Philly Mag Profiles Jim Beasley Jr.: 'The Right Man for His Time'

Philadelphia magazine

September 25, 2008

While his old man worked, the Kid usually spent the day screwing up. He skipped school. He chewed tobacco in the back of class. He learned Spanish like a knucklehead, retaining little more than that cállate means “shut up.” His path seemed set from the time he was 12 years old. He was forced to repeat the seventh grade and was asked to leave Penn Charter in 10th.

Meanwhile, the old man was a legend, humping cases as a plaintiff’s attorney in city courtrooms. He won multimillion-dollar verdicts with regularity. And he did it with a Spartan’s dedication to combat. While the Kid complained about serving 45 hours of summer-school detention for being a no-account fuckup, the Legend put in 45 hours by Thursday afternoon. Then he kept right on working. He outshone opposing attorneys, wrestled control of the courtroom away from presiding judges, and ran roughshod to victories.

The Philadelphia Lawyer is a hoary cliché now. But it has been invoked as a compliment and a pejorative, a means of describing an intellectual strong man who twists not metal, but facts. Whatever. A Philadelphia Lawyer is suspect until he’s needed. Then, he’s your best friend. And the Legend was the ultimate Philadelphia Lawyer.

The Legend was so great, he excelled even at recreation. He raced cars. He jammed himself into the tight little barrel of a World War II fighter plane. He cheated death, pinwheeling through tight corkscrew spirals like a Top Gun pilot. But his performance suffered at home. When the Kid finished last in his first motocross race, the Legend said, “What’s the matter with you? I won all my races!”

The Legend was lying. Right to his son’s face. But the Kid wouldn’t learn that until years later. So instead he figured that somehow, everything had gone wrong. Somehow he was born a loser to a father who always won. And when the Legend’s headlights hit the front window, long after dinner each weekday night, his children fled before he could reach the front door. Two daughters and the boy bounded up the stairs rather than see their dad — tired, inebriated, and always on the lookout for someone or something to criticize.

In his mid-20s, though, the Kid did something that might have seemed unthinkable to the boy he once was. He decided to become a trial attorney. “Don’t,” the Legend warned him. “People will always compare you to me.”

The Legend was right. But miraculously, so was the boy. The courtroom is where he belongs. And watching him work now, as a man bearing the legacy of the Philadelphia Lawyer, is an opportunity to see how the nature of being a lawyer in this town has changed.

The shoot-’em-up cowboy tactics of the father have given way to the subtler skills of the son. And all these years later, the Kid is no longer scrambling out of his father’s headlights. He is standing where everyone can see him — even in the courtroom, where the glare is brightest. And the incredible thing is, he looks like the right man for his time.

IT’S A HOT summer day in June. Jim Beasley Jr., the Kid, is bent over a cardboard box and working it open quickly, like a child stricken with Christmas fever. He has been waiting for this moment through much of the trial — the chance to introduce Exhibit P-51, the object in the box.

The case began a week earlier. Beasley’s client is Robert Black, an internist in the UPenn health system. Black underwent cancer-related prostate surgery in his late 40s. He walked away impotent. He and his wife waited five sexless years for him to be declared cancer-free. Then he opted for an inflatable penile prosthesis. The device includes a fluid reservoir, two inflatable plastic rods and a tiny pump. Squeezing the pump in one of his testicles would push fluid from the reservoir into the rods inside his penis. Hallelujah. An erection. But he suffered complications. The three-ounce fluid reservoir wound up stuffed inside his bladder before he ever left the hospital. He remains impotent today. He hasn’t had sex with his wife in seven years.

Beasley took the case knowing it would be difficult to win. Bladder injuries are common enough among penile implant patients that they present no grounds for a lawsuit. His only claim is that a weeklong delay in diagnosing the problem is worth punishing. He also took the case knowing that the defendant, Terrence Malloy, is one of the most accomplished penile-implant surgeons in the country.

So … what’s in that box? In a sense, what’s in the box doesn’t matter. The box is a MacGuffin — the term film director Alfred Hitchcock coined to describe the briefcase every character wants to possess, the safe every film thief wants to crack. The MacGuffin is the reason the characters in the film behave as they do. The MacGuffin takes on the sum total of all our hopes and fears. And once the MacGuffin is secure, the film is over.

For Jim Beasley Jr., then, the object in the box must have something to do with his father.

