It’s been a rough decade for plaintiffs’ lawyers.

Tort-reform advocates launched aggressive campaigns nationwide to weed out “abusive” litigation tactics, while some of the bar’s highest-profile attorneys pleaded guilty to federal crimes and went to prison.

During the past decade, nearly every state passed tort reforms including damage caps. Congress passed the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005, which shifted these cases from states to the more business-friendly federal courts.

The proliferation of class actions and large tort litigation created “a broad-based call for more unity in the business community to create reforms at both the federal level and the state level,” said Lisa Rickard, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for Legal Reform. The plaintiffs’ bar has noticed the difference.

Because of all these tort reforms passed throughout the nation, consumers have a very tough time pursuing their remedies in court, said Linda Lipsen, a senior vice president of the American Association for Justice.

Meanwhile, Melvyn Weiss and William Lerach, once senior partners at the firm now called simply Milberg, pleaded guilty to paying kickbacks to lead plaintiffs. Richard “Dickie” Scruggs, known for bringing down the tobacco industry, admitted that he conspired to bribe a Mississippi judge.

That those pleas took place during the past decade is no accident, said Stephen Gillers, a legal ethics professor at New York University School of Law. It didn’t hurt that the Bush administration promoted tort reform, he said, but another factor was that the growing number of large settlements enticed some attorneys to “cross the line.”

Still, most in the plaintiffs’ bar consider the crimes to be anomalies, he said.

“Putting apart Weiss, Lerach and Scruggs, there has been a concerted effort by the U.S. Chamber and others to spread misinformation about what plaintiffs’ lawyers are doing,” said Sanford Dumain, chairman of the executive committee at Milberg, which settled charges in the kickback probe.

“When people are bombarded with the notion that it’s all the trial lawyers’ fault, at some point they start to believe it.”

Amanda Bronstad