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LAS VEGAS — In late March the ground floor of Caesars Palace clicked and warbled like the money-making turbine it is. On the fourth floor, in a convention room, another once-vaunted money machine was on display, creaking and groaning. A couple hundred members of the mass torts plaintiffs bar had convened for the 14th edition of “Mass Torts Made Perfect,” seeking some way, any way, to replace the gusher of mass tort work that has largely evaporated. The seminar is the brainchild of plaintiffs lawyer Mike Papantonio of Pensacola, Fla. The name partner of Levin, Papantonio, Thomas, Mitchell, Echsner & Proctor made his fortune in the heyday of mass tort litigation in the 1990s, largely by representing asbestos victims. For the price of $1,395, which included lawyer jokes delivered by Cedric the Entertainer and luncheon speeches from the Rev. Al Sharpton Jr., and Robert Kennedy Jr., Papantonio showed how you, too, can make money from mass torts (and get continuing legal education credits at the same time). Gone are the days when a swaggering plaintiffs bar routinely took aim at targets such as Big Tobacco, Big Alcohol, and Big Guns. This year’s seminar had the feel of a survivors support group and might have been better called “Mass Torts Made Barely OK.” Papantonio led a parade of speakers who decried the legal and political forces that have slowed mass tort litigation. For Papantonio, who co-hosts with Kennedy the “Ring of Fire” show on Air America Radio, this is nothing less than a crusade against the forces of evil. Standing before a banner depicting St. George slaying a dragon, Papantonio castigated his enemies, whose ranks include ABC News personality John Stossel (“a sociopath,” claimed Papantonio), NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams (“a Republican lapdog”), and Vice President Dick Cheney (“We’re going to hang Dick Cheney around the Chamber of Commerce’s neck”). “You’ve heard the doom and gloom this morning. It’s true,” thundered Joseph Cotchett, from Burlingame, Calif., who spoke on the future of mass tort litigation. Securities litigation? Forget about it. “If you’re doing securities work now, in 90 days you won’t be,” he darkly predicted, noting the discouraging recent oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court in Tellabs v. Makor, which addressed federal pleading requirements. Geoffrey Fieger from Southfield, Mich., beat more drums of alarm: “The courthouse doors are shutting every day across the country! The Huns are at the gate! They’re coming for us!” Throughout the two-day event, these “warriors for the people,” as Fieger called the assembled, were shown how to strike back. Fieger has been running ads in Michigan decrying the attack on plaintiffs litigation. John Morgan, from Orlando, Fla., a co-presenter of the event, advised firms to abolish casual-dress days to impress clients: “People want to see the lawyers they see on TV.” While plenty of sessions focused on mainstream issues such as medical device litigation, Cotchett offered tips on growth areas, such as representing cities in lawsuits to collect billboard fees. Jan Schlichtmann, the hero of the book and movie A Civil Action, has branched out to protect shade trees. With a picture of a dying ginkgo behind him, he described the creation of the Massachusetts Public Shade Tree Trust, which wants gas companies to compensate communities for trees damaged by poisoned ground water. Papantonio took the opportunity to unveil a new weapon aimed at turning the tide of big-business media domination: an Internet news network called GoLeft.tv. The site, which is scheduled to launch on May 15, will show scripted studio interviews with plaintiffs lawyers. “Killer Foods: Are You at Risk?” was the title of a segment he previewed, featuring a salmonella-tainted peanut-butter sandwich. One seminar, however, sent participants fleeing from the room. When professor Lynn Baker of the University of Texas School of Law took the stage to lecture on ethics in group settlements, including new rules on fee disclosure, roughly half the audience swept through the doors. Some dared to speak the unspeakable. James Arnold of Columbus’ Clark, Perdue, Arnold & Scott described how he had diversified his practice with some commercial work at hourly rates, which now makes up 25 percent of his revenue. You won’t make as much money, and you have to keep diaries, he stated as a sobering disclaimer. Most shocking, he gave the audience this piece of advice: Hire Republican lawyers for their firms, because they can be smart and hard-working, despite their political leanings. “You have to get past that,” said Arnold, who admitted that he actually employs an associate who attended the 2004 Republican National Convention. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
Susan Beck is a senior writer for The American Lawyer , an ALM publication.

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