Is the age of the class action lawyer over? That's one suggestion from a Sunday New York Times Magazine piece on the litigation feeding frenzy sparked by the BP Gulf oil spill. While the lawyers have been jostling for position and clients, there's been an effort to marginalize the members of the bar--possibly reshaping forever their role in the aftermath of corporate disasters. Don't count on it, says Craig Spiegel, a partner in the Seattle law firm co-founded by master class action litigator Steve Berman.
The firm, currently suing such big names as JP Morgan and Toyota and a player in the litigation following the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, is one of the many firms vying for a piece of the BP action.
At first blush, it would seem that Berman's firm has indeed been sidelined. Working with Gulf-area lawyers who sought out the firm's expertise, it filed a class action suit in May on behalf of charter fishing boat operators. Then, BP set up a $20 billion compensation fund to which victims could apply directly. The fund, run by lawyer Kenneth Feinberg, will not consider applications from people involved in litigation. And so, Berman's clients dropped their suit and sought a settlement from the fund, according to Spiegel, who has been handling the matter for the firm.
If the fishing boat operators can get a decent amount of money without having to pay off lawyers, more power to them, Spiegel says. But he adds: "We don't know yet if they will be satisfied with the results."
Others have already complained that Feinberg has been low-balling them, a lament heightened by revelations last week that his firm is itself raking in the money from BP. And 32,000 people, at last count, have had their claims denied outright.
Who are you going to call when you think Feinberg is screwing you over? Why, class action lawyers naturally. "There's going to be plenty of work for class actions lawyers to pursue," Steinberg says.