About Those Trial Lawyers ...
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By Thomas J. Donohue, President and CEO, U.S. Chamber of Commerce
Some of you thought I gave trial lawyers a bad rap in my piece two weeks ago about how the business community was challenging attempts by the plaintiffs' bar to stack state supreme courts with plaintiff-friendly judges. Some of you thought I was painting all trial lawyers with the same broad brush. Some argued that even when pursuing huge awards for large class actions, lawyers are only doing so to benefit their clients.
So let me set the record straight. I believe that the vast majority of lawyers in this country are honorable people serving a necessary and beneficial function. The rule of law is critical to the success of this country and most lawyers conduct themselves with honesty and integrity. When one of Shakespeare's characters said "The first thing we do, we kill all the lawyers," he was really suggesting the quickest route for a society to achieve anarchy.
But I do have a problem with a handful of class and mass action trial lawyers who are not operating with integrity or in the best interests of their clients. I make no apology for this. These lawyers are sucking the vitality out of some of our best companies and our economy.
The proof can be ripped from today's headlines. Exhibit A: Bill Lerach, the famed class action trial lawyer who made a personal fortune representing plaintiffs in securities lawsuits, was sentenced recently to federal prison for conspiracy to obstruct justice in connection with a two-decade scheme of paying individuals to participate as lead plaintiffs in massive class action lawsuits. Lerach has often positioned himself as an advocate for the little guy against the powerful corporations. But Lerach's kickback scheme wasn't designed to maximize his clients' award, but the amount of attorneys' fees awarded to his own firm Milberg Weiss.
Exhibit B: Down in Mississippi, infamous and feared class action lawyer Dickie Scruggs will soon go on trial for allegedly seeking to pay a judge to rule his way in a lawsuit over how to divide the legal fees in a class action settlement. While he is presumed innocent until proven guilty, two other prominent plaintiffs' attorneys in the state—Joey Langston and Tim Balducci—have already admitted to attempting to bribe judges.
Exhibit C: U.S. District Court Judge Janis Jack has blown the whistle on an attempt to commit mass tort fraud in asbestos and silica class actions. Unscrupulous attorneys have sponsored mass medical screenings to gin up clients. Over one million potential litigants have been screened, with these lawyers shelling out over $100 million for medical reports to support the 700,000 or more claims generated by these screenings. There is compelling evidence the medical reports are bogus.
So there is a culture of corruption that runs deep among a handful of mass and class action trial lawyers and it is costing our economy dearly. Can bad actors be found in every profession? Of course. But that doesn't mean the indictment of these few attorneys is any less valid, or the need for legal reforms any less urgent.