In her nearly 20 years in practice, attorney Cathleen Compton has worked it all: divorces, wills, criminal defense, worker's comp and Social Security disputes. The ones she calls her "favorites," however, were those that are the focus of loud debate these days: personal injury claims.
An El Dorado native who returned there and went into practice with her father after her 1985 graduation from the University of Arkansas Law School, Compton moved to Little Rock and hung out her shingle here in 1997. Though Arkansas doesn't allow attorneys to claim a specialization in any area except tax law, she will say that she does "a lot" of personal injury cases. It's a legal pursuit that has taken a beating in recent decades from the media and politicians, blamed for everything from making children's toys more boring to skyrocketing insurance rates. She said such attacks have even produced a new compound word: "Greedytriallawyers."
Still, Compton isn't shy in her defense of personal injury law. It's personal injury cases that make a difference in the world, she said. "Corporate America and the insurance lobby have worked very diligently to make lawyers look bad," she said. "If they'd take care of their products or take care of their people, then they wouldn't have to be sued. Product liability cases lead to change, and they make corporations make a better, safer product." She also isn't shy about her criticism of other personal injury attorneys, particularly those whose flashy television advertising - often promising quick, big-money settlements for injuries - has "turned the legal profession into a business."
"It has cheapened all of us," she said. "The best advertisement a lawyer has is good work."
While Compton admits that from time to time there is one of the outlandish verdicts that insurance companies like to hold up as examples of a legal system out of control, she insists that juries usually do what's right. "I think the collective knowledge of 12 people usually ends up with a pretty damned good result," she said. "Not always. It's not perfect, but nothing is."
Believing so wholeheartedly in the judicial system doesn't help when she finds herself on the losing end of a verdict, however. A woman who said she loves representing the injured because of the "human element" of their cases, she also admits that she gets too emotionally involved in her clients' plight. While success usually finds her as happy and relieved as the person who hired her, failure sometimes leaves her crying off and on for days. "The ones you lose stick with you," she said. "The ones you lose hurt. You lose a little bit of yourself every time… There have been cases where my clients have had to comfort me."
For all the press coverage and advertisements featuring plaintiffs scoring fat checks, Compton always warns those looking to sue that a personal injury lawsuit does more than cost money - it turns a plaintiff's life into an open book, virtually dissolving any right to personal, financial or medical privacy. "You don't get to file a lawsuit claiming mental anguish without having to give up your medical records," she said. "You can't say that you have been harmed as far as your ability to earn a living without showing what living you've earned in the past. I always try to make them understand that."
For all the little bits of herself that she's lost to verdicts that didn't go her way over the years, Compton isn't slowing down. She has over 80 active cases on her computer hard drive right now, waiting for her attention. And even though she hears the jokes about ambulance chasers, about bloodsucking lawyers, about vultures in three-piece suits, Compton feels no shame in being known as a practitioner of what is widely portrayed as her profession's greediest pursuit. Personal injury, she says, isn't a dirty word.
"I don't laugh at those jokes," she said. "I take great pride in it, because I think personal injury lawyers have always been the agents of great change."