An item in the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that the Association of Trial Lawyers of America (ATLA) is asking its members to approve a name change for the organization to the "American Association for Justice."
According to the newspaper, "[d]riving this switcheroo is ATLA's concern that more and more Americans are under the impression that trial lawyers are less interested in justice than they are in generating frivolous lawsuits that pad their own bank accounts." Indeed, in a letter to the group's membership, ATLA President Ken Suggs wrote: "Our research shows that if our message is about helping lawyers, we lose. On the other hand, if we're about getting justice and holding wrongdoers accountable, we win."
But what the Wall Street Journal called an "impressively unspecific and high-minded" name change won't help Trial Lawyers, Inc. deal with the cold hard facts being reported in that newspaper and countless others on an ever more frequent basis. Take, for example, the big news from just two days earlier.
On Monday, the most notorious plaintiff's law firm in the country, Milberg Weiss Bershad & Schulman, along with two of its named partners, made a court appearance not to represent any aggrieved American but to plead not guilty to a federal criminal indictment. The charges don't allege some minor technical trust account issue, but rather accuse the law firm and two of its highest-profile partners of paying "at least $11.3 million in illegal fees over a 25-year period to clients who agreed to act as plaintiffs," according to the Los Angeles Times.
All told, the federal criminal indictment stretches over a hundred pages, charges 20 different counts, alleges nearly 150 "overt acts," and literally comes with its own table of contents. In fact, as The New York Times pointed out, the law firm and its two partners stand "accused of racketeering conspiracy, mail fraud, money laundering conspiracy and obstruction of justice."
What's worse, not only are the charges so detailed that it's hard to still believe the law firm and its partners remain "innocent until proven guilty," but federal prosecutors are already a long way home to proving their case through three earlier guilty pleas. In legal speak, three unindicted co-conspirators have already corroborated the allegations charged by the federal prosecutors. Or, in jail speak, three "perps" have already "turned" and are "singing" to the "feds."
The gist of the charges is this. According to the Los Angeles Times, "'paid plaintiffs' were recruited to buy stocks in anticipation that they would fall in value, positioning themselves and Milberg Weiss to take the lead in securities-fraud cases and collect extra fees."
The New York Times fleshed out the scheme alleged in even more detail: Milberg Weiss "plaintiffs would buy securities anticipating that they would decline in value, hence positioning themselves to be named plaintiffs in the class actions. After the court in a lawsuit awarded lawyers' fees, the firm and Mr. Bershad and Mr. Schulman gave cash directly to the plaintiffs or to intermediary lawyers." Indeed, the New York Times drove home just how unseemly the federal charges are by noting that, "to disguise some of the secret payments to plaintiffs, ... the law firm moved cash through casinos and kept money in a credenza in Mr. Bershad's office, the indictments said."
With stories like these making banner headlines, you have to wonder how ATLA can, in the words of the Wall Street Journal, "recast its image" by simply changing its name, "tripling its communications staff and hiring noted pollsters and campaign strategists." After all, according to the federal criminal indictment, the brightest star of the plaintiff's bar has been attempting to evade justice, not uphold it.July 21, 2006