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Butt of jokes, U.S. trial lawyers worry about image


WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- U.S. trial lawyers, the frequent butt of jokes equating them with sharks, complained Friday about what they called declining respect for their "noble profession" and urged law schools and others to address underlying problems.

"Lack of respect and confidence seems to have developed in the public's mind for the trial practice and trial practitioners of all types," the 400,000-plus-member American Bar Association (ABA) and other lawyers' groups said in a major policy statement.

The lawyers' groups spelled out their concerns in a first-of-its-kind "white paper" aimed at improving the system that metes out justice in noncriminal matters such as torts, insurance and product liability cases.

Publication of the paper capped a three-year effort that brought together a broad cross-section of lawyers' groups collectively known as the American Civil Trial Bar Roundtable.


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They said "tasteless advertising" -- by implication by plaintiffs' attorneys touting potential big payouts in personal injury cases -- had "no doubt" contributed to declines in public esteem.

Also cited were perceptions that lawyers' work had degenerated from a "noble profession" to a "mere business enterprise" motivated more by money than by public service as officers of the court.

In addition, the roundtable voiced concern about a perception of lawyers' lack of civility toward one another, witness "win-at-any-cost" tactics and "hardball ultimatums."

"All lawyers and legal organizations must work together to restore the American public's respect for its lawyers and legal system, and especially so for trial lawyers and the civil trial Bar," it said.

The paper urged changes in law school curricula "to advance courses that instill a sense of professionalism in the future practictioners." It called on individual lawyers to help "restore a sense of professionalism in younger colleagues through mentoring and other programs that stress fair and ethical treatment of fellow and opposing counsel."

"Creative ways to inform the public about the value of the civil justice system and the lawyers involved in it must be developed," the groups added in the report released at a National Press Club news conference.

In bemoaning trial lawyers' supposedly declining public standing, contributors to the report acknowledged that they were relying on anecdotal evidence -- including shots by late-night television hosts -- and that the phenomenon was not new.

"I was only abused by lawyers twice in my life -- once when I was sued by one and once when I hired one," said Robert Parks of the International Academy of Trial Lawyers, quoting the 18th Century French philosopher Voltaire, to demonstrate lawyer-bashing has been around for some time.

Beside the ABA, the white paper was endorsed by a broad cross-section of defense and plaintiffs' attorney groups including the American Board of Trial Advocates, the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, the Defense Research Institute, the Federation of Insurance and Corporate Counsel and the International Association of Defense Counsel.

Also signing on were the Association of Defense Trial Attorneys, the Academy of Rail Labor Attorneys, the Association of Defense Trial Attorneys and the Association of Defense Counsel of Northern California.

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