You’re nothing but a … trial lawyer!

Marketplace Staff Jan 3, 2008
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You’re nothing but a … trial lawyer!

Marketplace Staff Jan 3, 2008
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KAI RYSSDAL: It’s probably no accident four of the top six candidates in Iowa — three Democrats and one Republican — went to law school. Lawyers just seem to have this itch for a good fight. Didja hear about the two trial-lawyer groups that’re suing each other? Commentator Jeff Birnbaum explains.


JEFF BIRNBAUM: Lawyers are always suing each other. After all, that’s what they do. But lately a particular set of lawyers — trial lawyers to be exact — have gone to court over what to call themselves.

Last year, the Association of Trial Lawyers of America changed its name to the more highbrow American Association for Justice. Around the time of the change, an upstart group of lawyers created a new organization. Its name: the American Trial Lawyers Association.

Sound similar? Well, yeah. But the new group says the old group abandoned the name, putting it — or anything pretty much like it — up for grabs.

Not so, says the American Association for Justice. It filed suit to prevent the new group from using anything even close to its old acronym, ATLA. On top of that, yet another group, the American College of Trial Lawyers, has also filed suit. The new group, it says, sounds entirely too much like itself.

The freshly minted American Trial Lawyers Association, appropriately enough, is fighting back — and, of course, in court.

But here’s my question: Why bother? The term “trial lawyer” has got to be one of the most reviled phrases on the planet. Corporate lobbyists have spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to convince the public that trial lawyers are no-good, money-grubbing, company-killing parasites. And those are the nice things they say.

National polls have long shown that the term “trial lawyers” is a huge burden for plaintiff’s attorneys of all kinds, even those who don’t sue corporations for a living.

A survey in October by the anti-trial-lawyer Institute for Legal Reform showed that the name Association of Trial Lawyers of America is viewed unfavorably by six times as many people as its new name, the American Association for Justice.

Indeed, that kind of finding is why the trial lawyers group changed its name in the first place. The phrase “trial lawyers” is basically an epithet. If some organization wants to call itself that, nobody should sue to stop, even, pardon the expression, trial lawyers.

RYSSDAL: Jeff Birnbaum is a columnist at the Washington Post.

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