BEASLEY SR. GOT to the top — that’s his name on Temple’s Beasley School of Law — after starting at the bottom. His own father died when he was just 14 years old, and his early work history included stints as a bus driver and a motorcycle cop. But once he finished law school, he discovered the courtroom was really where he belonged. In a long, distinguished career, he won more than 100 cases with verdicts of at least a million dollars.

He died in September 2004 at 78 years old, just 13 days after being diagnosed with cancer, prompting one of the city’s other legendary attorneys, Richard Sprague, to declare: “He was the sun around which we planets revolved.”

Before he passed, the Legend was working with one of his former clients, Ralph Cipriano, on writing a book about his best cases. But after the Legend died, Beasley Jr. opened up his father’s entire life to the reporter. The result,Courtroom Cowboy, scheduled to be released by Lawrence Teacher Books later this fall, is a raw, red and bleeding love letter from a son to his dad. The elder Beasley is revealed as an emotionally stunted product of the World War II generation. He cheated on his wife and lorded over his kids. The chapter on his divorce from Beasley Jr.’s mother — which took eight years in court to resolve — is a vivid painting of a man on fire. The Legend was consumed with his legal career; his family was an afterthought. But at the end, in his final few years of life, the senior Beasley rehabilitates himself. He grows to treasure his family. He remarries Jim Jr.’s mother, Helen. And then he’s gone. The sun around which the planets rotated, eradicated.

Beasley Jr. inherited his father’s empire — a law firm specializing in medical malpractice cases, and the well-appointed mansion at 11th and Walnut streets that houses the firm — and he now owns a handful of airplanes father and son enjoyed piloting together.

But what he would probably like most is the chance to hear his father say “I’m proud of you.” The Legend was sparing with praise, and the junior Beasley gave him little reason to be generous. His teenage years were a constant rebellion of unapproved keg parties at his dad’s place and righteous bong hits. He started to pull his act together in his senior year, and in college he met his wife, whose tender ministrations helped propel him all the way through a medical degree. He thought about being a research geneticist before deciding he needed a profession that was more …aggressive. He has that streak in him, just like the Legend. He has even surpassed his father as a stunt pilot, performing in an annual air show each summer in Atlantic City in the cockpit of a World War II plane. But practicing law is different, of course. Because mastering the law is what his father was famous for.

DAY ONE OF the trial, Beasley calls the first witness, Robert Black. Beasley is dressed in a tan suit and sits behind a table piled with paperwork. His witness is clearly anxious. Several times, Black begins answering questions Beasley has yet to ask.

“Be cool,” Beasley tells him.

Gradually, he calms. Then Beasley, still sitting at the plaintiff’s table, asks him the most sensitive question: “Could you describe your ability to be intimate with your wife now?”

Black’s response spares nothing. “If you were to look at me right now, I look like a seven-year-old boy, except I have pubic hair,” he says. “I have a penis about three inches long, and with stimulation, it does nothing.”

To compound indignities, after he returned to work Black found out that some of his colleagues had accessed his computerized medical records, violating the HIPAA Act for a cheap jolly. (We changed Black’s name for this story at his request.)

Through it all, Beasley’s performance is conspicuous mostly for his seeming absence. He remains seated the entire time. His co-counsel actually sits closer to the jury box, rendering Beasley a kind of disembodied voice in the courtroom. But when Black drops the bomb about his shrunken, non-working member, the moment is even more powerful, more intimate, because Beasley is sitting. It is as if the wounded internist is sharing a moment alone with the jury.

As the trial progresses, Beasley rarely stands, drawing a stark contrast between himself and his chief opponent in the case, Adrian King. In total, the defense includes three attorneys, one to represent UPenn and the other two to represent Malloy. But it’s King, in particular, who sucks all the air from the room. Ostensibly representing Penn, the 60–something, elfin-small former Marine defends Malloy, too — -arching his thick eyebrows in cartoonish fashion, gesturing violently at the plaintiff and saying his name, Doctor Black, as if uttering these syllables requires him to fish-hook his own testes and give the line a yank.

