Jim Beasley, The People's Lawyer

Philadelphia Daily News

September 23, 2004

ALEGAL giant will be laid to rest today. But we’d be doing Jim Beasley a disservice if we were to recall him as a great “Philadelphia lawyer,” a moniker that may still carry a connotation for skill and competence, but also conjures up privilege, white shoes and Ivy League degrees.

Jim Beasley was none of that. He spent most of his 78 years slaying dragons. He was a trial lawyer, and damn proud of it, even when it became a term of derision.

For 50 years, he reigned as the pre-eminent litigator in all of Pennsylvania. The range of his clients and breadth of his cases was unparalleled. Google “Jim Beasley,” and you’ll read about his beating the Philadelphia Inquirer twice on behalf of Dick Sprague. Or his representation of the family of Holly Maddux against the man who murdered her, Ira Einhorn. He made headlines when he obtained a judgment against Iraq for 9/11 victims. Many thought of suing, but it was Jim Beasley who figured out how to serve the members of the Taliban with legal papers.

But there also were the everyday unpublished stories of thousands of clients who were united only in their status as the underdog: Injured workers. Victims of medical neglect. Consumers injured by unsafe products. Beasley gave a voice to ordinary people who otherwise would never have had the ability to take on large insurance companies and Fortune 500 corporations.

Size mattered to Beasley: The smaller the aggrieved party, the more apt he was to become their champion. And his outrage was palpable. In this day of blow-dried pettifoggers, the jury felt – and shared – his sense of outrage.

Lawyers desperate to learn the secret of Beasley’s success would travel great distances to watch him try a case or host a seminar. “You have to believe in your case,” he’d say, “because a jury can tell when you don’t.”

But the skills that he used so effectively in court didn’t come from a textbook. His roots were the key to his success. His humble upbringing and thorough preparation gave him a unique ability to speak simply and convincingly.

Jim Beasley was once a kid born on the wrong side of the tracks in the midst of the Depression. He grew up poor in West Philadelphia, the son of a factory worker. He spent his summers working his grandparents’ Mississippi farm. At 17, he dropped out of high school to join the Navy. After his discharge in 1945, he worked briefly as a cop, and then returned to Philadelphia. He drove a truck, a cab and a Greyhound bus, and quickly realized that he had to go back to school. So he enrolled in a VA program and put himself through Temple law school (which now bears his name) by working at night. Then came the stuff of legal legend.

Like when he represented the teenage victim of an airline crash and walked into court holding a phone. During his closing speech, Beasley brought out the phone and invited the jurors to imagine themselves in the boy’s home so they could “overhear” the call in which his parents learned of their son’s death.

With the power of his spoken words, he crafted an image of cinematic size that was as poignant as it was vivid. Then, with a blend of common sense and a not-insignificant bit of flair, he told the jury that they would control the message in a call yet to be made – in which the airline lawyer would report the jury’s verdict to the plane’s manufacturer. It would be up to the jurors, he said, to decide what would be reported in that call.

I sat at his elbow and watched him treat all clients, from the mayor of Rome to a welfare mom from North Philly, with the same dignity and respect. Beasley didn’t care about skin color. He wasn’t interested in your politics. Your station in life was irrelevant. His only interest was the plight of his clients. And for them he was a gunslinger.

These days, it’s enough to sneer contemptuously at “those trial lawyers,” as if the title itself connotes dishonesty or opportunism. No need to qualify the title with an adjective (“dishonest”) – it’s bad enough to just call someone a “trial lawyer. ” No doubt some will see the career of Jim Beasley as one spent in an attack on American commerce.

But that would be a mistake. We can thank Jim Beasley for the fact that our cars are as safe today as they have ever been, newspapers think twice before publishing something that destroys a reputation, hospitals have implemented protocols that save people from getting the wrong medicine, and factories use machines that are less likely to injure working people.

People who think we would be better off without trial lawyers have simply been fortunate to never need one.

And somewhere, somebody should now be chiseling: “Here lies James E. Beasley, Trial Lawyer.” *

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