History of ABOTA

The year was 1957. Los Angeles attorney Mark Robinson remembered the circumstances well:

“Here in California, the press was having a field day giving lawyers a bad name. The courthouses were clogged – it could take as long as two years to get a case heard – and Governor Edmund G. Brown was talking about starting a commission system to hear workman’s compensation, liability and other civil cases.”

It was under this dark cloud – the potential death knell for the civil jury trial system – that the seeds were sown for the American Board of Trial Advocates. That year, throughout the Los Angeles area, young trial attorneys like Robinson were beginning to talk of the need for an organization specifically tailored for them: A forum to speak out with a collective voice in preserving the American jury system.

Fellow attorney Fred Belanger of Oceanside, California, had an indelible impression of the founding of ABOTA:

 “At lunch one day, I brought up the American College of Trial Lawyers, which seemed to be solely for honoring the guys who had already made it, and I began wondering aloud if we couldn’t organize a group of younger attorneys, those of us who were working in the trenches on a daily basis,” he recalled.

The idea caught fire. After several informal meetings between Robinson, Belanger and a handful of other Los Angeles lawyers over the next few months, the groundwork for ABOTA was formulated and presented to 40 of their peers in November 1958.

“We considered keeping it strictly for Los Angeles attorneys,” Robinson said. “But I kept pushing for a national scope, for a group that could credibly offer help in reducing some of the pressures in the courts, and for an organization that provided a system to certify the real trial specialists by setting standards for our members.”

Robinson became ABOTA’s first President. In the ensuing years, chapters grew strong and dynamic throughout California, though it would take 10 years before a chapter was chartered outside the state.

Today, ABOTA has fulfilled Robinson’s vision of a nationwide organization of skilled practicing trial attorneys who care passionately about the American trial system. The organization’s influence now extends through its 97 chapters in all 50 states. It is the premier lawyers’ organization in the United States; selection for membership into ABOTA carries with it considerable prestige among attorneys, judges and legislators.

ABOTA has played an important role in legal and political affairs for nearly six decades. Over the years, political leaders have asked members for advice about pending legislation regarding the legal system, members have served as judges pro-tem to help ease court room backlog during the vacation season, and seminars and law school scholarship programs have proliferated.

The complexion of ABOTA has changed a bit since the early years in Los Angeles. In the beginning, the organization included criminal attorneys as well as civil, and those original members were all defense attorneys “– because we were defense lawyers, and that’s who we knew best,” Belanger explained.

Today, membership is limited to civil trial attorneys, and the organization strives to maintain a bipartisan and equal split between defense and plaintiff lawyers in every chapter.

“That gives ABOTA a very unique feature,” said Belanger, who became the organization’s sixth National President in 1964.

Many members feel that if it wasn’t for ABOTA meetings, they would never have an opportunity to socialize with opposing attorneys. But the importance of this “mix” goes even further.

“It lends us even more credibility in the political and public arenas,” Robinson said. “Our job is nowhere near complete.”

The same forces are at work today as they were in the late 1950’s – those people who want to dismantle the civil jury system – and the attacks are far less subtle. But we’re devoted to our very purpose for existence.

“As we promised ourselves when we wrote the ABOTA Constitution, we will continue to push for preservation of the jury system and for improving the public image of lawyers.”