They say it is good to be king. It might be better, though, to be a very successful trial lawyer.
Thomas R. Kline, who unveiled a $50 million gift to the Drexel University law school on Wednesday, and Shanin Specter, his partner at Kline & Specter P.C., would seem to fit that description.
From its founding in 1995, the firm has grown to 35 lawyers and 115 employees overall, the largest personal-injury law firm in Pennsylvania and one of the largest in the country.
The firm is known for big-ticket, emotional cases, and devotes considerable time to screening matters before agreeing to represent a client, with three staff members, a nurse, and two lawyers, one with a nursing degree, doing the intake.
Medical malpractice is a major focus, and five Kline & Specter lawyers also have medical degrees. That's more than any other law firm in the country, the firm says.
"If, unfortunately, someone in your family faced catastrophic injuries that you thought had legal issues, they would be on a very, very short list of firms to consider," said Drexel law dean Roger Dennis.
The firm lists jury awards and settlements on its website totaling more than $1.7 billion, saying many other large settlements could not be disclosed because of confidentiality agreements.
Attorney fees in civil litigation typically are one-third of the settlement or jury award, but can range as high as 40 percent.
In one particularly stunning result in 2012, Specter won a $105 million verdict in Pittsburgh for the family of a young homemaker electrocuted on her front lawn by a falling power line. During the trial, Specter introduced evidence showing that the line had fallen on earlier occasions, but the power company had failed to correct the problem.
"My dad was a factory manager, and I grew up in a modest neighborhood in Hazleton, Pa.," said Kline, who was a sixth-grade teacher before getting his law degree from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. "I wanted to do something that would make a difference."
Kline says he will be doing that with his gift to Drexel, one of the largest donations to a U.S. law school. Some of the money will go to fund scholarships, bolstering a trend in which stronger law schools discount tuition costs to attract the best students.
A portion of the money will be used to add faculty and renovate the Beneficial Savings Bank building at 12th and Chestnut Streets, which Kline turned over to Drexel as part of the gift.
Kline purchased the Classical Revival structure, with an estimated market value of $5 million, in 2012 with the idea of devoting it to some public purpose. The building was designed by the noted Philadelphia Gilded Age architect Horace Trumbauer and will become the site of Drexel's trial-advocacy program, which trains lawyers in the skills needed for practicing in a courtroom.
Critics of the civil-litigation system, which has produced the large awards and settlements obtained by the firm for its clients, say it is a stacked decked of open-ended punitive-damage awards and trial lawyers who skillfully manipulate the emotions of jurors. Kline and Specter argue that absent their litigation, big companies, doctors, and hospitals wouldn't do enough to protect the public.
"No one likes being called on the judicial carpet," Specter said. "They don't want to be sued, let's be honest about it. They don't want to be brought into this office and have a court reporter here and have Tom or myself asking them about their professional conduct. I don't think there are any lawyers in Philadelphia bringing claims that they know are not meritorious."
Kline and Specter, who are close friends in addition to being partners, have been practicing together since the early 1980s, when Specter joined the Beasley law firm a short time after Kline began practicing there. In 1995, they left to start their own firm.
In a sense, Kline has come full circle with the gift announcement. He worked in the neighborhood as a young lawyer and had purchased the Beneficial building without knowing exactly what he would do with it. Now it will house facilities devoted to teaching the kind of law he practices.
"There is a lot of forward movement in the neighborhood, and this is going to be a catalyst," Kline said. "The fact that Drexel is going to make a commitment to the neighborhood is very significant."