SUBSCRIBER CONTENT: From the Atlanta Business Chronicle, February 12, 2016

Georgia, like every other state and the federal government, has its own sets of special interest groups that attempt to shape if not control the direction of the government. Many of them include large corporations, public utilities, unions, environmental groups, and single-issue groups like immigration, religious, and one-time issue groups.

Over time, the characters on the stage often come and go as the issues of the day change. Others weather the tests of time and remain as virtually permanent fixtures on the political stage as legislatures and governors come and go. Two of these perennial public affairs/lobbying powerhouses are the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and the State Bar of Georgia.

For some time now, the governing body of the State Bar of Georgia has steadily drifted toward being a largely plaintiffs’ trial lawyer group with former leaders of the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association serving in a variety of capacities in the State

Bar of Georgia. Mostly, this has been the result of dwindling interest among the vast majority of Georgia lawyers giving way to more and more control by the remaining plaintiffs’ bar who remain vested and interested in control.

On the other side, the Georgia Chamber of Commerce is an organization dedicated to helping Georgia businesses grow and prosper. Needless to say, lawsuits and plaintiffs’ trial lawyers are not exactly what most members of the Chamber of Commerce have in mind as a friendly environment for businesses — either large or small.

And so, these two groups have co-existed for decades creating an almost constant tug of war for the attention, if not control, of the legislature and the governor’s office. The challenge for legislators and governors has been to walk the fine line between the two. Until the early years of the new millennia, plaintiffs’ trial lawyers (willing to open their checkbooks with sizable donations) often got the better end of the deal as financial mainstays of the Democratic Party of Georgia.

While tempered by the bureaucracy of the Bar (and members who represented more conservative parts of the state), the State Bar often served in the past as the nonpartisan cover for both legislators and governors satisfied to let some pro-lawsuit legislation drift through the legislative process. But all of that changed in 2002 and the years that followed when Georgians elected Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue and a Republican legislature.

To describe the relationship between the Bar and the Perdue Administration as cool would be a gross understatement. It was an iceberg. And, comprehensive tort reform drove the relationship into a full blown ice age. Meanwhile, the Chamber of Commerce grew bolder and bolder, eventually actually finding and funding a candidate to run against a sitting Georgia Supreme Court Justice. As it turned out, it was a step too far.

Under the Gold Dome, Gov. Perdue and his majorities, on the one hand, and the State Bar of Georgia, on the other, made no secret of their antipathy for each other. But toward the end of Gov. Perdue’s term, a political détente of sorts emerged.

In 2010, Georgians elected Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, a member of the Bar. Almost immediately, his focus was on building a bridge capable of sustaining communication and ideas acceptable to both the business community and the legal community.

His stated goal was to make Georgia the number-one place in the country to do business. His first step was comprehensive criminal justice reform — a topic near and dear to the hearts of many Georgia lawyers.

In some part, two political dynamics aided his efforts. First, the Bar and most Georgia lawyers, even the most politically active ones, recognized that Republican control was here to stay for a while. And the Chamber of Commerce recognized from its unsuccessful foray directly into the political process that the Chamber had its limits.

Make no mistake, Gov. Deal, himself a lawyer, made repeated personal efforts to bridge the gap — attending and speaking at the annual meeting of the State Bar of Georgia and reaching out both publicly and privately to Bar leaders while continuing his relationships within the Chamber of Commerce.

Yet, ultimately a productive working relationship matured into a stable relationship with the help of two Bar presidents. As the former president of the Georgia Trial Lawyers’ Association, State Bar President Robin Clarke was the last person most people expected to provide the building blocks for a sustainable working relationship with the Governor’s Office and the legislature. But she did.

While she left no doubt regarding her own personal convictions, she was laser-focused on finding the things that the governor and she could agree on rather than dwell on the things that divided them. In every respect, she put the interests of the State Bar of Georgia ahead of any agenda she might have as an individual citizen.

She was followed by Bar President Buck Ruffin who, focusing on Georgia’s future, sealed the deal by institutionalizing relationships to keep lines of communication open and encourage ongoing collaboration. Indeed, Gov.

Deal’s former deputy executive counsel is now the head of public affairs at the Bar.

Of course, there continue to be differences. Even now, the Bar and the Chamber differ over pending legislation governing e-discovery in lawsuits. Yet, unlike the past where such disagreements erupted into open war, watch now as the differences get ironed out and the focus remains on getting it right. This is a major reason why Georgia continues to hold the title of Top State for Doing Business.

Randy Evans is an attorney and columnist.


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