Spence: Trial lawyers more important than doctors

Chris Rizo Nov. 12, 2008, 12:36pm

Gerry Spence

SAN FRANCISCO (Legal Newsline)-Being a trial lawyer is the noblest profession in America, some 500 lawyers who gathered here for the annual Consumer Attorneys of California convention heard from one of the nation's most famed plaintiffs' attorneys.

Lawyer Gerry Spence, who was awarded the CAOC Lifetime Achievement Award, told conference attendees that legal representation is essential, even more important than health care, for people.

"We have to redefine who we are: We are the most important people in America," Spence said. "There is no other profession in America that fights for freedom, that fights for what America is about, that fights for justice for ordinary people."

To make his point, Spence -- founder of the Trial Lawyers College, which trains lawyers to be more effective in the courtroom -- said to imagine that all of the doctors and healers somehow vanished.

"I want to ask you which would be more important: If all of the doctors in the country somehow disappeared or all the trial lawyers in America somehow disappeared?" he asked. "We can live without medical care, but we cannot live without justice."

Spence gained national prominence for his handling of the Karen Silkwood case. Silkwood was a technician at the Kerr-McGee plutonium production plant in Oklahoma. She died in 1974 in a fatal car crash under suspicious circumstances after reportedly gathering evidence for her union.

Spence represented her father and children in a case that alleged Kerr-McGee was responsible for exposing Silkwood to dangerous levels of radiation.

The jury awarded $505,000 in damages and $10,000,000 in punitive damages. On appeal, the judgment was reduced to $5,000. Then in 1984, the U.S. Supreme Court restored the original verdict. The lawsuit was headed for retrial when Kerr-McGee settled out of court for $1.38 million.

He told the attorneys gathered in the city for three days of meetings at the swanky Fairmont Hotel that being a trial lawyer is about helping people - the poor, the helpless and the damned.

"There is so few of us and the responsibility and the opportunity and the need is so great," said Spence, a former prosecutor and defense attorney for the insurance industry.

He called upon his fellow trial lawyers to embrace their role in the American judicial system.

"I want you to be proud you are a trial lawyer," he said. "It isn't what we call ourselves; it's what we do."

Spence took aim at U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, a fellow Wyomingite, whom he said tarnished the nation's legal system.

"He is a man who has been more responsible for more of the destruction of the American Dream, more of the destruction of the myth of justice, has destroyed more of what we search for and fight for and pride ourselves in as being American than any other human being on the face of the earth," he said.

Spence asked rhetorically if plaintiffs' attorneys failed to speak out against such things as the Bush administration's pursuit of terrorists and the treatment of terror detainees.

"Were we silent?" he asked in a booming voice. "Did they hear from us?"

Conference attendee Benton McKnight, a Bakersfield, Calif.-based personal injury lawyer, told Legal Newsline after Spence's pep talk that his profession has been unfairly vilified by insurance and business interests.

"Trial lawyers speak out for people who don't have a voice in our society, whether that's through their race, through their economic status or through their lack of education," McKnight said. "The different insurance companies and large businesses have self-interest in attempting to demonize trial lawyers, and they have the funds and the ability to do so."

Personal injury attorney April Blackman of Costa Mesa, Calif., said Spence's presentation was encouraging to her.

"It's something we need to really take to heart," she said. "We are defenders of peoples' rights."

From Legal Newsline: Reach reporter Chris Rizo at chrisrizo@legalnewsline.com.

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