N.H. trial lawyers speak out in defense of themselves

As soon as Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry announced his choice of a running mate, Republicans were loading Web sites, e-mails, air waves and fax machines with ammunition aimed at the Democratic ticket.

Much of the negative comment about John Edwards, the junior senator from North Carolina, was based on his line of work in private life. Edwards has been a highly successful trial lawyer and Republicans — even Republican trial lawyers — seem to think that’s not a point in his favor. Some New Hampshire lawyers and spokespersons for lawyers’ organizations find that ironic.

“Abraham Lincoln was a Republican trial lawyer,” observed Jennifer Farrell, executive director of the New Hampshire Trial Lawyers Association. “I think he accomplished a few things. We think being a trial lawyer is a very honorable thing. We’re not working behind the scenes for big business. We’re out there in front, working for the little guy.”

“Call off the Lincoln Day dinners!” chuckled Kathy Sullivan, a Manchester attorney with Wadleigh Starr and Peters. Sullivan, who also is chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, observes that Republicans like trial lawyers who are on their side.

“Just to show you the hypocrisy, the Bush administration is supporting as a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Florida, Mel Martinez, who is a trial lawyer,” Sullivan said. “And what about that actor who was a Republican senator from Tennessee, Fred Thompson?”

What the Republicans don’t like about Edwards, she said, is that he has successfully sued large corporations on behalf of clients who have been injured as a result of negligence or malfeasance. “They’re afraid of John Edwards because he brings a lot to the ticket,” said Sullivan.

But Sullivan’s partner, Eugene Van Loan III, notes the practice of law has changed a lot since Abe Lincoln’s day, when there were no “mega-lawyers” seeking multi-million settlements in class action suits.

“Mega-lawyers,” said Van Loan, are “these very high-powered lawyers who prosecute these class action suits and make incredible amounts of money and, for the most part, have a lifestyle to match their incomes and an ego that often surpasses even their income and lifestyle. I don’t know if John Edwards fits that category, but if he does, then one should have some concern.”

‘An important role’

While the term “trial lawyer” is usually used to mean a plaintiff’s lawyer, and especially a personal injury lawyer (one pro-Bush Web site called Edwards a “friend to personal injury lawyers”), some attorneys like to point out that there are generally lawyers on both sides of every legal contest.

“Trial lawyer is such a broad term,” said Concord attorney Martin Honigberg. “There are all types of litigation. There are litigants that need to be represented. There are plenty of people who are injured, who deserve to be represented in court, and there are lawyers that perform that service. It’s something they’re entitled to under law.”

As a lawyer who often represents insurance companies and who has lobbied for tort reform in the New Hampshire Legislature, Honigberg is often opposed by the kind of “trial lawyers” scorned in Republican rhetoric. “They have a job to do, and we have a job to do,” said Honigberg.

Queen City attorney James Doyle, who describes himself as a “conservative Republican,” takes issue with some of the anti-lawyer rhetoric coming form his party.

“I think trial lawyers play an important role in our society. So does the jury system. Those two things should remain part of our society.”

David Wolowitz of the Portsmouth office of McLane, Graf Raulerson and Middleton agrees, but notes the difficulty of staying in business as an advocate for the poor.

“I was a legal aid lawyer and then a public defender for the first eight years of my career, and when I finished I didn’t have a penny in savings or retirement,” he said. “I’ve spent the rest of my career trying to catch up.”

Wolowitz now spends his more lucrative billable hours defending businesses and institutions like private schools, which are often sued for maintaining the kind of discipline and order in the classrooms that parents say they want — until their child becomes a disciplinary problem.

“Blaming the trial lawyers is a case of blaming the symptom and not the cause,” said Wolowitz. “People are less and less willing to accept responsibility for their own actions and want to blame others and seek vindication in the courts. Politicians would do a better job if they stopped supporting the culture of blame and turned it into a culture of accepting responsibility.”

Wolowitz, too, brought up the first Republican president as an example of a thoroughly respectable trial lawyer who thrived in a culture of responsibility.

“For the last 20 years, they’ve been trying to make ‘trial lawyer’ a dirty word,” said Tom Craig of Manchester, president of the New Hampshire Trial Lawyers Association. “They don’t get it. The corporate moguls at Bush fund-raisers think trial lawyers are as hated on Main Street as they are in the boardrooms.” Main Street’s interests do not often lie in shielding the occupants of the boardroom from responsibility, Craig said.

“If a corporation is going to make a product that’s going to injure people, the guy on the street has to have ways of being treated fairly,” he said. “In order for the guy on the street to be treated fairly, he has to have access to the best and the brightest. He’s entitled to have fair access and fair ability to make a claim.”

“Republicans who talk about trial lawyers forget that on every issue before a judge and jury, there are lawyers on both sides,” said Peter Burling, a Cornish attorney, former House Democratic leader and current candidate for state Senate. “The use of ‘trial lawyer’ as a pejorative to me demonstrates the presence of someone who’s failed civics, doesn’t understand history and has a passing or non-existent concept of justice.”

It also demonstrates, Burling said, “a firm belief in the notion that all would be well in America if corporations could do whatever the hell they wanted.”

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