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His friends already knew, but strangers and casual acquaintances may have been shocked. That didn’t deter James Parkinson, who came out to about 2,000 colleagues in San Francisco last month. He doesn’t care who knows, he said: He’s proud to be a trial lawyer and a Republican. The occasion was the annual convention of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America (ATLA). Parkinson is chairman of the group’s Republican trial lawyers’ caucus, which hosted a luncheon featuring two prominent Republican speakers. His colleagues can be forgiven if they didn’t notice. The luncheon didn’t exactly get top billing. It was overshadowed in the conference program by other events billboarded with photographs of other speakers: Tom Daschle, James Carville, Willie Brown, Barbara Boxer and Nancy Pelosi. All happen to be Democrats. A select group of lawyers also met with Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe and presidential candidates John Edwards and John Kerry, whose names and photographs also appeared in the program. The Republicans’ names weren’t even mentioned. It’s no secret that ATLA has long had a chummy relationship with the Democrats, as evidenced not only by the speaker lineup but by the full house — and repeated standing ovations — that greeted Daschle, who spoke on a Sunday at 8:30 a.m. For Parkinson and others, however, there’s nothing incompatible about being a trial lawyer and a registered Republican. He believes in accepting personal responsibility and respecting states’ rights and the right to a jury trial, he said. He also favors smaller government, lower taxes and the administration’s foreign policy. Last month’s conference represented real progress for ATLA, said Parkinson, who is of counsel at Casey, Gerry, Reed & Schenk. That’s the San Diego firm of David Casey, who, by convention’s end, was ATLA’s new president. “All things considered, it was a home run,” Parkinson said. The luncheon drew nearly 100 members, forcing the staff to scramble to add an extra table. The speakers were John Doolittle, a representative from California who is secretary of the House Republican Conference, the sixth-ranking leadership position, and Georgia pollster Matt Towery, a syndicated columnist and former campaign chairman for Newt Gingrich. Each gave a brief speech followed by a question-and-answer session that was so energetic, according to Elizabeth Humphrey, ATLA’s Republican lobbyist, that after two hours she had to shoo people from the room. Humphrey would love to see more Republicans at ATLA conventions, and their speeches promoted prominently. On that score, she said, she’s doing some internal lobbying. The omissions in this year’s program “were no slight to the people invited,” she added. The problem was the program’s long lead time. Parkinson expects his caucus will soon have chairpersons from all 50 states. By contrast, at last summer’s convention, the caucus had just begun recruiting. There were no state chairpersons, and the inaugural luncheon drew an audience about half the size of the one in San Francisco. “ATLA has always been perceived as monolithic and a big fundraiser for Democrats,” Parkinson said. In reality, he said, between 25 percent and 35 percent of its nearly 60,000 members are registered Republicans. “My goal for next year is, instead of having James Carville as our speaker, having his wife,” Parkinson said, referring to GOP consultant Mary Matalin. When Doolittle told colleagues where he was speaking, the response was more than a few raised eyebrows. “You’re doing what?” he remembers one saying. In a telephone interview, Doolittle recalled telling his audience that they’d “allowed themselves to be identified in many people’s minds with an arm of the Democratic Party.” Someone at the luncheon mentioned that ATLA’s political action committee contributed to the campaigns of 90 representatives, Doolittle said. “They would give more,” he added, “but some wouldn’t take the money. It’s a pretty sad situation when politicians won’t take some interest group’s money.” (ATLA’s Humphrey said no contributions have been returned or refused during her two years on the job.) “You’re not going to get Republicans on all your issues,” Doolittle told the lawyers, “and possibly not on most of your issues. But there are some key issues that you could hope to get them behind. Now, you’re not getting them on any of your issues.” He advised them to be “more vigorous in their contributions” and to introduce themselves to members of Congress as supporters and “Republicans who happen to be trial lawyers, not trial lawyers who happen to be Republicans.” The time to raise professional concerns, he said, is after developing relationships. Towery, the pollster, spoke about common ground. The bill that would cap noneconomic damages on medical negligence cases isn’t a natural position for his party, he said. “The only thing Republicans want capped is their income tax,” he said in a telephone interview. “Tort reform” has been a smart strategy, he added, because it’s forced Democrats to spend a great deal to counter it. “Both sides have to realize you can’t have it all. Is there going to be some litigation reform? Yeah. Both sides know that.” Asked by the lawyers how to talk to representatives who see them as the enemy, Towery pronounced himself a great believer in compromise. Acknowledge that you disagree on one or two issues, he advised, but emphasize the areas of agreement, like the importance of personal responsibility, and tell them you want to give them money. He cautioned his audience not to let the Bush administration’s strategic decisions “turn them off to the Republican Party.” “There are too many stereotypes,” he said. “A stereotype can be held just as easily by a trial lawyer from Peoria as it can by a top strategist in Washington.” The message that ATLA member Joseph Awad took away from the luncheon was, in a phrase, “grin and bear it.” “We have an extreme wing of the party in power now,” said Awad, a partner at Garden City, N.Y.’s Silberstein, Awad & Miklos. But he and his colleagues bear some responsibility “for helping create the image of the greedy trial lawyers,” he said. They need to open lines of communication “just as a matter of survival.” Though ATLA’s new president is a Democrat, he’s adept enough at reaching across the aisle for several people interviewed to identify him as a Republican. “We have done a very poor job of activating Republicans within the trial bar,” said Casey, who attended the luncheon and called the work of the new caucus “absolutely critical.” “There are going to be times when you have a Democratic majority and there are going to be times when you have a Republican majority,” he said. “And the civil justice system shouldn’t be at risk just because one party is in charge.”

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