ATLA has a new name.

Not really a "settlement channel" issue, but oh well. A quick scan of the blogs and news indicates that the long knives of the humorists and conservative blogs are out in full force on the name change voted in by ATLA. (Association of Trial Lawyers of America), to the new, improved, market and focus group tested, "American Association for Justice".

 I'm neither a trial lawyer, or a marketing expert, but I can smell a "New Coke" disaster from quite a distance and this one has that distinct fragrance to it. The Wall Street Journal led off with the inevitable headline, "Lawyers Anonymous" and proceeds to lampoon the organization about the necessity of changing it's name so that they can, well, so that they can do, well, I'm not sure what they aim to do.

It's no secret i'm a strong, long term supporter of trial lawyers, but i'm by nature not typically very pleased with a lot of trial lawyer organizations at times. This would be one of those times. While I understand the need to rebrand and get out the message that "Trial Lawyer" is not synonymous with evil, money hungry vulture, as the right would have you imagine, but I honestly believe it would be far more effective to stop apologizing for what people say you are, and instead start making clear to people what it is you really stand for.

I remember quite some time ago the ACLI, The American Council of Life Insurers, and The Million Dollar Round Table, an organization of elite life insurance agents, commissioned a variety of surveys to determine the public perception of life insurance agents. I'm sure i'm not dead on correct with the numbers but I recall it was close to a 90% negative perception with used car salesman and some other profession I can't remember only being lower on the scale. Confronted with these numbers did they change the name of their organizations, or did they look deeper into the report? Well, they realized in looking at the numbers, that when the respondents who named life insurance agents as the least trusted professionals where asked what they thought of their own life insurance agent, the numbers almost completely flipped to a 90% approval rating, listing the life insurance agent as the most trusted advisor they had. 

What this told them was that the media, humorists, editorials and PR had so badly impugned their profession that it had a general negative impression with the regular public despite the fact that the general public liked their own agent. What the life insurance profession did when confronted with this fact was the exact opposite of what the ATLA leadership has decided to do. Instead of changing names and trying to hide who they were, they began a long term concerted educational effort to improve the professional standards of the industry, made a point of improving general policyholder satisfaction on a company by company basis, stressed to agents the importance of high levels of professional conduct,  and they launched a low key ad campaign designed to talk about "your insurance agent" as opposed to the "industry". What they in effect said to themselves was, "the perception that is pervasive is wrong, but we have nothing to apologize for, and in fact we have a great story to tell. We have just done a lousy job telling it and have instead allowed others to tell our story for us.

They realized the first rule of politics and marketing, and that is that "when you allow your opponents, humorists or others to define who you are you have utterly lost the initiative, and no amount of name changing and lobbying is going to fix the problem until you muster the energy to counter that false perception". 

My point is then that Trial lawyers are the last line of defense for the common citizen to obtain justice, to protect their rights and the rights of their family. This isn't something to run from or disguise with a name change, it's something to be proud of. I'll bow to the collective wisdom of the ATLA folks on this as I don't have their research numbers and they didn't ask my opinion anyways. However, I think there is going to be little if any benefit from making this change and the money being spent on new web sites, printed material, press releases, polls, lobbying and communication probably could have been better spent in a grass roots fashion which is where the real change in perception takes place. I can't imagine most trial lawyers are thrilled about this one, or maybe they are just so tired of fighting they just don't care at this point. Time will tell.   

Posted on July 19, 2006 .