ATLA wants to drop 'trial lawyer' from name

By Ann Knef | Jul 13, 2006

Steve Cohen

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.

In his writing to members, 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.

Locally, the West Virginia Trial Lawyers Association is waiting to see what ATLA does before making any changes.

Beth White, executive director of the WVTLA, said any name change that might occur wouldn't happen until next year at least. She said the issue would have to go before the group's board and then be put to a vote by the entire membership.

In June, ATLA's board of governors voted 91-5 to recommend the name change, according to Suggs' letter. ATLA members will vote July 15-19 on the proposal when they gather for an annual convention in Seattle.

ATLA spokeswoman Chris Mather said the name change idea began because of attacks on the civil justice system by big corporations.

"The discussion has arisen because we want to make it clear about what's at stake," Mather said Thursday. "People's rights, their safety, their health, their well-being are on the line.

"The civil justice system is under seige from big corproations who will stop at nothing to evade responsibility for negligence. From polluting our water, putting dangerous drugs on the market, swindling employees out of their pensions, you name it."

Mathew said the focal point of ATLA's efforts are "to make clear to the public what's at stake."

"Big corporations are fighting for bigger profits, and trial lawyers are fighting for people," she said.

Skeptics, however, view the maneuver as a public relations 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.

Steve Cohen, executive director of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, said he thinks the group's members are driven by "jackpot profits" rather than justice.

"Consider the West Virginia personal injury lawyer who took more than $143,000 when his client received less than $9,000," Cohen said. "The name change is just a gimmick to try to avoid public concern about the way lawsuit abuse takes away job opportunities for West Virginia workers and their families.

"Also, since the state Supreme Court has opened up our courts to out-of-state lawsuits, we will be seeing a flood of new lawsuits coming into our courts at the expense of West Virginia taxpayers. Why? For profits, not justice."

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."

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