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It was hard to miss. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Institute for Legal Reform recently loosed a nationwide newspaper, radio and billboard advertising campaign in what a chamber-sponsored poll of corporate lawyers identified as the worst states for “legal fairness.” Full-page advertisements picturing a man with his mouth stuffed with cash-with the caption, “Please Don’t Feed the Trial Lawyers”-ran in half a dozen national-circulation newspapers, on the Internet and in local papers in California, Florida, Illinois and Missouri. Advertisements also ran in West Virginia, which was last in the poll. And then came the counter-punch from the Association of Trial Lawyers of America (ATLA). A subsequent full-page advertisement in USA Today, “Haven’t the Big Corporate CEO’s Taken Enough?” shows the suit-jacketed torso of a figure with a gold “C.E.O.” monogram on his shirt cuff slipping a clutch of crisp $100 bills into his breast pocket. The same day, ATLA also posted a message on 20 to 25 like-minded blogs debunking the poll the chamber uses to rank states’ civil justice systems, titled “The Truth About the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Their Bogus and Misleading Attacks,” said ATLA spokeswoman Chris Mather. Outfunded and three decades behind the chamber in advocacy wars outside the Washington Beltway, ATLA began to remake itself and refocus its message last year, when it hired veteran Democratic political strategist Jon Haber as its CEO and herself as communications director, Mather said. ATLA’s new strategy is “to build a new house and build a new structure” to get involved in state elections, legislative efforts and information campaigns that tell its story, said Mather, declining further to disclose specific tactics or target states. ‘Multifaceted’ attack ATLA has plenty of catching up to do. The chamber’s advertisements are the most visible manifestation of its long-term, multimillion-dollar strategy of what the legal reform institute’s president, Lisa A. Rickard, calls “a multifaceted and multipronged attack on the plaintiffs’ bar.” Its arsenal includes advocacy ads backing like-minded judicial candidates across the United States, as well as opening newspapers-in Illinois and West Virginia-that the chamber maintains are independent, but closely adhere to the group’s agenda.
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