Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Witt on ATLA's name change

John Witt has an interesting op-ed in today's New York Times -- First, Rename All the Lawyers -- putting ATLA's impending name change in historical context.  After Election Day, the Association of Trial Lawyers of America will become the American Association for Justice.  Witt notes that the group's "vaguely Orwellian" name change is not its first.  Started in the late 1940's by workers' compensation lawyers as the National Association of Claimants' Compensation Attorneys (NACCA), it became the National Association of Claimants' Counsel of America (still NACCA) in 1960 to reflect its members' extension beyond workers' comp to more lucrative personal injury tort cases.  In 1964, it became the American Trial Lawyers Association (ATLA), as "the lawyers had left the compensation system behind altogether for the free-wheeling, high-risk and high-return world" of tort litigation.  In 1972, after a challenge from the American College of Trial Lawyers, the association renamed itself the Association of Trial Lawyers of America (still ATLA).

Witt sees the "trial lawyers' struggle for identity" as "a near-perfect parable for the course of American politics since the 1930's":

As American politics has changed, so have the trial lawyers.  They began as cogs in the wheels of the New Deal's bureaucratic machinery.  They became legal entrepreneurs, identifying creative ways to produce higher awards for their clients in the courts and line their own pockets in the process.  Thanks to mass torts cases arising out of things like cigarettes and asbestos, the association's membership includes some of the wealthiest lawyers in the country.

Witt concludes with skepticism -- which I share -- that the new name will alter Americans' perception of trial lawyers.  America has a love-hate relationship with tort litigation.  Americans look to tort litigation as a semi-private regulatory regime, but don't embrace the entrepreneurial spirit that allows trial lawyers in general, and the mass tort plaintiffs' bar in particular, to play an increasingly significant regulatory role.



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