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Wednesday night, a boyish-looking courtroom scrapper and U.S. senator from North Carolina became the Democratic candidate for vice president. Win or lose in November, John Edwards is assuredly two things today: chief whipping boy for the vociferous tort reform lobby, and a new hero to New York colleagues who cheer his success as an attorney in persuading juries to award hundreds of millions of dollars to injured clients. While the official Republican Party Web site dismisses Edwards as “a disingenuous, unaccomplished liberal and friend to personal injury trial lawyers,” some local lawyers who know him are uniformly admiring, tending at times to be as heatedly partisan as the candidate’s detractors. And in the cause of advancing social progress, as they see it, New York trial attorneys new and old offered counsel and encouragement to young lawyers wishing to enter the career cauldron chosen by Mr. Edwards. “This is a man who understands the needs of the ordinary person,” said Helene E. Blank, a plaintiffs attorney in Brooklyn for the past 27 years who specializes in medical malpractice. “The little guy would have no access to the court system without people like John Edwards doing what he does.” As a veteran practitioner and co-chair of the tort law committee of the New York County Lawyers’ Association, Blank said political involvement is the most immediate means of combatting the anti-trial lawyer agenda by supporters of the Bush administration. Daniel A. Thomas of Manhattan, who began his own medical malpractice office seven years ago, said plaintiff advocates are no less than fighters for truth, justice and the American way. “The rights and protections we have on a regular basis would not be available if it weren’t for trial lawyers,” said Thomas, 37, a graduate of the City University of New York School of Law. “Things like a patient’s bill of rights. That’s directly related to the influence that trial lawyers have had in this country.” Meyer Y. Silber, who two years ago took what he calls the “big plunge” of hanging his shingle in Manhattan, is in equal parts surprised and pleased to be a trial lawyer in the self-confident mold of Mr. Edwards. “I really see myself as being a smash hit,” said Silber, 33, a graduate of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. “I don’t know how long that will take, and I don’t have a connect-the-dots plan, but I know I’m really going to just do it.” But as a student, he said he could not imagine going off on his own and never wanted to see the inside of a courtroom. “As I sit here today, I can’t tell you why those thoughts scared me so much,” said Silber. “Being scared, that’s one of the biggest mistakes. Especially being scared because opposing you is a team of 10 lawyers from some big firm and they’ll try to paper you to death. But I learned that big firms screw up as often as small firms.” That sort of confidence won the day for Silber in a recent suit against a pharmacy that issued an erroneous psychotropic prescription. His client awoke one day in a jail cell where she had blacked out, the result of a drug-fueled episode in which, among other things, she ransacked a neighbor’s apartment. Silber rejected an initial settlement offer — “which was more than I expected” — from a big-firm defense counsel. “Let’s put it this way,” he said. “My percentage was a reasonable number, and my client is doing nicely.” Thomas, who worked for the Long Island medical malpractice firm Pegalis & Erickson before going solo, agreed with that perspective. “Just because [an opponent] has handled some issue before you did, or has done it more often than you, doesn’t mean he does it any better than you,” he said. “It’s all a matter of improving on lessons learned.” Thomas’ mentor, Steven E. Pegalis, spoke of the financial basis of medical malpractice. “The liability tort system is designed so that we carefully screen our cases, so that we are discouraged from taking the less meritorious of cases,” said Pegalis, who began his practice in 1964 with personal injury cases. “Most victims of malpractice can’t afford to finance their cases, so we’ve got to do that. I’m not sure why conservative Republicans who believe in free enterprise incentive and the strongest surviving don’t like this system. To be successful as a plaintiffs’ attorney in medical malpractice, you’ve got to be good. Otherwise, economically you’re going to fall by the wayside.” SOME SEEK CHANGE Notwithstanding Pegalis’ confidence in the system, there are those who would change it dramatically — by putting an end to so-called frivolous litigation, and with caps on money awards. One who would change the system is Donald J. Palmisano of New Orleans, immediate past president of the American Medical Association and a lawyer. “What physicians want is basic fairness and a level playing field,” he wrote in a recent AMA publication. “I’d love to see the reaction of lawyers if they had to live within the same rules as doctors. Like the government ordering them to serve ‘legal care’ clients, and be paid a fee determined by a formula based on the gross domestic product.” The AMA has declared 20 states in “full-blown medical liability crisis” due to the nation’s “out-of-control legal system.” But in January, the General Accounting Office issued an investigative report in five of those states, finding little in the way of crisis. Instances of reduced access to medical care, according to the GAO, either could not be substantiated or were attributable to “long-standing factors” other than liability insurance. “What’s really driving the call for tort reform today,” said Joanne Doroshow, president and executive director of the New York-based Center for Justice & Democracy, “is price-gouging by the insurance industry to make up for lost investment income.” But prominent critics such as President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney continue to deride what Palmisano characterizes as “the lawyers’ lure” of getting one-third or more of a “liability award jackpot.” GAINING EXPERIENCE The ability to work on contingency is difficult as a young solo, said Thomas. Especially for this reason, he and Silber, who cut his teeth at Scarola, Reavis & Parent before venturing out on his own, strongly suggest that young attorneys gain experience “on somebody else’s dime,” as Thomas put it. With expert witnesses earning around $5,000 and depositions running run about $1,500, solo plaintiffs’ attorneys need to be mindful of costs, he said. “A lot of lawyers don’t cut it because they’re not good with money,” said Thomas, who recently won partial settlement of $4.6 million in a suit he initiated against St. Vincent’s Hospital and two physicians. “And paste this one to your forehead: Avoid becoming a lawyer in debt!” For young attorneys determined to join the plaintiffs bar, Silber offered two further bits of advice. “If you’re going to think about it too much, then you’re not going to do it.” To which he added, “I’m religious, so I pray a lot.”

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