MORGANTOWN – Al Karlin sees his new role as president of the West Virginia Association for Justice as that of a steward.
"I want us to continue what we've been doing," Karlin said in a recent interview. "That includes providing quality education for our members, educating the public about important legal issues and monitoring state government and the Legislature to ensure consumers have a voice in whatever issue that may arise."
Last month, Karlin was named president of the WVAJ, a professional association of nearly 600 attorneys throughout West Virginia and in surrounding states. Karlin has been on the group's executive committee for nine years and was named the association's Member of the Year in 2006.
But Karlin said he wants to do more as the leader of the WVAJ, formerly known as the West Virginia Trial Lawyers Association.
"I also want to get out more of the message of who our members are," he said. "Most of our members are people you don't see in the newspaper every day. They're in the communities every day. I want to spread the message of who we are and the diversity of the people in our organization.
"I see my job as largely continuing what has gone on before me. I want to increase public understanding of who we are."
He said the way to do that is for WVAJ members to get the message out in their individual communities.
"Those folks from Weirton to Wheeling, from Martinsburg to Huntington, in Grafton, Philippi, Wayne … those people are the faces of our group in their cities and towns," Karlin said.
As for the next legislative session, Karlin said the WVAJ hasn't formulated a plan yet. He said they're currently listening to concerns from members.
"One thing for sure is that our members strongly agree that the courthouse doors be kept open to West Virginians when they're the victims of shoddy products, greedy insurance companies and arrogant employers," he said. "We want to make sure there is no assault on people's rights. We want it so that it still becomes possible in West Virginia to hold wrongdoers accountable in our courts. We're always going to fight to make sure of that."
Karlin said another important issue to address is the "bad-mouthing" the state's legal climate takes nationally. Several polls rank the Mountain State's legal climate as the worst in the nation, proclaiming the state a "judicial hellhole."
"On an average day, justice is dispensed in our state," Karlin said. "It's a reputation we don't deserve. Our judicial system is very special.
"In the United States, you can be a worker earning minimum wage. And if you're wronged, you can get a lawyer to go into the courtroom to stand up for you. You can get statements and information from high-level officials. And you have the right to go into court and be treated, no matter who you are, equal. That is something very special. It's something we should treasure and protect.
"You can hold government and corporations accountable in our courts when they do wrong. That's something we really need to understand and cherish in our country."
Karlin said WVAJ members can help turn the state's legal reputation around, too.
"One way is how the West Virginia Association for Justice and its members live our lives," he said. "Show, by example, what we stand for. When people come in and we help them, we have to remind them who we are and that our courts are open and how there is a level playing field.
"We have to be willing to get out there in the public, by talking to newspapers and TV stations, and talk about who we are and what we do."
Also, he said members have to prove that they aren't the stereotypical ambulance-chasing attorney filing frivolous lawsuits.
"We have to be responsible and show, as members, that we don't do what we're being accused of," Karlin said. "When frivolous lawsuits are filed, we're critical of those, too. They should be held accountable like everyone else. When there is a problem, we have to see it and work to solve it."
Karlin, a Chicago native, said he and his wife love to travel when he isn't in the courtroom.
"We like to get around the country, and sometimes around the world," he said. His list of his favorite trips includes Napa, Brazil, China, Thailand, Argentina, Brazil, Israel and Alaska.
Karlin, 62, said he also loves sports.
"I still play on a local softball team," he said. "I like to read. I love movies. I don't hang glide or bungee jump.
I grew up in Chicago, and I became addicted at an early age to the Chicago Cubs. I like to say it's a lifelong and incurable addiction. But I like to think it's the source of my optimism."
Karlin was a member of the West Virginia Lawyer Disciplinary Board for six years and served as its chairperson from 2000 to 2003. In 2004, he was named a Fellow of the West Virginia Bar Foundation. In 2005, he received the Sid Bell Memorial Award from the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia.
He was inducted into the American College of Trial Lawyers in 2006, and he was inducted into the College of Labor and Employment Lawyers in 2007. He is a member of the Ethics and Sanctions Committee of the National Employment Lawyers Association and a member of the board of directors for the West Virginia Fund for Lawyers in the Public Interest.
He is the outgoing co-chair of the Campaign for Legal Aid, which raises funds for the program to provide legal services to low-income clients. He is also an adjunct professor for the WVU College of Law where he has taught pre-trial litigation.
The other WVAJ officers for the 2008-2009 year are: Timothy C. Bailey, president-elect - Charleston; Michael J. Romano, vice president - Clarksburg; Paul T. Farrell, Jr., treasurer - Huntington; Scott S. Blass, secretary - Wheeling; Bernard E. Layne, III, parliamentarian - Charleston; and Teresa C. Toriseva, immediate past president - Wheeling.