that is right. In our fault-based system, that's how it works.
"If this code does anything to stop lawyer-bashing, then I'm all for it."
Both Peyton and Carper said a constant barrage of advertisements from lawyers soliciting client can leave a bad taste in the public's mouth.
"If I were a business representative and I flew in here and stayed at the Marriott and turned on the TV and all I saw were aggressive ads for accident injury claims, I'd think maybe this isn't the place I want to be doing business," Peyton said.
Carper said the question then becomes how a lawyer draws in business. The bottom line, he said, is that standards should be high.
"Insurane companies routinely contact people after a tragic accident to persuade them not to hire a lawyer," he said. "They give them advance money to get them on their side. But oftentimes, people aren't compensated properly by insurers. They're a bottom-line type of company. That's their job."
Peyton said the public shouldn't think getting compensated in the court system is easy.
"It's not fair to let the public think you can get something for nothing from the legal system," Peyton said. "That operates to the detriment to the whole profession.
"My mantra constantly has been that the trial lawyers owe it to the public to not be afraid of coming to us."
"That's why this particular effort to let the public know that the majority of us are not in that ilk is so important," he said. "The truth of the matter is that most folks like their lawyer. When they've been hurt or seriously mistreated, they realize a competent lawyer is the only person who can stand up for them."