By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 30, 2007
Trial lawyers sue each other all the time. Now they are suing each other over what to call themselves.
Millions of dollars of membership fees from plaintiff's attorneys could be at stake, as well as bragging rights in a profession filled with famously massive egos.
The confrontation began last year when the nation's largest and most politically powerful trial lawyers' organization dropped the not-so-popular words "trial lawyers" from its title and substituted "justice." So the Association of Trial Lawyers of America (ATLA) became the American Association for Justice (AAJ).
Around that time a prominent group of attorneys quietly began forming an organization that might compete with AAJ. This fall they solicited thousands of AAJ's 56,000 members to join. The group's name: The American Trial Lawyers Association, or TheATLA. Its Web site is http://www.TheATLA.com.
TheATLA says it is not trying to rip off the name of the country's premier trial lawyer lobbying group or even to compete with AAJ. "The name defines who we are and what we do," said J. Keith Givens, TheATLA's main founder and a senior partner in the national law firm founded by the late Johnnie Cochran, of O.J. Simpson fame. Givens, a well-known Alabama plaintiff's lawyer, asserted that AAJ abandoned the name ATLA last year, freeing up its use. Besides, he said, his group is TheATLA, which is different.
AAJ disagrees. Two weeks ago, it filed suit in federal court in Minneapolis to force TheATLA to drop the name, contending it was confusing AAJ members and infringing a trademark AAJ has held since 1976 on the acronym ATLA. In typical trial lawyer fashion, the suit also demands that AAJ get any profits that TheATLA collects, as well as damages, "trebled where permissible," and attorneys' fees.
A separate organization, the Irvine, Calif.-based American College of Trial Lawyers, also went to federal court this month in Montgomery, Ala., to prevent the Givens group from calling itself the American Trial Lawyers Association, a name, it says, is too close to its own.
Givens said the new organization is gaining members and could eventually generate significant income. The organization, which names his two college-aged sons as directors, would have up to 100 lawyers per state as members, each paying dues of $250. That would put TheATLA's income from dues alone at more than $1 million annually; advertising in publications and conferences would produce additional revenue.
The fight over the organization's name is a replay of legal wrangling that took place between trial lawyers 35 years ago. Then, the American College of Trial Lawyers blocked an organization from calling itself the American Trial Lawyers Association. With the court's permission, the group adopted the name Association of Trial Lawyers of America -- which it kept until renaming itself AAJ last year.
AAJ was eager to eliminate "trial lawyers" from its title because the term has been so disparaged by its corporate adversaries that the public takes a dim view of it. "Our research shows that if our message is about helping lawyers, we lose," it told its membership in June 2006. "If we're about justice and holding wrongdoers accountable, we win."
Even though it no longer uses the name, AAJ is working hard to keep ATLA to itself. "We intend to protect that trademark as any business group would," said Kathleen Flynn Peterson, president of AAJ and a partner in a Minneapolis law firm. "Trademark infringement is a serious issue." It was Peterson's law firm, Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi, that filed AAJ's lawsuit in Minnesota.
The current fight came to a head after Givens's group began to mail membership invitations to the country's leading trial attorneys this fall, and some lawyers complained to AAJ. One such letter, dated Nov. 6, was sent to Peterson. It begins: "Congratulations! The American Trial Lawyers Association (TheATLA), a new professional association of America's top trial lawyers, is pleased to extend this invitation for national membership into TheATLA and for the inclusion in TheATLA 2007 Top 100 Trial Lawyers for the state of Minnesota."
The letter goes on to boast that TheATLA is an "elite organization" that will only include as members "attorneys who exemplify superior qualifications, trial results, leadership, influence, reputation, stature, and profile in the trial attorney community." This is similar to American College of Trial Lawyers, which also bills itself as an invitation-only group of top lawyers.
In other ways, TheATLA sounds like AAJ. The letter says that TheATLA would "offer practical recognition, networking opportunities, education programs and legal publications that deal with current issues facing trial lawyers" -- all activities provided by AAJ.
Givens said he does not intend to compete with either of the existing organizations. He is a member of AAJ, a former member of its governing board, and continues to encourage people to join AAJ, he said.
He also believes his group's name will remain unchanged by the courts. But if it doesn't, he said: "Our group is going to exist, function and survive no matter what name it has."