Friday, August 28, 2009

Attorneys' Approval Rating Is No Suprise

Well, the results are in. The legal profession has a 25% approval rating, according to a recent Gallup poll. Although how we're viewed by the public is never more than a passing curiousity to me, the results are hardly suprising.

Some of the reasons for our low ratings are built into the system. For example, many don't understand how or why criminal defense lawyers defend those charged with a crime (despite our Constitution, which mandates it). TV shows have lampooned us for years. Many politicians are lawyers. I get all that.

But in my field of work, personal injury litigation, I think some of the contributing factors are much clearer than we would like to admit. Some of my colleagues justify our low approval ratings by pointing out that the insurance industry, corporate America, medical groups, The Chamber of Commerce, and artificial turf "citizens groups" (which are funded by most or all of the above) have been engaged in an orchestrated propaganda campaign, spanning over 40 years now, to discredit trial lawyers, lawsuits, juries--you name it--as I've written about here in a past post:
The biggest cheerleader for all this legal reform? None other than AIG Chairman and CEO ($29 million per year) Maurice Greenberg. Below is an excerpt from an excellent article in The Washington Monthly chronicling the orchestrated movement by big business and insurance companies to restrict personal injury lawsuits:

In the mid-1980s, with insurance companies hitting a slump, the insurance industry's "tort reform" movement, as it became known, broadened its emphasis. Instead of limiting itself to targeting individual jurors through mass media advertising, the industry began to heavily lobby legislators to restrict citizens' ability to sue. The movement pursued strict caps on damage awards, tougher standards for proving liability, and caps on plaintiffs' attorney fees. The industry's crusade was taken up by small government conservatives, who believed that tort reform paralleled their own efforts to fill the federal bench with pro-business jurists and roll back government regulations. They were also upset by changes in the 1960s and 1970s that broadened legal protections for women and minorities, such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the expansion of product liability doctrines that made it easier for injured consumers to force companies to compensate them for faulty products. Politically, it was a lot easier to attack juries and trial lawyers than the popular consumer, civil rights, and environmental protection laws they enforced--or the injured victims they represented.

Advertising was a key component of those efforts. In 1986, Newsweek ran a series of ads sponsored by the insurance industry under the heading, "We all pay the price." The ads warned that lawsuits were driving ob/gyns out of business, shuttering local school sports programs, and scaring the clergy out of counseling their flocks--though few of these assertions turned out to be true. That same year, 1,600 tort reform measures were introduced in 44 state legislatures, 21 of which passed significant restrictions on lawsuits and jury awards before adjourning.

Tort reformers still weren't satisfied but were hamstrung by the fact that most Americans didn't see lawsuits as a huge problem. After all, most people never have any contact with the legal system unless they're getting divorced. So, a group of corporate leaders, including AIG's Greenberg, set about to change that by pumping money into right-wing think tanks to prepare a body of "evidence" proving that not only was there a crisis in the courthouse but also that "we all pay the price" as a result.

Sound familiar? This machine has been running since the 1980's! And my colleagues are right-- to a degree. But what many of them refuse to mention, or fail to acknowledge, is an undeniable truth: we have, during this same time, continually shot our collective selves in both feet, arms, legs, and many vital organs as well.

Involved in a minor fender bender that was not your fault? Or did you experience a personal tragedy of losing a loved one in an automobile collision? Well, no matter what happened, you can expect 10-20 "solicitation letters" to arrive at your mailbox within a matter of days.

Watching the Indians game (although I wonder who if anyone is masochistic enough to suffer through watching them this year)? Expect to be bombarded with commercials from dozens of personal injury firms from both Ohio and who knows where else, expressing concern over your plight, and promises to deliver justice and "make them pay."

Want to order a pizza during the game? Don't expect to find your favorite shop on the back cover of the phone book. When I have to travel for a case, I always find the hotel's courtesy local phone book. No matter where I am in the U.S., there is always a law firm on the back cover. I wonder in passing if Congress passed some obscure federal law mandating law firm ads on the back covers of all phone books.

The list goes on and on. Billboards, buses, neat trucks with side panel, rotating messages, you name it. All we need to do is look in the collective mirror and we find the answer: the enemy is us. What we have done to ourselves is just as bad as what the other side has done to us. Are we really suprised that our approval rating is what it is?

Look, this is America. All of this stuff is legal under our First Amendment. The firms which advertise in this manner have every right to choose to do so. And not all of the TV ads are tasteless. But as a firm that does not engage in the practice of mass advertising, and views the practice of sending solicitation letters as downright offensive, we non-participators every right to point out that the cumulative effect of it all has done way more harm than good.

And quite frankly, I'm tired of being tarred with the same brush when I explain what I do for a living, or pick a jury and have to listen to all the complaints about offensive letters or cheesy ads.

It seems to me that have we resigned ourselves as a profession to the notion that "we'll never be popular anyway, so let's just have a race to the bottom" with all the ads and other tasteless marketing. Hmmm. Reminds me of what my Dad told me a long time ago: "If you want to get out of a hole, stop digging!"

Just turn on the TV and watch the dirt fly..........

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