By Alan Cooper; Published: April 8, 2011
Edward L. Allen brings family and history with him to the presidency of the Virginia Trial Lawyers Association.
His grandfather was the first president of the association. His father started its political action committee. A cousin and a brother have served as president.
Allen is proud of that history, but he’s looking forward rather than backward. He says his goal for his tenure is to address VTLA’s future by developing a long-range strategic plan.
A committee has been formed and a professional facilitator hired for what he says will be “a top-to-bottom review.”
Not that he believes the association is in trouble or needs a major overhaul.
Rather, he said, “we want to be as responsive in the long run as we have been in the past.”
That responsiveness will include “continuing to provide the best substantive education,” giving members “what they need in their busy, busy practices,” he said.
He noted that the association sponsored 54 separate continuing legal education events in the past year. “But it’s not just the quantity of it, it’s the quality of it that we’re most proud of.”
He pointed to its Virginia College of Trial Advocacy and full-day retreats on such topics as the recovery of damages in wrongful death cases as examples of the in-depth programming the association offers.
The VTLA also is on something of a roll in a second major mission – legislative action. In the past couple of years, it has negotiated deals with physician and hospital organizations on legislation to raise the cap on medical malpractice awards over time and to clarify what information about a medical mistake healthcare providers can keep confidential.
It also was a leading proponent of increasing the jurisdiction of general district courts from $15,000 to $25,000 and changing uninsured motorist law to streamline settlements after a liability carrier has offered the limits of its coverage.
The VTLA played a somewhat lesser role on two broader issues during the last session, restoring funding for judgeships that had been frozen and beating back an attempt to take $5 million from the Virginia State Bar’s operating reserve.
Looking forward, Allen said he expects the association to be involved in the proposal to realign the state’s judicial circuits and districts. “Everyone is in favor of the proper allocation of judicial resources,” he said. “That will take some time, and I’m glad that we have time to figure that out.”
Legislation that would have established new districts to take effect July 1, 2012, was defeated with the understanding that the Supreme Court of Virginia and its administrative staff would study the matter and report to the House and Senate Courts of Justice committees in the fall.
In its legislative efforts, the association has had to spend little time in responding to tort reform efforts that have been common in other states.
“I don’t think that’s an accident,” he said. Instead, it’s a reflection of “supporting candidates who support our goals.”
Allen acknowledged legislative success is relative in a state with a well-deserved reputation for conservative laws, conservative juries and conservative legislators.
He noted as an example that Virginia is one of only five states in which contributory negligence remains a complete bar to recovery in a personal injury case – and not one likely to join the majority any time soon. “Some of our goals are long term,” he said dryly.
Allen suggests that he joined the law firm almost by osmosis. His first job there was polishing the furniture after school. Later, a part-time job was checking old files and deciding which ones could be safely discarded.
As he was growing up, he watched his father, Wilbur C. Allen, counsel clients and try cases in court. Being part of a legal dynasty is “all that I know,” so much so that “nobody even suggested that I go to law school.”
In fact, three of his four siblings – W. Coleman Allen Jr., R. Clayton Allen and Courtney Allen Van Winkle – are members of the firm. Their grandfather, George E. Allen, two uncles, George E. Allen Jr. and Ashby B. Allen, and their father are the four Allens in the firm name.
George E. “Ted” Allen III and Ashby Allen’s son, Charles Littlepage Allen, also are members of the third generation of Allens at the firm. Ted Allen’s sister, Elizabeth Allen, was a member before she retired a couple of years ago.
Two members of the fourth generation are attorneys – Coleman’s daughter Kara and Matthew Fitzgerald, the son of Gayle Fitzgerald, the only non-lawyer child of Wilbur Allen. Kara is working in London and Fitzgerald is a law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
Gayle Fitzgerald’s second son, Scott, is a third-year law student at the College of William and Mary who expects to become the first member of the fourth generation at the Allen firm in the fall.
As the partner who opened the firm’s office in Fredericksburg 17 years ago, Edward Allen says he has the best of both worlds. “I have the support of a family law firm, but I don’t have to see them every day.”
He said he took it as a compliment when Ted Allen, who was president of the firm at the time, asked him to open the office. Only later did he learn that the offer was extended largely because he was the only family member in the firm who wasn’t married at the time.
But Allen was dating the woman who later became his wife. He and their two children, a son, 15, and a daughter, 10, are firmly established in Fredericksburg, even though he had never been there before he agreed to open the office. The Fredericksburg office has grown to six attorneys and a staff of more than 20.
Allen said he continues to be impressed with the talent in the Fredericksburg bar, which welcomed him and the firm. “I did not have the first inkling that anybody felt that we were encroaching on their territory.”
Allen is the only family member on the firm’s three-member executive committee. Douglas A. Barry is the first non-family member to be president of the firm, and Trent S. Kerns is the third member.
With more than 20 attorneys, a majority of whom are not Allens, the firm has become a family in a broader sense, Allen said.
Although a majority of the 22 lawyers in the firm are not Allens, “it’s a family firm because everybody’s part of the firm. That’s how we operate.”
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