King’s theatrical, carpet-bombing performance is more reminiscent of Jim Beasley Sr. than is that of the Legend’s own son. But that should come as no surprise. A Philadelphia Lawyer approaches trial work like an actor, finding a character for the courtroom that fits his own personality. Father and son are different attorneys because they are different men. Beasley Sr. was known to prowl the courtroom like a big-game hunter (which he also was — the Legend’s legend knows no bounds). He wore cowboy boots into court, called the jurors “folks,” and in his later years sported a dignified shock of long gray locks, lending him the air of a country sheriff. He was salty in combat, once refusing a settlement offer from King with the admonition: “Tell your client to take the same amount of money you just offered me in dollar bills — and shove it up his ass.”

In contrast, though Jim Beasley Jr. looks lean and fit like his father, his persona is more nerd than stunt pilot. He wears computer-geek eyeglasses perched on his thin, pointed nose. His dark brown hair is cut conservatively short. And his voice is pitched at a higher register. In court, his combative questions are masked by his friendly, almost passive demeanor. And for that, juries tend to like him. But the differences between Junior’s style and his father’s aren’t solely about the chasm between their personalities. Ask anybody in the Philadelphia legal world, and you’ll hear that even Jim Beasley Sr. couldn’t be Jim Beasley Sr. today.

When the senior Beasley first stood before a judge and jury, lawyers spent most of their days in courtrooms. Cases rarely settled. The discovery process had yet to evolve into the foul, paper-generating beast it’s become today. This meant that lawyers essentially walked into court blind, unsure what witnesses might say. For Beasley Sr., this was an advantage. Having worked as a cop and driven a bus, the old man had skills no law school could teach. He looked at witnesses and determined what questions to ask by instinct.

Today, the Kid — and, by extension, every other attorney in Philadelphia — clambers over a vast mountain of paperwork before entering the court. Cases settle more often than not. The discovery process is so comprehensive that Beasley Jr. knows pretty much everything a witness will say. And he faces a jury made more sophisticated, or cynical, by decades of courtroom TV dramas. Courtrooms are still theaters, of a sort. But Beasley’s direct examination of Robert Black was theater of a remarkably subtle kind.

Because the junior Beasley lacks his father’s commanding presence and long list of accomplishments, he is easy to underestimate. “What do you want to write about him for?” one prominent attorney asked me. “What has he ever done? His father was a legend. He built all that, working cases. The kid just had it handed to him.”

But the junior Beasley is a lawyer for his times. And against all odds, the buzz on the Beasley firm seems to be changing. Both Dick Sprague and high-flying criminal defense attorney Fred Perri say they’re hearing from local judges that this Junior-led Beasley firm is once again receiving a lot of referrals. This, too, shouldn’t come as a surprise. In a sense, the firm was passed from father to son in the Legend’s last trial, a 2004 medical malpractice case. Senior tried wrangling the judge for control of the courtroom, his usual method of forcibly beating a path to victory. But the jury wasn’t with ahim. He lost. He was diagnosed with cancer directly afterward.

His sudden end marked the passage of his older, freewheeling brand of lawyering. And the final act of an eccentric, brawling old man.

NINETEEN SEVENTY-EIGHT

The Legend flies his family to San Diego.

Being a child of poverty, the multimillionaire refuses to equip his private airplane with the necessary upgrades to soar at higher altitudes. He flies in the same manner he lives his life: turbulently, at a height of 4,000 feet, chain–smoking Tiparillos. Behind him, his wife, two daughters and son rattle in the silver metal tube and choke upon his exhalations. Before long, they take turns puking into plastic bags. And they beg the Legend to find some calmer altitude for flying.

This is the usual scene whenever the Beasley family takes to the air. But on this particular trip, after the Kid pukes, he convinces his father to take an unplanned detour. “C’mon, Dad,” the 11-year-old boy says. “Take a left.”

There’s a historical plane collection in Harlingen, Texas, which means traveling some 500 miles off course. The Kid wants to see a World War II-era plane — “The coolest plane ever,” he tells his father — of which he’s building models at home: the P-51 Mustang, one of the most famous fighter planes in aviation history. The then-52-year-old Beasley Sr. not only flies his family to Texas. He buys the P-51, for $140,000.

Many of the Kid’s stories about the Legend are like this — redolent of anger, vomit and laughable good fortune. This one is particularly special because the warplane is a passion father and son grow to share, and flying an activity they bond over between problems. And over the years, there are always problems.

