Longtime leader says her members are lonely defenders of frequently abused consumers
Many associations represent industries or professions whose members fear being sued.
Linda Lipsen, CEO of the American Association for Justice, proudly represents the lawyers who do the suing.
While corporations and their trade groups accuse trial lawyers of abusing the legal system and driving up costs for everyone, Lipsen sees her members as outnumbered and outgunned heroes standing up for the little guy, for consumers who are constantly being abused by corporations.
She has been a consumer advocate for her entire career. Lipsen tired of a “soul-crushing” early job at a law firm and realized she could help more people by influencing policy.
That path led her to AAJ in 1993 as chief lobbyist, and then CEO in 2010. She was recognized that same year as one of the most influential women in Washington, D.C., by The National Law Journal—part of a group that included Supreme Court Justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Lipsen still moves policy but as CEO also needs to create an environment where her trial lawyer members can succeed.
“We have to provide a community for our lawyers, a place that they can go to learn from each other,” she said during an interview with CEO Update via Zoom.
“Trial lawyers are usually facing a multitude of obstacles when they bring a lawsuit against a large corporation. Sometimes they feel like it’s them against the world when they look across the room and there are 20 lawyers on the other side. So, they really have a need to get together in community and learn from each other and just be with each other.”
Excerpts from the interview, edited for length and clarity:
CEO Update: Policy advocacy on behalf of consumers has been the common thread throughout your career. Why is that?
Linda Lipsen: It’s about making a difference in people’s lives. I went to law school and I worked in a law firm and I found that frustrating because you could only help one person at a time. So, I realized that my calling was really in the policy area, and it made sense to move to the legislative advocacy perch at Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports (in 1982), and then to the American Association for Justice (in 1993).
CU: Did you have litigation experience at the firm?
LL: I did. I mean, it was a soul-crushing small firm. We actually pursued antitrust cases, and I was low person on the totem pole, so they stuck me in a room full of documents. Nothing was online at that time, so it was really hard and I just knew it wasn’t for me.
CU: You were AAJ’s top lobbyist for 17 years before becoming CEO in 2010. How has the association changed during your time there?
LL: AAJ has changed a lot. First of all, we had a very limited grassroots presence when I first began (as lobbyist). There was a view that our role was very top down. I really wanted to change that because trial lawyers are excellent advocates, they’re excellent storytellers and they had a story to tell Congress about their clients’ lives and the difficulties that they’ve faced. So, we really flipped on a dime. We started having lobby days, bringing lawyers up with their clients and talking to members of Congress regularly.
CU: What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced at AAJ?
LL: The biggest challenge is to face so many opponents, whether it’s the tobacco industry or the car manufacturers or big tech. Another challenge is that, when I first started working as an advocate in this area, there were just more lawyers in Congress. You couldn’t be on the Judiciary Committee without being a lawyer. Now you can even be the chair and not be a lawyer. So, what we have to do is take those legal issues and really distill them and popularize them so we’re speaking in English and not legalese.
CU: In addition to advocacy, education and networking are the other two pillars of AAJ’s mission. How did the pandemic affect those?
LL: We were concerned that our lawyers would not be able to represent their clients. The criminal docket usually takes precedence and issues involving the civil docket in many states were put on hold. We were also worried we would lose members. We became much more reliant on technology, including having a completely virtual convention that turned out to be fantastic. We knew that we couldn’t miss a beat. Our board meetings were more populated than they ever were. We learned how to have social events on Zoom, because our lawyers really like to be with each other. We didn’t lose membership.
CU: How did the pandemic affect your lobbying efforts?
LL: We had to figure out how to advocate for our issues from a flat screen … because the stakes were huge. (Then Senate Majority Leader) Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) put on the table probably the largest liability-protecting bill that has ever been considered by the Congress, and he couched it as something that would protect industry from lawsuits arising from COVID, which was completely a false idea. Lawsuits aren’t arising from COVID because you can’t prove where you got COVID. We were able to make our case without going to Capitol Hill because everything was shut down and were able make sure that (stimulus bills) passed ultimately without any kind of tort reform.
CU: What is your top advocacy priority?
LL: Our biggest challenge is that (corporations are) using what we call forced arbitration, which is a clause that is tucked into (the agreement for) pretty much everything that you purchase now, whether you buy a cell phone or you need to go to a nursing home. It’s designed to prevent you from going to court to pursue relief from whatever you believe has harmed you. These clauses are pernicious, and they prevent individuals from getting justice. We are trying to get legislation through Congress (stipulating) that the decision about whether to go into arbitration should be handled after the dispute—not at the inception of the contract.
CU: Why is it important to diversify your membership and what steps are you taking?
