Rallying Call: MAJ mapping plans for annual meeting

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By Mike Scott

Legal News

Recent debate over health care reform and subsequent discussions about whether reducing the ability of consumers to bring malpractice lawsuits against physicians and other medical professionals is just the latest volley in the struggle to defend civil justice that the Michigan Association for Justice (MAJ) wages every day.

So a variety of issues relating to both the tort system and the education of members and statewide residents will be on the agenda during the MAJ’s annual convention, scheduled for May 7-8 at the Hyatt Regency in Dearborn.

For 65 years the members of the MAJ have been representing Michigan families in their battle for justice. There are more than 1,700 MAJ members today and one of their goals is to promote the legal tort system as a vehicle for effective change and consumer protection, while holding wrongdoers accountable for their actions.

Executive Director Jane Bailey has focused many of her staff’s efforts on defending the tort system to provide residents with basic judicial rights. She characterizes an effort by opponents of the current tort system as an “unrelenting campaign to deny people justice,” but admits that faced with the prospect of being on the opposing side of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and many large business and trade organizations, the MAJ always faces an uphill battle.

“We have a responsibility to educate the public and lawmakers on the value of the tort system and that it is the vehicle that speaks for children and adults who otherwise don’t have a voice,” Bailey said. “We encourage our members to contact the media and other members to make sure state civil justice rights aren’t denied.”

Education and skill enhancement remains a key focus of MAJ, both in developing its message about the country’s tort system and in other ways as well, said MAJ President Richard Warsh, a Southfield-based lawyer whose term will expire in July. At that time current President-elect Barry Gates from Ann Arbor will become the president for 2010-11.

 MAJ’s new Trial Institute was formed to help new lawyers ­meet with experienced attorneys in an atmosphere that allows them to learn and practice their trial skills in an intensive and informative setting, Warsh said. He compared it to a mentoring approach. Much of the session was taken from similar institutes run in other states.

“There were a number of examples we looked at such as Connecticut where they have a week-long trial boot camp,” Warsh said. “We’re not at that point yet (to have a week-long program), but the Institute is something we want to continue.”

The three main sources of educational information covered during the Institute included trial skills in automotive accidents, medical malpractice, and employment law, Warsh said. Jury consultants and judges were brought in to provide content, critique and advice. More than 30 lawyers participated in the two-day Trial Institute.

“It was a win-win because we were able to help form bonds for those who attended,” Warsh said.

MAJ has hosted more than a dozen other educational seminars and forums this year. The executive team and MAJ staff also has reached out to other of the special purpose bar associations and law students in an effort to recruit cooperate, including a program to recruit summer interns for medium and smaller-sized firms throughout the state. The success of that effort will be realized more this summer when interns are hired for three months.

The key to this strategy is to help change some of the patterns that become ingrained in the legal and business community over the years, and how professionals of different cultural and demographic backgrounds tend to cluster together, Warsh said.

 Warsh and Bailey agree that another important effort is helping MAJ members and other supporters of civil justice become more politically organized going into the 2010 elections. That includes not only getting candidates and politicians to understand MAJ’s position, but also to encourage members to become involved with candidates and issues, and perhaps even run for office themselves.

Promoting the value of the tort system is an important part of working with political and judicial candidates, Bailey said.

“The tort system is a vehicle for effective change and the impacting of safety,” Bailey said. “If it wasn’t for the tort system, we may still have issues in this country with lead paint and many children’s toys, cribs, and clothing such as flammable pajamas that could be killing our residents.

“It’s really up to trial lawyers and the civil justice system to get the word out.”

Warsh said that MAJ members need to reach out to state Democratic and Republican candidates alike and to have thought-provoking debates that raise the issues of civil justice into the social consciousness.

“We’re in a situation where we need to pull the state closer together,” Warsh said.