When the Kid got fat, for instance, the Legend’s response was brutal. “Stop eating,” he said. “Fat shit.” The Kid spent his nights in the basement, lifting weights to scour the fat away, feeling helpless as he listened to his father yell at his mother upstairs. And one afternoon he came home to find all the furniture gone. “Dad,” he said, phoning his father, “I think we’ve been robbed.”

The reality was that his mother had moved out, unable to live with a Legend.

IN ROBERT BLACK v. Terrence Malloy, the defense called a series of medical residents to try and refute the plaintiff’s testimony. But they seemed to focus mostly on the color of Black’s urine. He maintained in his testimony that it was often bright red and thick with clots it pained him to pass, suggesting that doctors should have quickly discovered his injured bladder. The residents testified that his urine was usually clear and sometimes “light rosé,” a reference to a gradation of red wine, suggesting that there was no evidence of bladder injury at all.

Beasley’s cross-examination of the defendant, Terrence Malloy, promises to be more interesting. In Malloy, Beasley is to face an experienced witness who also holds a distinct advantage. Modern juries want Gladiator-style combat, but they don’t consider the match between lawyer and witness a fair fight. Beasley knows: If Malloy gets sharp with him, he’ll enjoy more room to maneuver. He might even be able to retrieve the exhibit from its box.

But the doctor never rattles. Beasley questions him for maybe half an hour. Working carefully, he pins him into claiming that the fluid reservoir “eroded” into Black’s bladder without producing any signs or symptoms. Black had testified that he bled and suffered intense pain.

“If there was erosion,” Beasley asks, “would you not expect that the patient would suffer from considerable lower abdominal pain?”

“He may or may not,” replies Malloy.

Without a hint of impatience, Beasley refers the doctor back to his deposition in the case. “Dr. Malloy,” he begins, “on page 24 of your deposition I asked, ‘What are the signs and symptoms of an erosion?’”

Malloy’s wrinkled fingers sift through a copy of his deposition on the stand.

“You testified,” Beasley begins again, “that ‘You would have considerable lower abdominal pain if there was an erosion,’ correct?”

The jury’s eyes flit from Beasley to the witness. “Yes,” Malloy admits.

In a television show, the plaintiff’s attorney would further probe this discrepancy. But in real life, asking another question on the subject would risk the jury’s ire and give the witness the opportunity to clean up his mess. Beasley’s father almost certainly would have appeared combative. Once, in fact, the senior Beasley blasted Malloy on the stand, accusing him of “being willing to come into court and say anything” he had to — a claim Malloy vehemently denied.

But having won a point from Malloy, the junior Beasley merely nods and moves on to another topic. He has removed a pound of the doctor’s flesh without spilling any blood. Later, he’ll acknowledge his pleasure with the day’s events. But in the courtroom, his facial expression never changes. And he never pulls the exhibit out of the box. The entire exchange shows him working a case in his own way, subtlety winning over flamboyance, the Kid not giving in to the Legend, a mirror for how lawyering itself has evolved.

AFTER HAVING BEEN separated from -Beasley’s mother for 18 years, the elder Beasley turned up one day at age 73 on his ex-wife’s doorstep, wearing his trademark boots and a long leather coat. They remarried less than three years later. He also reconciled with his children, though for Beasley Jr. there is still some air of mystery surrounding the changes his father made. He doesn’t know if the old man had truly grown wiser, mellower, more -loving — or if the cancer eating his body had slowed him down.

Today, however, the Beasley firm’s website includes a video tribute to his dad. It’s an oddly intimate thing to have included there, but disquietingly beautiful. Images of the father flicker in a slow reveal as the mournful acoustic ballad “I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You” plays. Toward the end, Beasley Jr. ascends the grand staircase of what was once his father’s firm and leans into the doorway of what used to be the Legend’s office. His flair for the theatrical is not so great, but his expectant expression and deferential posture indicate that he expects to see his father, somehow, still sitting there.

SOMETIMES A TRIAL’S most important turns occur at the unlikeliest times. In the case of Black v. Malloy, that’s exactly what happens.

The witness’s name is Victor Carpiniello, and he is called by the defense to bolster the claim that there is no evidence the hospital should have discovered Black’s bladder damage sooner. It will be the first time — just as the story of this trial is coming to a close — that Beasley himself will stand out. Carpiniello has created an opening of sorts by claiming he remembers his single visit with Black. And Black, he says, never complained to him of pain.

“How many patients do you typically see a week?” asks Beasley.

