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August 28, 2006

ATLA's media blackout: a double-secret convention

By David Yas

(This article appeared in the Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, 07-10-2006)

I like to think that I'm a pretty decent guy to invite to a party. I know a couple of knock-knock jokes and I'm not a bad dancer.

But the Association of Trial Lawyers of America wouldn't have me at its party in Seattle last month.

As a member of the media, I was once again barred from attending ATLA's annual convention. For the second year running, ATLA did not want the press at its big show. They didn't want reporters snooping around seminars, strolling across the plush carpet of the Washington State Convention & Trade Center, and grabbing free coffee and muffins.

On the association's Website, ATLA encourages its members to attend in order (in part) "to be energized, refreshed, and revitalized by views of snow-capped mountains, spectacular sunsets, and distinctive neighborhoods."

Quit rubbing it in, guys. Why couldn't I come?

Well, I'm not sure.

ATLA first made its decision to ban the media from its convention a year ago, announcing the move just a week before its annual convention in Toronto. Press passes and media guidelines had already been issued. Plane and hotel reservations had been made. Reporters had their notebooks at the ready—and were then abruptly told to stay home.

In a statement made at the time, ATLA said: "Due to an ambitious schedule and large number of attendees at ATLA's annual membership convention we have decided that we are going to focus our attention on communicating with our members directly, rather than external audiences."

You might think ATLA would be concerned about publicly lifting the image of the trial lawyer—especially these days. ATLA folks keep a very close eye on all of the nasty things that politicians—particularly President George W. Bush—say about trial lawyers. When Sir W. pushes for tort reform, ATLA always aspires to push back.

On its Website, ATLA reminds members to "play your part in ATLA's fight to improve the image of trial lawyers everywhere."

Right. Play your part. But make sure you don't talk to reporters at our annual blow-out convention. If you see one coming, drop your complimentary tote bag and run the other way.

Umm ... guys ... what does that do for the image of trial lawyers?

Why the Soviet-style silence?

One guess is that ATLA fears that inviting all media to its convention would amount to welcoming the enemy into its underground lair.

According to the Website of a publication called Insurance Journal, ATLA denied IJ's request for a media credential at its 2004 convention in Boston.

An ATLA official apparently wrote to IJ: "I fear we must stick with our credentialing decision. Yours is a publication with a point of view which clearly serves an audience in opposition to free and open access to the courts and the independent authority of citizen juries and whose interests are too frequently the polar opposite of people injured through no fault of their own, whom our members represent. I am sure you understand."

Most bar associations, by the way, invite everyone to the party. The 400,000-member American Bar Association has a longstanding open meetings policy. The Massachusetts Bar Association has tables set up for members of the media or the public to toddle in if they want to listen in on a monthly House of Delegates meeting. I can tell you that I have sat through many of these meetings, and nary a scandal has emerged. Except for the day they briefly ran out of coffee, but I'd rather not talk about it.

I can only conclude that ATLA is hiding some terribly juicy story. Possibly some matter of national security or, indeed, biblical proportions.

It has determined who really killed Kennedy. It has invented a fat-free cream cheese that doesn't taste like spackle. It has figured out why people are still paying Matthew McConaghey to make films.

No reporters invited. If you don't know the handshake, you're denied admission at the door. Sorry, guys. Double-secret convention.

I placed a couple calls to ATLA officials, but all I got was this one-line emailed explanation: "Our top priority during ATLA's convention is providing our members with information and services that will help them fight for justice in our courts but as always if Lawyers Weekly or any other press outlet needs to reach us, they will be able to do so."

And, as if I just requested some salt with my wound, I learn that this is, in fact, ATLA's 60th anniversary.

"Join with your colleagues in recalling important milestones of ATLA's past, as we gather strength and inspiration for the current and future fight to save the civil justice system," my ATLA friends tell me.

No strength and inspiration for me. No free coffee. No tote bag.

Hope you had fun in Seattle, ATLA members. Just don't tell me about it.

Trial lawyers may be fighting a bare-knuckle, public-image battle. But what happens at ATLA, stays at ATLA.

David Yas is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, Minnesota Lawyer's sister publication in Boston. If you attended the ATLA conference, he would be more than happy if you would send him your complimentary tote bag.

COPYRIGHT 2006 Dolan Media Newswires

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Published by the Manhattan Institute

The Manhattan Insitute's Center for Legal Policy.