Extreme makeover: Lawyers' edition

By The West Virginia Record | May 11, 2007

They're trial lawyers no more.

Instead, members of the group formerly called the West Virginia Trial Lawyers Association (WVTLA) have a new way to describe themselves.

Now, they're in the business of selling "justice." That's as in the "West Virginia Association for Justice," which hopes not to be tainted by the ambulance-chasing, shameless advertising and small business-extorting brigade that plagues the profession.

The behavior of some trial lawyers has wrecked the term "trial lawyer," and they no longer wish to be associated with it.

They no longer wish to be associated with themselves.

Color us skeptical that a re-branding exercise will do much to turn around this sagging reputation. Their "old" name -- it couldn't have been more plainly descriptive or innocuous -- didn't put them in this hole. A purer-sounding new one can hardly be expected to get them out.

In fact, this story is all about actions. It has nothing to do with words.

Indeed, it was the behavior of West Virginia trial lawyers that transformed "trial lawyer" from a designation of honor and respect into something of a pejorative. We non-law degreed citizens didn't just happen upon the opinion that too many lawyers are just in it for the money; we witnessed it with our own eyes.

We saw lawyers use their position and privilege to threaten and bully honest people into paying them to go away. We watched the ads recruiting put-up plaintiffs for conjured up cases, their purpose solely to generate legal fees. We received the coupon class action settlements in the mail, read about the lawyer-fueled asbestos fraud and listened to our doctors and our employers, who fear a single frivolous lawsuit could put them out of business.

And we wondered -- how can this go on unchallenged? Why don't the honorable members of the group formerly known as WVTLA -- and that means most of them -- have the courage to confront their bad apples? Why doesn't someone sanction or disbar or publicly reprimand them for dragging the profession into its current state of common disrepute?

We'd guess the answer is part fear -- the bad guys are often the richest guys -- and part money. In the Mountain State's lawsuit-happy culture, a rising tide lifts all legal practices.

Greed, once it pays off, can be a hard habit for lawyers to shake. Until the time comes when it finally isn't, their exploits will be seen by the broader public for what they are, not what they're called.

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