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From the Sept/Oct 2004 Issue
2004 ATLA Convention
During the last 13 years of my legal career, I have attended many "law" conventions. I made the last minute decision to attend the ATLA convention in Boston and was asked to report to the NTLA members about the convention.
Whenever I attend a law related function, I hope that when it is over, I will be able to take something back to my practice which will benefit not only my clients, but myself personally. Whether it is a discovery practice tip, a voir dire strategy or simply an insightful quote, taking advantage of the opportunities should be a prerequisite to attending any law-related function, especially a legal convention. It was abundantly clear after I left the ATLA convention that it passed the grade by providing not only quality seminars, but also providing speakers who confirmed what I always believed; the practice of law is a noble profession, a profession which provides its citizens with protection and promotes the public good.
The first thing I noted was that the ATLA convention had many interesting speakers. The opening session had guest speakers, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and Special Master Kenneth Feinberg. The theme of the opening plenary was to celebrate the success of the largest pro bono legal services program in the history of the United States. Not many people know that more than 1,100 trial attorneys represented more than 1,700 families who were victims of 9/11. These attorneys represented families on a pro bono basis with claims submitted to the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund. Trial lawyers from throughout the United States devoted their time and expertise to help the families obtain compensation through the fund. During the meeting, Justice Breyer also presented Special Master Feinberg with a lifetime achievement award. Senator John Edwards was also scheduled to speak at the Civil Justice Foundation breakfast, however, he was unavailable due to the job offer he received from Senator Kerry. Additional speakers included Robert Kennedy, who spoke at the Membership and Awards luncheon; Joe Scarborough, who spoke at the Republican Trial Lawyers Gala; Democratic National Chair Terry McAuliffe, who spoke at the ATLA PAC Club Breakfast; and CNN host Mark Shields, called the "wittiest political journalist in America" and a "walking almanac of American politics," who spoke at the ATLA PAC Town Hall Meeting.
Next were the CLE offerings. It was amazing. The only complaint is that the selection was overwhelming and you could not do everything. A sample of the offerings for just the first day is as follows: Advocacy Track, Theme: Voir Dire First Impressions Always Last; Communications, Computers, and Law Office Technology Committee Track, Theme: Productivity and Portability; Insurance Law Section Track, Theme: Hot Topics and Recent Developments; Law Student Program Track, Theme: From Law Student to Lawyer: Strategies for Success; Minority Caucus, Theme: Mass Torts in 90 minutes; Workers' Compensation and Workplace Injury Section and Workplace Injury Litigation Group, Theme: Scientific Evidence, Daubert, and its effect in Workers' Compensation Practice; and finally Stalwarts Hall of Fame Committee, Theme: The Best of the Best - Distinguished Trial Lawyers Reveal the Most Effective Concept or Technique They Use in Trial or in Preparation for Trial.
Of course, the primary issue at the convention was the tort reform debate, with medical tort reform as the leading discussion topic. Presently, 42 states, including Nevada, face some form of medical liability reform. As stated by Les Weisbrod, an attorney from Texas, "Doctors are following the malpractice insurance companies' shepards like sheep to slaughter. We must make the rank-and-file doctor see that the leaders of medical professional associations sold out to the same insurance and political interests that have cut the physicians' reimbursements, ensuring that they must see more patients in less time, and make less money and make more mistakes, than they did five or ten years ago." The right to a jury trial is threatened by the special interest groups which desire to prevent the victims access to justice.
ATLA also held a young lawyer meeting. The panel of speakers included ATLA CEO Tom Henderson, Public Affairs Director Linda Lipsen, and State Affairs Director Ed Lazarus among others. They provided an introduction into ATLA's mission, the benefits of membership, as well as a glimpse into the political landscape leading into the fall election season and an assessment of how that landscape is affecting trial lawyers.
One of the primary reasons why I attended the convention was the Republican Trial Lawyer's Caucus meeting, as I was recently appointed as the Nevada Chair for the committee. ATLA President David Casey and ATLA member Jim Parkinson were the driving forces behind establishing a "Republican Caucus." With every branch of government controlled by the Republicans and with an assault on trial lawyers unlike any that has been seen before, President Casey and Mr. Parkinson felt that such a group was a necessary force to address the important issues facing our profession. In his remarks at the meeting, President Casey recounted the massive efforts over the past two years to meet with and work with Republican Senators. According to President Casey, these efforts have paid dividends. Others reiterated this sentiment with incoming ATLA President-Elect Ken Suggs happily recounting the conversations he has had with Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and the areas of agreement that they shared. According to President-Elect Suggs, "He isn't with us on every single issue, but he is willing to listen and give us a fair hearing. Most important, he is committed to protecting the civil justice system." Jim Parkinson echoed much of this sentiment saying that, "By stressing issues such as states' rights and individual responsibility, we have been able to stake out some valuable common ground with these Senators."
