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Trial lawyers for justice

August 11, 2006

A ROSE BY ANY OTHER NAME may smell as sweet, but the Assn. of Trial Lawyers of America has apparently concluded that its perfectly descriptive moniker is malodorous. The group has decided to rechristen itself the American Assn. for Justice, not to be confused with the Justice League of America (an alliance of comic-book superheroes) or the Institute for Justice (a libertarian public-interest law firm opposed to eminent domain).

ATLA's name change, apparently triggered by the successful efforts to demonize the term "trial lawyer," is a classic example of abstract euphemism replacing -- and distorting -- a perfectly specific phrase. George Orwell denounced such linguistic evasion in his classic 1946 essay, "Politics and the English Language." "The great enemy of clear language is insincerity," Orwell wrote. "When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink."

And is there a more "exhausted idiom" than the unassailable ideal called "justice"? Trial lawyers, by comparison, are controversial, and rightly so. Conservatives insist that they do more harm than good by seeking huge jury judgments from which they take a disproportionate cut. Liberals counter that without enterprising -- and, yes, self-interested -- plaintiffs' lawyers, injustices would go unchallenged and workplaces would be less safe.

It's an important debate, and one that trial lawyers should be eager to join without shrouding the work they do in generic language. Besides, euphemisms tend to have a short shelf life. Once the new term is identified with the old reality, everyone makes the adjustment -- thus requiring a new euphemism. That's how "feeble-minded" gave way to "retarded," which in time was supplanted by "developmentally disabled," which, to the extent that it becomes descriptive, also will seem pejorative and usher in its obsolescence.

Ironically, if ATLA's new name catches on, the organization's detractors might simply shift gears and begin denouncing the American Assn. for Justice, perhaps inserting the qualifier "so-called." We can already hear President Bush, a longtime critic of the plaintiffs' bar, making political capital out of the name change: "See, they call themselves the Assn. for Justice, but they're really ... trial lawyers." Better, we think, to own up proudly to what you are.

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