Article written by a woman I work for and published yesterday in my local paper... Who Gave Trial Lawyers A Bad Name? Hartford Courant July 18, 2004 Leslie C. Levin We will hear the term "trial lawyer" often between now and Nov. 2 because of the Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. John Edwards, who was a trial lawyer. Those who oppose the Democratic ticket use the term as an epithet, much as they have made the word "liberal" a pejorative. They expect "trial lawyer" to conjure images of unscrupulous lawyers who sign up clients at accident scenes, bring frivolous lawsuits and thereby increase the cost of malpractice insurance and medical care. The image is wrong, and the truth is more complex than that. The genesis of the image dates to the 1920s, when the elite of the organized bar, who were largely white Protestant males, became concerned with the influx of Jewish and Catholic immigrants into the bar. These newcomers represented individual clients, including those in injury cases, because they could not get into the elite firms that represented corporations. Concerned about what it saw as the lower classes entering the bar, the American Bar Association and others adopted rules against personal solicitation of clients and vowed to investigate ambulance-chasing lawyers. Not surprisingly, the bar created few rules that impinged on the business-getting efforts of its members. With the formation in the 1940s of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, the term "trial lawyer" was born. Its members represented people who had been injured by products or medical malpractice. Part of ATLA's mission was to "promote the public good through concerted efforts to secure safe products, a safe workplace, a clean environment and quality health care." "Trial lawyer" became a dirty word in the1950s, when insurance companies became concerned about their attempts to change the laws that protected corporations against the claims of injured people. There is evidence of concerted efforts by the automobile insurance industry to place anti-trial-lawyer messages in the press during that time. Since then, trial lawyers have been locked in battle with the insurance industry and large corporations. The intensity of the rhetorical battle was shown earlier this year when Maurice Greenberg, the chairman of AIG, the world's largest insurer, referred to trial lawyers as "terrorists." The intensity of the political battle is evident in reports that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represents business interests, will - for the first time ever - actively work against the Democratic presidential ticket because of John Edwards. Of course, the trial lawyers are not without resources. ATLA has 60,000 members and is a significant lobbying force. Trial lawyer associations contribute millions of dollars each election cycle to candidates for statewide offices. So who are trial lawyers really? They are lawyers whose cases range from small auto accidents to sophisticated product liability suits. Some of them barely eke out a living, and others, like Edwards, do well. They typically work hard and take few vacations because they do not have the support staff to do otherwise. They often litigate against well-funded, well-staffed law firms representing corporate clients. Although trial lawyers are often accused of pursuing frivolous lawsuits, the empirical research does not support this claim. A study of Texas personal-injury lawyers revealed that they mostly take their cases on a contingent-fee basis - in part because their clients could not afford representation otherwise. But they often turn away even meritorious suits that would be hard to prove. They simply cannot afford to take them. And they are not, for the most part, ambulance-chasers. I studied New York trial lawyers and found that they hate ambulance-chasers, who steal their business and hurt their image. Yet they are afraid to go after ambulance-chasers because of concerns that a "well-publicized battle would make tort reform seem all the more appealing," according to one lawyer. Today, most of the dollars that go to purchasing legal services pay for representing corporations, not individuals. And although trial lawyers are not without their blemishes, those who use the term as a dirty word should understand that its use harks back to ethnic biases and well-orchestrated public relations campaigns. Beware these stereotypes of trial lawyers. Someday you may need one. Leslie C. Levin is a professor at the University of Connecticut School of Law.