Moving Forward By Giving Back

Edward E. Robinson is the WAJ President and a partner at Cannon & Dunphy, S.C.

As I sit down to write this column, it is hard to believe that my tenure as President of this tremendous organization is half over.  Actually, talking in more positive terms, it is only half begun.  Time does not stand still, and there is still much I want to do before I pass the baton.

In my incoming President’s message, I spoke about the decades’ long attack on the public image of trial lawyers, and what we can do to fight back and attempt to turn back this tide of negative public opinion.  If we wish our profession to be viewed as a noble one, we must all strive to demonstrate to the public through our actions—both inside and outside of the courtroom—that we are persons of high character with compassion for others.  One way we can show this is by volunteering our time and talents toward making a positive difference in our communities.  By leading through example in helping to improve our communities, perhaps we, as trial lawyers, can reverse course and improve public perception.   But even if our good deeds go unrecognized, it is still the right thing for us to do, and that is reason enough for each of us to find ways to improve our communities, even in small ways.   

This year, in partnership with the American Association for Justice (AAJ), we have rolled out our own Wisconsin chapter of Trial Lawyers Care (“TLC”).  TLC is a non-profit charitable organization  founded after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.  Its original short-term purpose was to provide free legal services to the victims of those attacks seeking financial assistance through the newly created federal September 11 Victim Compensation Fund.  In all, more than 1,100 TLC lawyer-volunteers answered the call to serve and assist victims in their time of need, counseling 4,000 families from 35 states and 11 countries, and providing pro bono representation to more than 1,700 families who applied for compensation through the Fund.  After the main wave of claims were processed through the Compensation Fund, TLC expanded its scope to address other community-based needs, such as natural disaster relief following hurricanes and floods.

One of the stated missions of TLC is to build a team of trial lawyers across the country who are committed to the proposition of “doing well by doing good,” and who are fostering positive relationships with the public by serving and giving to others in need.  By partnering with AAJ to create our own Wisconsin chapter of TLC, I hope we can build our own army of volunteers right here at home to address specific needs in our State and local communities.

One such problem that urgently needs to be addressed in our communities is distracted driving.  Through Wisconsin TLC, we are partnering with the organization End Distracted Driving ( to attempt to get into as many high schools around the State as we can in order to talk directly to teenagers about the dangers of distracted driving.   Founded by Joel Feldman and Dianne Anderson following the tragic death of their 21-year-old daughter Casey in July 2009 due to a distracted driver, EndDD’s stated mission is to save lives from distracted driving through advocacy, education and action. 

Unfortunately, Wisconsin is not immune from the dangers of distracted driving.  Recent statistics of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation demonstrate that distracted driving accounts for about 24,000 accidents annually, which translates into a distracted driving accident occurring on Wisconsin roads once every 22 minutes.  While distracted driving is certainly not limited to youthful drivers, statistics reveal that teenagers are most at risk.  In the past five years in Wisconsin alone, more than 1,600 people were killed in crashes involving inexperienced teen drivers, and distraction played a role in nearly 60% of teen crashes.  According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 8% of drivers between the ages of 15 to 19 involved in fatal crashes were distracted, accounting for the largest percentage of fatal crashes caused by distracted drivers.  Statistics collected by EndDD show that the fatal crash rate for teens is 3 times greater than for drivers age 20 and over, with driver distraction being responsible for more than 58% of teen crashes.  These are sobering statistics to be sure.

By reaching teenagers as they begin their driving careers, we hope to have candid discussions about the dangers of distracted driving.  We hope to obtain their pledge to drive safely by eliminating distractions while they are driving, as well as to effectively speak up and intervene when riding as a passenger in a vehicle driven by someone engaging in distracted driving behaviors.  In the process, we hope to save lives.  As more and more doors are opened to us, we will be seeking volunteers to help us with this important community service project.  This is just one small way in which we can make a positive difference in our communities.

There are innumerable other ways in which we can all make a positive difference in our communities.  We can:  volunteer at our local food bank; volunteer at our local soup kitchen; volunteer to tutor individuals attempting to obtain their GED; volunteer at the nearest Habitat for Humanity chapter; volunteer at the nearest Big Brothers Big Sisters club; organize a non-perishable food drive in your neighborhood and/or office; organize a local park or highway trash clean up; organize a Christmas toy drive in your neighborhood and/or office; volunteer to coach a youth sports team; volunteer to serve on your local school’s parent teacher organization; and/or run for some local community office.  The possibilities are endless. 

Many of you are already doing many of these things and embodying the motto of “trial lawyers care.”  It is not an uncommon when traveling around for youth sports or other community events to notice the familiar name of a fellow WAJ member on a plaque or marker recognizing his or her community service or a meaningful charitable contribution.  Many of you have or are now serving on state or local boards or advisory commissions.  Some of these positions directly impact and improve the administration of justice.  Others demonstrate that our members have expertise and passion that extends into countless different areas of life.  Please keep doing what you are doing. 

It is all too easy for us to be consumed with the daily grind of being practicing attorneys.  Our daily schedules are controlled by deadlines and to-do-lists.   Balancing work demands with a life outside of the office can be difficult.  Even as we spend our days pushing ever forward (or more accurately, trying to keep up), it is important for us to take a moment to give back.  If each of our approximately 700 members pledged to devote just two hours each week toward improving the community in some way, that would amount to over 72,000 hours in one year.  Just think of what a difference that could make.   

I am also asking you to consider ways in which you can give back to WAJ.  Consider volunteering to make a presentation at an upcoming seminar, or writing an article for publication in The Verdict.  If you prevailed on some significant motion or legal issue before the trial court, please share your result and your briefs on the Listserv to benefit other members who may be dealing with the same issue, or who may end up encountering that issue in a future case. 

Over the next few months, we hope to institute changes that will improve the services we offer you, to give more back to you.  We are currently exploring ways to improve how our members can review and receive expert witness information, case documents, and deposition transcripts.   For that type of expert witness repository to be the most effective and robust member resource it can be, we will need each of you to step up and contribute prior reports, deposition and trial transcripts, and any other useful information you have collected on defense experts.  We will need each of you to give and not just receive. 

I hope that as this year progresses, you will take a moment to reflect upon ways in which you can give back, both to this organization and to your communities.  The contributions you make ensure that lawyers, particularly among this organization, are viewed as noble, compassionate and charitable.  I hope you will answer this call to arms and join our own army of trial lawyer volunteers dedicated to improving our communities in positive ways.  Together, we can move forward by giving back.

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