Ethics & Image
By Brad Hendricks, Previous ATLA President
* Originally published in the ATLA Docket, Fall 2004
This is the last opportunity to communicate with our membership through this forum prior to the legislative session beginning in January. Rarely in the history of our organization has so much been at stake. The vast majority of our members want to know what they can do to help, and there is much that all of us can do.
Obviously, each and every one of us can contribute financially to our cause. If every member of our organization contributed only $250, it would produce a quarter of a million dollars to finance our efforts. That alone could be the difference between success and failure. Failure during this session is simply not an option.
There are other things which every member can do. We can combat the derogatory and false image of us which our enemies continue to promote. Our Public Relations Committee, chaired by Eric Wewers, is doing an outstanding job on that front through a concentrated effort to get the facts before the public and to discredit the half-truths and blatant lies used by our opponents. Chip Welch did an outstanding job of discrediting a nationally known tort deformer during a forum at the law school in Little Rock. But there is also much that our individual members can do to contribute, and we need each and every contribution.
Get the word out about who we really are. We are proud to serve society by resolving its disputes, thus holding the fabric of the society together. We are proud to protect the weak from the tyranny of the powerful. We are proud to be the instrument of accountability for all. That message must go out, and it’s up to us to get that message out through our daily activities, conversations and conduct.
Consider the cumulative effect if every attorney confronted a person who tells a “lawyer joke” with the truth about attorneys in terms of who we are and what we do. Some of us are old enough to remember when racist jokes were met with laughter instead of the derision which greets them today. It’s no different now with respect to so-called “lawyer jokes”. In each case the humor is predicated upon prejudice and hatred. We have to stand up for ourselves, tell the truth, and set the record straight.
Each member of ATLA should develop a personal relationship with their elected officials. Our professional lobbying efforts are important, but they pale in comparison to what our individual members can do. The membership of this organization possesses the power to convey the truth to elected officials, thus discrediting the dirty slogans and outright lies of our enemies. Take your state representative or state senator out to lunch or to play golf. Get to know them. Let them see who you are and what you are about. Convey to them the real-life stories of individual Arkansans who have already been harmed by tort deform. Demonstrate to them that we took a wrong turn during the session of 2003. It’s impossible for our enemies to demonize us when our elected officials can see for themselves that we are in fact “the good guys.”
When someone says something derisive about trial lawyers, ask them if they know any trial lawyers. When they say yes, ask them if those attorneys fit the image which they have just described. Since the answer is always no, remind them that their image of trial lawyers conflicts with their personal experience.
When bills are introduced which are designed to harm your clients and harm the legal profession, call your elected representatives on the telephone. Send letters, faxes and emails to legislators expressing your opposition to the notion of protecting the most powerful at the expense of those least able to protect themselves. In short, act on your convictions. Take time out of your busy schedule to appear at the Capitol during the session to talk with your legislators one-on-one. If we participate in this process at the individual level by getting to know our legislators and by giving them the opportunity to get to know us, we can and will reverse the mistake that our Legislature made in 2003.
We need not and will not use the gutter tactics of our opponents. Tort deform was passed in Arkansas by the use of deception. Repeal of that legislation requires only that we provide legislators with facts as opposed to the false statements and dirty tactics used by our opponents. Our legislators were told that doctors are fleeing the state because of lawsuits. That was false. Our legislators were told that deforming tort law would result in decreased medical malpractice insurance premiums. That was false, and those who made that contention knew it was false. Our legislators were told that there is a glut of so-called frivolous lawsuits clogging the courts. That was false. Those bent on destroying the role of the American jury told legislators in the last session that they would not seek additional manipulation of the legal system if they could just pass Act 649. That was false, and once again those who promoted this special interest legislation knew that it was false. Our legislators must be reminded of these facts so that they can see for themselves who is really on the right side of this issue.
I’m reminded of an afternoon during high school when I was driving to a pre-arranged fistfight against a thug who was known to resort to any form of dirty tactic to win. My best friend handed me a small club and suggested that I put it under my shirt “just in case.” I handed it back and told him that I could not promise that I would win, but that I would promise him a good fight. All that we need in the coming session is a legion of proud trial lawyers who are dedicated to fighting the good fight. Will you join us?