“Eighty to 100,” replies Carpiniello.

“So if it’s 80 or 100 a week,” replies Beasley, “how many weeks are there in a year?”

Fifty-two,” Carpiniello replies, his voice grown suddenly thick and condescending. Beasley privately celebrates, because Carpiniello has cracked the veneer of civility between them. But his voice remains calm, kind.

“So,” he says, “that’s 5,200 patients from July of ’05 to July of ’06, is that fair to say?”

“If that’s the math,” replies Carpiniello, still talking down to his questioner, “yes.”

So Beasley does the math: 5,000 patients a year times nearly three years. “That’s almost 14,000 patients,” he calculates. “You remember Dr. Black specifically, 14,000 patients ago?”

“Absolutely,” replies Carpiniello.

The jurors openly smirk in their seats. “Mr. King showed you this document,” says Beasley, holding up a single sheet of paper. “It says ‘urine, light rosé.’”

By now, the jury has repeatedly heard what “rosé” means in the context of a hospital. But like a comedian setting up his punch line, Beasley retraces his steps. “What’s ‘rosé’ mean?” he asks.

“Rosé is a descriptive term relating to wine color,” replies Carpiniello.

“Wine color,” the attorney repeats. He puts his fingers to his chin, as if pondering Carpiniello’s response. It’s a simple action, and a kind of ruse — a means of buying an extra second to make his calculations, which run something like this: When a jury wishes the questioning would stop, the spirit of the room dims. When a jury expects that something important or dramatic is about to happen, the energy shoots higher. Beasley’s father always used to tell him that working as a plaintiff’s attorney required him to be director, producer and one of the principal actors in a play. So with the words “wine color” still hanging in the air, Beasley finally decides to open the box.

Striding quickly around the jurors’ stand, he crouches down on the floor, seizes the box’s cardboard flaps, and opens them quickly. When he stands again, he holds a bottle of rosé wine triumphantly aloft in his right hand. “Like this?” he asks.

The red liquid shines vividly under the harsh light of the courtroom, like fresh blood. And the bottle, like any good prop, speaks: If this was the color of Robert Black’s urine, why didn’t the hospital take swifter action?

Some of the jurors smile; others laugh appreciatively. The judge, smiling, says, “I think we’re all going to lose our appetites.”

After deliberations, the jury will return with a 10-2 verdict in favor of the plaintiff, awarding Black and his wife $650,000 in damages. The Kid wins the case, grandstanding with a wine bottle in the space afforded him by all his earlier restraint. And he acknowledged his father in the process. “I will call this,” he says, still holding the bottle in his hands, “Exhibit P-51.”

The P-51 was the warplane he talked his father into detouring 500 miles to Texas to see, the plane he and his father both enjoyed flying so much over the years.

Jim Beasley Jr., the Kid, may be a very different man from the Legend — a much more attentive father to his own four children, and a less famous attorney. And what it takes to be a Philadelphia Lawyer has definitely changed since his father’s day. But the Kid feels sure that the Legend, under the same circumstances, would have brought the wine bottle to court. And so, as a tribute to him, he brings a new Exhibit P-51 to every case. He tries to choose something unusual, something colorful — -something as flamboyant as a brilliant attorney corkscrewing through the weekend sunlight in a fighter plane — as a means of remembering the old man and keeping him alive in court. The jury never knows it. But they’ve just seen a son honor his father. They’ve just seen the Kid honor a Legend that modern times, and his own temperament, will never allow him to be.

“. . . The junior Beasley is a lawyer for his times. And against all odds, the buzz on the Beasley firm seems to be changing. Both Dick Sprague and high-flying criminal defense attorney Fred Perri say they’re hearing from local judges that this Junior-led Beasley firm is once again receiving a lot of referrals.”

“He thought about being a research geneticist before deciding he needed a profession that was more … aggressive. He has that streak in him, just like the Legend.”

At every trial, the son uses a courtroom exhibit, something flamboyant, always marked as Exhibit P-51, to pay tribute to his father. “The jury never knows it. But they’ve just seen a son honor his father.”

THE LEGACY

Jim Beasley Sr., a legendary, boot-stomping Philadelphia Lawyer, left his firm in the hands of his ne’er do-well son. But now Beasley Jr.’s quiet approach is not only winning big cases, but signaling a new era in the city’s courtrooms.

By Steve Volk

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