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Equal Time for Maligned Trial Lawyer


Tampa Tribune

Where is the Evil Empire when you need it? The Republicans are desperately seeking the old communist bogeyman, or rather a suitable surrogate. Face it, a good Bad Guy is hard to find. (The less said about the thriving Baghdad Bully, of course, the better.)

It’s a dilemma to make a spin doctor’s head spin. No one to vilify, spit upon, spurn? No insidious Iago? No contemptible creep? No one to put down so the Prez can be properly puffed up?

Well, almost no one.

There’re always lawyers. Those dreadful, nasty, no-good shysters.

Now there’s a thought you can run with.

Listen to President Bush in his acceptance speech last Thursday night:

“Sharp lawyers are running wild. Doctors are afraid to practice medicine. And some moms and pops won’t even coach Little League any more. We must sue each other less, and care for each other more. I am fighting to reform our legal system, to put an end to crazy lawsuits. And if that means climbing into the ring with the trial lawyers, well, let me just say, Round 1 starts tonight.”

Quick! Bolt the doors. Secure the safe. Hide under the covers. The lawyers are coming!

Give the president points for trendiness. Lawyer-bashing is a popular sport. If The Tampa Tribune had a dollar for every lawyer joke it printed, it could probably afford to sell you the paper half price.

For Example

Question: What do you call 500 lawyers drowned on the ocean floor? Answer: A start.

Yuck, yuck.

Everyone likes a good laugh. But were President Bush’s words funny? Or did they evoke more chills than chuckles?

Really, who – other than trial lawyers – shakes up the system? Shakes down the big guys? Seeks to uphold that most noble value, justice for all?

Let’s turn to a real, live trial lawyer, Steve Yerrid of Tampa. How does he, and perhaps others of his profession, feel about being singled out by the president?
Five days after the speech, Yerrid is still reeling.

“Isn’t it amazing?” he asks. “Isn’t it just amazing?”

According to Yerrid, the brief Bush barbs cut much deeper than Vice President Dan Quayle’s concerted campaign of criticism. Quayle, you may recall, is to lawyers what Prince Charles is to architects, a naysaying nuisance.

When the president stepped up the attack, “I was very very shocked.”

Liberty and justice…

Has President Bush forgotten the U.S. Constitution? Yerrid wondered. Could he be attacking the very legal system our ancestors devised to keep us from chaos?

Trial lawyers, after all, hold the door open for the most humble citizen to enter the court system, that quintessential “bastion of freedom.” You think family values are important? Try doing without freedom.

“Trial lawyers are not people to be cast out in disdain,” Yerrid says. “They are people who have done great good for all of us. Lawyers have accomplished some remarkably insightful things.”

And those multimillion-dollar judgments aren’t all bad, either. “There are safer products in our society because of trial lawyers,” Yerrid says.

He should know. He was one of the lawyers representing grieving parents Cherie and Carl O. Bowden, Jr. of Lakeland. Their 2 year old daughter, Jessica, died in an infant exercise seat after she became tangled up in the straps. The product is no longer on the market, Yerrid says.

“What lawyers do is bring to the table the issue of safety.” Safety, in the big-business world, must always compete with profit. (Remember the exploding Ford Pinto gas tank? If you don’t, thank a lawyer.)

And don’t forget that trial lawyers are agents of democratic change. Yerrid:

“Trial lawyers are in the process of getting the Kennedy assassination papers released. Trial lawyers keep journalists from being put in jail because they won’t reveal their sources. Trial lawyers stopped the McCarthy hearings.”

On their worst days, Yerrid says, attorneys run sleazy TV ads, solicit business from plane-crash survivors or end up the butt of jokes on David Letterman.

But on their finest days? “We define the very essence of liberty. On our finest day we make everything come true – we make the grandest, boldest notions a reality. On our finest day we make the biggest, most monied, most powerful corporation equal to the smallest citizen. That’s a magic George Bush would like to take away.”

And cannot.