During the ATLA PAC/M Club Breakfast, PAC President Mary Alexander offered her view of the political landscape. She stated that with tort reform being one of the major issues in politics, such legislation is nothing more than the taking away of the rights of our clients.
During the Civil Justice Breakfast, the 2004 Community Awards were presented to Dr. David Burns for his decades-long fight to educate juries and inform children of the dangers of cigarette smoking, to Dr. Linda Peeno for her crusade against the abuses of HMOs, to Tim and Helen Remsberg for their efforts to promote and protect privacy on the Internet and, finally, to "Families of September 11th," an attorneys and victims group that assisted the victims of that day we will never forget.
During the Membership and Awards luncheon, Attorney David Shrager received an award for his many contributions to the trial bar, including bringing a class action on behalf of more than 6,000 hemophiliacs with HIV related illness. Linda Franklin received the ATLA Partnership Award for her outstanding service as Executive Director of the South Carolina Trial Lawyers Association. The ATLA President's Award was given to Ken Suggs for his successful work on building up the Leaders Forum. The Steven Sharp Public Service Award, which is given to the trial lawyers and clients whose cases have made a significant contribution to ATLA's mission and its public education efforts, was awarded to South Dakota attorney Mike Abourezk, his co-counsel Peter Kahana, Richard Friedman, and Michael White, and his lead client Kay Bergonzi, who fought an insurance company when it continually underpaid the medical costs of cancer patients. During the investigation of Bergonzi's claim, Abourezk found more and more patients who had been under-compensated by their insurance company. Abourezk explained the choices at hand to Bergonzi–she could either proceed with an individual case, and likely recover much more, or she could pursue a class action suit. Bergonzi opted to file a class action on behalf of herself and 1,200 other people. Abourezk, whose original client was his sister, Carol, who died, has refused to accept any fees in this class action case, except where plaintiffs receive more than they were underpaid. He is using the earnings from this case to fund the initial costs of other insurance bad faith cases. During the luncheon, environmentalist and lawyer Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. spoke on behalf of the environment and called attention to the harm that is being done to our nation's air and water by some of the biggest multi-national corporations.
While reflecting on my "Boston" experience at Logan Airport, I reviewed several quotes in my handouts which really hit home. One packet of written materials I received contained various statements from the candidates for the ATLA National Offices. I read each of them and each statement was insightful. Kenneth Suggs, a lawyer from South Carolina, was recalling a discussion he had with one of his mentors, Harry Philo, about the dangers of tort reform. He recalled that Mr. Philo said that this was all part of the "ebb and flow of struggle." Mr. Suggs stated, "Not every day in the struggle for justice will end in victory, but it is not where we are at the end of the day that matters. What matters is where we are at the end of the fight." I agreed completely with the words of Boston attorney Anthony Tarricone: "We have to educate the public about conservative principles that form the core of what we do everyday, representing individuals in claims against business and insurance interests. We need to remind the citizens of this great country that the American Revolution was fought over two fundamental principles of democracy--representative government and trial by jury--and these principles are under assault when vested interests seek special protections to shield them from liability for wrongdoing. Trial by jury is a conservative value that the founders of this nation fought and died for. "Family values" entails restoring dignity to families broken by the wrongdoing of others, through a civil justice system that ensures a level playing field without special protections for the powerful. A free market system is one that will not allow special protection for companies that should suffer financial consequences of irresponsible conduct, such as the marketing of products that kill or maim. The notion of personal responsibility should not be reserved for our clients; it must be understood to apply equally to the powerful business interests that seek special protective legislation." Finally, ATLA's President, David Casey summed it up nicely by citing Markus, "We have a duty to evangelize--to explain the critical role played by trial lawyers, to restore public confidence in their actions, and to re-establish public acceptance of law as the ultimate strength of organized humanity."
The ATLA Winter Meeting is scheduled for in Palm Springs, California. I hope to see you there.