Tort Reformers Scoff at Trial Lawyer Group’s Name Change

July 21, 2006

The Association of Trial Lawyers of America voted this week during its national convention in Seattle to change its name to the American Association for Justice. ATLA leaders say the name more accurately reflects what they do.

Of course, the name change handed adversaries of the trial bar a public relations opportunity they couldn’t resist.

“What’s in a name?” asked American Tort Reform Association (ATRA) General Counsel Victor Schwartz. Paraphrasing Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Schwartz playfully suggested that such a change for ATLA would be futile. “Will not a trial lawyer by any other name still find irresistible the sweet smell of self-interested litigation?”

ATRA, which was co-founded in 1986 by the American Medical Association and the American Council of Engineering Companies, bills itself as the only national organization dedicated exclusively to tort and liability reform. ATRA’s membership includes nonprofits, small and large companies, as well as state and national trade, business, and professional associations.

ATRA President Sherman Joyce agreed with Schwartz’s notion of justice, but admitted some surprise about ATLA’s name change. “I would not have expected them to drop the words ‘trial lawyers’ from their name since that’s what they are and that’s what they do for a living.”

Defense attorneys are sometimes referred to as trial lawyers, too, and many are proud of it, he added.

“But I’ll admit that ATLA’s name change will actually help end some occasional confusion,” Joyce explained. “Though we’re generally on opposite sides of the legal reform fence, our groups’ acronyms – ATRA and ATLA – are an awful lot alike. Still, dropping ‘trial lawyers’ from ATLA’s name would be like dropping ‘tort reform’ from ATRA’s name, and that’s not going to happen because reasonable, commonsense tort reform is what ATRA is all about.”

Lisa A. Rickard, president of the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform, called the move “an astounding admission of the unpopularity of trial lawyers in America.”

But she doubts it will have much effect. “Obscuring who they are by removing the words ‘trial’ and ‘lawyer’ from their name is only cosmetic surgery unless it is followed by abandoning the high-dollar business model of industry-targeted lawsuits, followed by a real commitment to comprehensive reform of our civil justice system.”

Taking a more serious tone than his previous comments, ATRA’s Schwartz said it would be “wonderful” if the name change signaled other changes were coming.

“If ATLA’s name change indicates an attitude adjustment and new willingness to join us in pursuit of real justice, that’s wonderful. Together, we can work to end abusive litigation, stop rampant forum shopping and place reasonable limits on absurdly high damage awards,” he said.

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