We trial lawyers get paid by insurance companies for administering insurance claims, just like claims adjusters and defense lawyers. Have we become as stolid and conservative as the insurance companies who cut our checks?
We are now in the midst of a corporate takeover of our democratic institutions and precedents. The 2008 election of Obama, once seen as a triumph ushering in a new progressive era, now seems merely a blip in a long term trend towards increased income inequality and corporate control. A right-wing House of Representatives is dictating the political agenda. A conservative Supreme Court is steadily eroding civil rights and fundamental precedents. State legislatures are rolling back union rights and laying off teachers. Most of the Republican presidential candidates are favoring drastic cuts to Medicare and Social Security, and elimination of the EPA and other cornerstones of government regulation.
Despite these alarming developments, our focus as trial lawyers, both individually and in our association, remains narrow and technical. We censor ourselves, avoid political discussion, and keep our heads down and focused on our clients and on earning six and seven figure incomes.
Our dozens of legal education courses are almost exclusively directed on convincing 12 jurors to find for our clients. No training is offered on how we can use our position to convince the broader public to support laws and policies that promote economic and social justice, how trial lawyers can leverage our social and client networks for political change, nor how we can use our formidable oratorical and explanatory skills to advance justice in the broader society. For example, the Gerry Spence/Paul Luvera Trial Lawyers College in March, 2011 forged tremendous solidarity, and fostered open sharing of ideas and a real esprit de corps among trial lawyers as righteous warriors. On the other hand, not a word was said about the right-wing takeover of the House of Representatives, nor what we could have done/can do about it.
Collectively, we have acted as a typical interest group—focused on expanding tort liability and related issues that impact our bottom line—and generally eager to minimize confrontation with politicians or interest groups, for fear that it will limit our ability in Olympia or Washington, D.C. to achieve one of our narrow legislative priorities.
We chose the ambitious name for ourselves Washington Association for Justice. Did we mean it, or was it just clever branding? What does it mean to be “for justice”? Can we be “for justice” focused solely on helping clients one at a time in the courtroom, when the pillars of American egalitarianism and democracy are crumbling?
Many trial lawyers feel guilty about the excellent money we are making, because we know that the system we are squeezing it out of is corrupt and increasingly unfair. While our clients’ incomes are going down, ours are going up, riding three decades of 10%+ annual increases in health care costs. We don’t know what to do about our guilt, and we feel isolated and powerless to do anything about our politics. We keep our heads down and work, and occasionally write large checks to Democratic candidates and worthy causes.
The first step in addressing these issues is for us to address within the organization and as individuals basic questions such as:
• What is the role of lawyers and our trial lawyer organization as advocates for justice outside the courtroom?
• What are the major threats to democracy and the rule of law?
• How can we use the powerful communication skills we practice as trial lawyers?
• How can we gain a platform to influence voters?
• What other groups should we work with to attain our goals?
• How can we ethically involve former clients in political activity?
There are going to be divergent political views within our membership about each of these questions, but we should try to work through these differences, and find common ground where we can. Once we address these questions, we can escape from the narrow roles we have defined for ourselves, and assert bolder leadership at a time when our country desperately needs it.