Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Postcard from Chicago

This blog is a first. In contrast to my usual musings, which are penned at various places in the UK, this one comes all the way from Chicago, Illinois. And no, before anyone tells me that I must be a workaholic, I'm not here on holiday.

I'm here as an attendee of the American Association of Justice (AAJ) annual convention, which is being held at the Chicago Hilton. The AAJ has been going for over 65 years, and previously  known as the Association of Trial Lawyers of America (ATLA). Its purpose is to support plaintiff lawyers of all guises, making for (as its website puts it) "a collective voice of the trial bar on Capitol Hill and in courthouses across the nation".

The AAJ's annual conference is attended by trial lawyers of every hue. There are seminars for trucking litigation lawyers, for those specialising in chiropractic malpractice litigation, birth trauma litigation and various kinds of pharmaceutical litigation. There all manner of other lectures and talks, all of which enable the open exchange of information and cutting edge know-how. I felt it was important to get a sense of how American lawyers deal with the kinds of issue that Spencers Solicitors handle, and so booked myself in for the four day conference.

The experience has been illuminating and when time allows I may write in more detail about it. For now, though, I will observe that two truisms seem to apply to the legal world on both sides of the atlantic.

Firstly, claimant lawyers are engaged in an adversarial battle with insurers. The latter subject to a minority exceptions seem to seek to minimise their liability at every stage, rather than remembering that without the people who take out their policies they wouldn't be in business. If only, as I have often argued in this blog, there could be a more constructive dialogue between insurers and claimant lawyers - if only a more holistic approach could be taken to the question of a victim's right to compensation - much time, cost and anxiety would be saved.

Secondly, claimant lawyers here and in America seem to be up against a legislative drive to reduce or cap the costs they can recover. While there may be merit in this in some ways, it cannot be right if the effect is to jeopardise a victim's ability to secure compensation to which he or she is rightfully entitled.

A final, more tangential observation is that it's true: American lawyers really are more theatrical than their British counterparts. They certainly don't lack for confidence and character. Last night, for example, my daughter Esme (who is accompanying me on the trip) booked us into Buddy Guy's Legends club. This is one of the most famous blues clubs in the world, and we had a fantastic evening watching brilliant musicians like Eric 'Guitar' Davis and Corey Dennison. As the evening wended on I found myself talking to a chap at our  table. He was confident and charismatic - and turned out to be an appeal judge from North Carolina.

Somehow, one doesn't seem to meet Court of Appeal judges in Ronnie Scott's club in the heart of the West End. That's not to say they don't like jazz - in fact, I suspect quite a few of them do - but it is to say that they'd be hesitant about striking up a conversation with a complete stranger. Not so in America, and tonight Esme is taking me to another blues club. I'll be surprised if any lawyers who happen to be there are backward about coming forward.