By Shanin Specter
Recently, a retrospective was held on the life of James E. Beasley, the preeminent Philadelphia trial lawyer who died in 2004. Jim Beasley was a big influence on my life and the lives of many others.
Thirty years ago, as a young lawyer in Beasley's firm, I heard him say: Listen to your clients; don't take any nonsense from anybody, including a judge; and there is no case more complicated than an intersectional collision.
I thought all three observations were plainly wrong. Didn't we know more than our clients? Shouldn't we accept our role as being subservient to judges? With all the medical-malpractice and product-liability cases in the office, how could a car accident case be just as complicated?
I came to learn, of course, that all three observations were true.
Our clients had a lot to say and, often, they were right and our instincts and alleged wisdom were wrong. Judges who acted like bullies only responded appropriately to those who stood up for themselves. And having prepared and tried lots of intersectional-collision cases, I found that the issues of time, space, and perception were as subtle and subject to the powers of advocacy as any issues in our most rarefied cases.
Beasley took on the high and mighty with no fear of the consequences. He was the only lawyer in Philadelphia who would routinely sue the news media. Most lawyers feared retribution. And it was and is very hard to win a defamation action on behalf of a public figure under the "actual malice" standard.
Yet Beasley brought case after case and, remarkably, won time after time. His two trials for famed lawyer Richard A. Sprague against The Inquirer rank at or near the top of the most important civil trials in Philadelphia in the second half of the 20th century.
Beasley was a thoroughly ethical lawyer. He would not curry favor with judges. He would not take them to lunch or dinner, nor would he treat them particularly well when he was in their courtroom. He cautioned others about becoming too close to judges.
Beasley wouldn't go along with clients who wanted to bend or break the rules. I saw an exchange between Beasley and a very prominent Philadelphia lawyer who was Beasley's client. They were preparing for a hearing where the client was to testify. The client asked Beasley, "What do you want me to say?" implying that his testimony was flexible. Beasley replied with disdain, bordering on contempt, "The truth."
Beasley valued the professional independence of the lawyers who worked for him. He assigned files and expected lawyers to prepare and try cases appropriately. He didn't meddle.
Eventually, this hands-off policy backfired. Beasley employed a lawyer who simply stopped working. As a result, dozens of cases were dismissed, all without Beasley knowing. When the matter was finally brought to his attention, it took all of Beasley's skills to get the cases opened by judicial order. This episode was a chastening experience. Perhaps relatedly, soon thereafter, Beasley made an enormous gift to Temple University, which named its law school for him.
Beasley's endowment to Temple has helped educate another generation of lawyers and will continue to advance the students of the Beasley School of Law in perpetuity. This magnificent gift influenced my law partner Tom Kline to make a similar transformational gift to Drexel.
Beasley's philanthropy, along with his influence on the careers of his mentees, as well as those who opposed him in court or witnessed his work, affects today's lawyers and cases in ways large and small.
When I'm trying a case, I find myself channeling Beasley. I'm sure his other alumni feel the same. When I hear a judge charge a jury, I hear the words Beasley helped to write. As the great architect Christopher Wren wrote about himself, "If you seek his monument - look around you."
On Aug. 26, 2004, I wrote this letter to Beasley:
Twenty years ago today, I walked into 21 S. 12th St. and began my practice of law with you.
For 11 years, you gave me the opportunity to learn, to achieve, and to excel. You were, without exception, always fair and supportive of my professional development.
Whatever I have achieved in these 20 years is due in substantial part to you.
On Aug. 30, 2004, Beasley penned the following reply:
I have in hand your very kind note of Aug. 26, 2004. I knew from the beginning that you were a winner and you proved it.
Give Tom my regards with my hope to both of you for a continued bright future.
A few weeks later, he was dead. This exchange of letters hangs in my office. It is a reminder to me of Jim Beasley, his greatness, and the importance of telling people you appreciate them.