James C. Haggerty, a 30-year veteran of the defense bar and arguably one of the most well-known motor vehicle insurance defense attorneys in Pennsylvania, is about to become a plaintiffs lawyer.
Haggerty, along with Bucks County solo attorney Terry Goldberg, have joined Philadelphia-based plaintiffs firm WSK Lawyers.
The firm plans to eventually change its name to Haggerty Goldberg Schleifer & Kupersmith.
Haggerty is currently in the process of tying up loose ends at insurance defense firm Swartz Campbell, where he was a member of the firm's management committee.
Exactly how long that process will take is still unknown at this point, according to WSK Lawyers managing partner Richard T. Kupersmith, but the firm publicly announced its formation on Tuesday at a personal injury lawyers function in Philadelphia.
To understand why Haggerty is making such a drastic transition in his career, one must first understand the circumstances surrounding the formation of this new firm.
Goldberg, Haggerty, Kupersmith and WSK Lawyers partner Charles J. Schleifer sat down with The Legal Intelligencer last week to talk about how a series of personal and professional tribulations brought this unlikely group of attorneys together.
For Schleifer, it all began in November, when former partner Norman J. Weinstein filed suit against the firm in Berks County Common Pleas Court -- the firm began in Reading, Pa., and retains an office there, but considers itself a Philadelphia firm, according to Schleifer -- alleging breach of fiduciary duty and breach of contract, as well as calling for the dissolution of the firm.
According to Schleifer, the suit "hit me like a ton of bricks."
"I had 40 people working here and thousands of clients," he said. "Everyone was afraid for their jobs."
The firm responded in March with its own suit against Weinstein in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court, alleging that he had used the firm's money to fund his own side businesses and, upon leaving the firm for Galfand Berger, poached clients and referral sources.
But by then, Schleifer already had an idea for a new firm.
While the major players in complex litigation are well established in Pennsylvania's plaintiffs bar, there has been a "void" in the area of automobile insurance litigation, Schleifer explained.
Schleifer envisioned transforming WSK Lawyers into the "go-to firm" for that type of work -- one that insurance companies couldn't take advantage of.
"'Let's be a firm no one would even dream of doing that to,'" Schleifer recalled thinking.
To accomplish that, however, he would need someone who knows the insurance industry inside and out. Enter Haggerty, a longtime friend who Schleifer said has been "the voice of and face of" the insurance industry in the Pennsylvania legal community for decades.
Schleifer said he had noticed a change in Haggerty following the passing of Haggerty's brother, William, in 2007, following a long bout with brain cancer.
Haggerty and his family began the Bill Haggerty Memorial Invitational Golf Tournament to raise money for the Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center at Duke University, and Schleifer said he sensed in Haggerty a new passion for giving back.
Speaking to The Legal Intelligencer last week, Haggerty acknowledged that his brother's passing changed his perspective, prompting him to think about spending "the last 10 years or more of my career representing plaintiffs."
"I thought it would be a good time to make a change," he said.
Leonard A. Sloane, an attorney at Media, Pa.-based plaintiffs firm Eckell, Sparks, Levy, Auerbach, Monte, Sloane, Matthews & Auslander who has co-authored a number of articles with Haggerty for The Legal Intelligencer, said Haggerty was "very well-respected" for his appellate work in automobile insurance cases.
"There was nobody that was anywhere close to Jim in understanding the complex issues in connection with automobile insurance law," he said. "Were it not for Jim's efforts, I think a lot of cases would have gone the other way."
Jeffrey B. McCarron, chair of Swartz Campbell's management committee, said Haggerty "was a significant member of the firm for many years."
"Fortunately, the firm has existed for 91 years and has managed this kind of change in the past," he said.
Haggerty wasn't the only attorney Schleifer had in mind to fill out his dream firm. The other was Goldberg, a Bucks County solo lawyer who had also recently gone through a dark personal time.
Goldberg's best friend and law partner, Eric Birnbaum, was shot and killed while standing in the parking lot of the Terry D. Goldberg & Associates law offices in February 2009.
Police never found the killer and the incident shook Goldberg to his core.
In an interview with The Legal Intelligencer four months after the shooting, Goldberg described having trouble eating and sleeping, saying his nights were consumed with trying to piece together clues as to who might have killed his friend.
Schleifer told The Legal Intelligencer last week that he was contacted a few months ago by a mutual friend who expressed concern about Goldberg.
Goldberg said last week that while his practice had remained robust since the incident, he wasn't enjoying it as much as he used to.
He was also finding it hard to escape the specter of what had happened to Birnbaum. "Everywhere I went, everyone wanted to talk about Eric," he said.
When Schleifer, who Goldberg described as one of his "oldest and dearest friends," reached out about starting a new firm, Goldberg looked at it as an opportunity to start fresh.
Earlier this month, Haggerty, Goldberg, Schleifer and Kupersmith formally agreed to start the new firm.
With Goldberg's Bucks County office and WSK Lawyers' existing offices, the firm will have nine locations in nine counties, including Philadelphia, Lehigh, Lancaster, Berks, Dauphin, Chester, Delaware and Lebanon.
Goldberg said he's looking forward to spending time traveling to the firm's other locations, where there will be fewer reminders of the past.
"It's tough pulling into that parking lot every day," Goldberg said of his Bucks County office.
Goldberg's practice focuses mainly on motor vehicle and general negligence cases, which Kupersmith said is not unlike WSK Lawyers, though the firm does also have a workers' compensation practice.
Julianna Burdo, Goldberg's associate who will also be joining the firm, focuses her practice on medical malpractice cases.
Schleifer said he doesn't anticipate the firm having any trouble taking on the overhead of an additional location, attorneys and support staff.
But Schleifer did admit that there is still a lot of work to be done before Haggerty Goldberg is fully up and running.
"I look at [the firm] as the most magnificent piece of clothing with so many wrinkles," he said. "You just have to iron them out."