David Manning Trivial Liars of the Month for January 2005

The Association of Trial Lawyers of America

This one's a real conundrum. The lie involved isn't really trivial, but everybody…the media, the legal profession, and the Association itself…treats it as trivial, at least too trivial to expose. And the liar, ATLA, is made up of lawyers, who officially take the position that lying of any kind is a violation of professional ethics. But the lie is so blatant, foolish, and persistent that it deserves some kind of recognition, and the David Manning Trivial Liar of the Month is the best the Scoreboard has available.

From the Washington Post on January 28:

The Association of Trial Lawyers of America chose veteran Democratic operative and communications expert Jon Haber as its new chief executive to lead its coming fight with President Bush over limiting medical malpractice lawsuits. Haber, 51, a senior executive with the public relations firm Fleishman-Hillard, will replace Tom Henderson, 65, who is retiring after 17 years at the helm of the 60,000-member, 160-employee organization.

Here's the lie: the Association doesn't have 60,000 members, although its press releases have used this number for almost 20 years. The Association doesn't have 50,000 members either, and if you count only as "members" what most people think you mean when you use the word, it probably doesn't have 40,000 members. But the Post, like the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times and the Associated Press, dutifully uses the inflated figure without checking it out, allowing the Association to appear larger and more powerful than it really is.

That's exactly why ATLA keeps using the figure, of course. When membership started dropping at the end of the 1980s, it was widely assumed that a rebound was just around the corner, and because fudging on membership figures is standard practice in the trade association world, the decision was made to keep using 60,000. But the 90s brought more attrition, and suddenly coming clean became potentially embarrassing, especially to whichever one of ATLA's annually elected member presidents that was going to have to announce the reduced membership number on his or her watch. So ATLA didn't come clean. It kept using 60,000, and does to this day.

Now, if you rent ATLA's membership list to mail out a brochure for your business, as I have many times, you'll get somewhere between 35,000 and 40,000 names. Those are the real members; ATLA would certainly love to charge you for more names if more existed. Still, the organizations PR department continues to send to the press a figure that is at least 50% too high.

Full disclosure is due: I worked for ATLA from 1987 to 1993, and was a member of the organization from 1997 to 2002. I saw this situation develop first hand. It is true that much of the staff and most of ATLA's member leadership are unaware of the real membership figures, and accept the 60,000 figure as willingly and gullibly as the Washington Post. But there have been individuals (ahem!)who have raised the issue, and they were rebuffed or ignored.

Is this trivial lie significant at all? It is, for three reasons.

  1. Associations that inflate their membership figures are like newspapers that inflate their subscription rates. The misrepresentation of strength deceives policy makers, potential members, business partners and advertisers in the organizations' publications. Yet such inflation is rampant, and nearly universal. Like the newspaper circulation scandal that is now unfolding, it is ripe for exposure. The fact is, in this case, the Golden Rationalization of "Everybody does it!" may be true. But as always, it is no justification for dishonesty.
  2. The laziness of the press is stunning. The ATLA membership figure has been false for nearly two decades, and in that period has been printed thousands of times, in every major daily. Not onereporter has taken the initiative to determine an accurate figure, and as a result, the public has been deceived. Remember this the next time you read organizational statistics in your favorite paper. Remember it also the next time a reporter boasts about the media's determination to uncover the truth.
  3. ATLA is made up of lawyers, and lawyers are forbidden by their state bar ethics rules from engaging in misrepresentation, dishonesty, fraud and deceit. As bad as it is for other associations to lie about their membership numbers, it is infinitely worse for an association of lawyers.

Most of the country would agree that as lies go, this one is trivial. Clearly, the media doesn't care; if they did, they would have caught the lie long ago. The average American could hardly care less whether ATLA's membership is 60,000, 50,000, or 6; all the public wants is one good lawyer when it needs one, and ATLA has plenty.

But this is a persistent and insidious little lie that pays measurable benefits to the organization that perpetuates it, and one that is a blot on the integrity of a profession that needs every bit of integrity it can find. We'll call this a Trivial Lie for now, and hope that eventually the truth comes out.



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