LL: Diversity is really important because diversity makes us all better. It makes us consider different viewpoints. It just improves everything, so it is a major interest of ours. Our women’s caucus is about 22 percent (of membership) right now. Our staff is about 80 percent women, but we’re looking for ways to have even more diversity in our staff. Under the leadership of our board President Navan Ward (who is Black), we are encouraging law firms to diversify.
The amazing thing this year is that the American Bar Association, the National Bar Association, AAJ and the Defense Bar are all helmed by African American men, so that’s a big improvement. The issue of diversity also extends to our advocacy and we are actively advocating that the president appoint judges who are diverse. Not just from a gender and race perspective, but also (in terms of professional background). We want to see individuals who have had everyday experiences representing real people, not just corporate entities. President Biden has been very good on this issue.
CU: You are a major player in politics. Your political action committee spent $8 million in the 2020 election cycle. (Political spending watchdog OpenSecrets reports that 97% of federal candidates receiving PAC funds from AAJ were Democrats.) What are you doing differently in the 2022 cycle? Are you planning to be even more active?
LL: I don’t want to say more active because we are always going to be active, because supporting members of Congress who support the civil justice system is extremely important. It’s like picking a jury. We’re looking for Republicans and Democrats who are strong on the notion that the Seventh Amendment right to a trial by jury is sacrosanct. It’s as important as the Second Amendment; it’s as important as the First Amendment. We are always going to be active politically, and that’s been true since our nation was founded. Abe Lincoln was a trial lawyer.
CU: I understand this is a big anniversary year for AAJ.
LL: We actually have two anniversaries this year. The first is the 75th anniversary (of AAJ) and this is a time that our lawyers can recommit to the association. We’re proud of what our lawyers do. There’s a reason why we have fewer fatalities on our nation’s highways now than in the ’50s. We have roofs that don’t crush upon impact, windows that don’t decapitate children, tires that don’t blow up. All these innovations have happened because trial lawyers brought a case and they made a difference.
But we are also having another anniversary that I am extremely proud of (the 20th anniversary of what) we call Trial Lawyers Care. That developed after 9/11 when we went to Congress and said, “You can’t just help the airlines. You’ve got to do something to compensate the people and the families whose lives were shattered by the terrorist attacks.” We developed Trial Lawyers Care, the biggest pro bono program in the history of the country. We represented every family for free and we got through Congress a compensation scheme that would help those families rebuild their lives.
CU: What lessons did you learn going from top lobbyist to CEO?
LL: I’m always learning in every job that I’ve ever had; you can’t stop learning. What’s really, really important is being able to listen and being able to adapt to what you’re hearing. Working with Congress has its own challenges, representing trial lawyers in general, and making sure that they have the best continuing legal education that they can possibly have and that they have opportunities to be in community, those sometimes require different kinds of skills. But listening and really hearing what people need and want is probably the most important aspect of this.
CU: What advice do you have for other association chief executives, or aspiring ones?
LL: The most important thing you can do is figure out what your members need. Figure out what they need and what they want, and then figure out whether or not you can give it to them and how you can give it to them. We are always polling our members to figure that out.
Also, communication in an association is complicated because you have to take people where they live, and we have lawyers who have their assistants read their emails to them, and we have lawyers who are incredibly sophisticated technologically. We have lawyers who are on different social media platforms, and so you have to look at all these different groups and figure out how to communicate with them and how to give them something of value and how to keep them. You also have to look at the future and ask yourself, “Am I motivating new lawyers? Am I motivating folks who just joined the association? How am I dealing with attrition?” You always have to look at what’s in front of you, what’s behind you and what’s in the future.
Did you know?
D.C. to Madison: Lipsen is from Washington, D.C., but the family tradition—for her mother, father, uncles and aunts—is to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where her grandfather taught in the agriculture department. Lipsen earned her undergraduate degree there in journalism and then her law degree from the Antioch School of Law in Washington, D.C.
Political parents: Lipsen’s mother was the first woman staffer for Watergate-era House Speaker Carl Albert (D-Okla.) and was the first woman staffer to have House floor privileges. Her father, an aide to former President Lyndon Johnson, was chief lobbyist for a union now known as The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.
9/11 call: As chief lobbyist for what was then the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, Lipsen led the fight to get Congress to establish the September 11th
Victim Compensation Fund.
American Association for Justice
Members: Regular members must actively practice law and represent, for the most part, plaintiffs in civil litigation or defendants in criminal litigation. Other membership categories are open to law professors, law students and paralegals. AAJ declined to release membership figures.
Headquarters: AAJ leases about 50,000 square feet on three floors at 777 6th St. NW in the Chinatown neighborhood of Washington, D.C.
Lobbying: $5.2 million*
From IRS 990 ending July 31, 2020
Revenue: $26 million
Net assets: $-4.9 million
Salaries: $12 million
* Figure reported to Congress for 2020.