John Fabian Witt: Why trial lawyers are (once again) changing their name

Roundup: Historians' Take

[John Fabian Witt, a professor of law and history at Columbia, is the author of the forthcoming “Patriots and Cosmopolitans: Hidden Histories of American Law.”]

IF a rose would smell as sweet by any other name, will trial lawyers smell better with a new one? That’s the question posed by the impending self-reinvention of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America. After Election Day, the 65,000-member outfit whose lawyers brought us multibillion dollar settlements in cigarette cases, millions of asbestos injury claims and lawsuits over McDonald’s coffee will change its name to the American Association for Justice.

There’s already been much wry snickering about the organization’s vaguely Orwellian new banner. But it’s not the first time the kings of torts have changed their name, and it probably won’t be the last. For a half-century now, trial lawyer identity crises have been exquisitely sensitive barometers of American politics.

In the late 1940’s, a cadre of poorly paid and status-starved lawyers representing injured workers (the claimants) in the workers’ compensation system banded together to form a lobby dedicated to the advancement of their own and their clients’ interests. They called their group the National Association of Claimants’ Compensation Attorneys.

That name worked for only a few short years. The problem was that the workers’ compensation system was designed to streamline the resolution of worker injury cases by eliminating (or at least minimizing) lawyers’ fees. Lawyers in the system therefore had little hope of gaining wealth or prestige. With the assistance of early association leaders like the flamboyant San Francisco lawyer Melvin Belli, the group’s lawyers began to extend their expertise to personal injury cases in the courts, where the fees ran much higher and where their Perry Mason-like trial techniques might earn them a measure of respect.

In 1960, the association formalized its new outlook by changing its name to the National Association of Claimants’ Counsel of America, a moniker that repositioned the group as one of lawyers for victims not just in the compensation system but also in the courts. Four years later, the organization renamed itself the American Trial Lawyers Association. By then its transformation was complete: the lawyers had left the compensation system behind altogether for the free-wheeling, high-risk and high-return world later made famous by Julia Roberts in “Erin Brockovich” and John Travolta in “A Civil Action.”

But the 1964 name stuck for less than a decade. Another lawyer organization — the American College of Trial Lawyers — complained that the names were too similar. The defense lawyers in the college apparently worried that it would be tainted by nominal association with the lowly lawyers’ group. In 1972, the American Trial Lawyers Association gave in to the litigation by the college and altered its name to the current (and now soon to be abandoned) Association of Trial Lawyers of America....

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