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James E. Beasley Sr. not only taught Andrew Stern lessons about practicing law, he also taught him how to fly an airplane. And Stern remembers Beasley grilling him about “what do you do if the anti-gravity device [the engine] stops?”

“He always wanted to make sure we were ready to deal with emergencies, by being prepared for anything and everything” said Stern, a partner at the Beasley Firm.

On Sept. 18, Stern and his partners were forced to deal with the death of Beasley, the engine of one of the city’s most prominent plaintiffs firms for almost 45 years.

Many members of the plaintiffs bar quietly wondered if the firm would survive without the presence of Beasley, whose reputation consistently put the firm in line to handle some of the biggest tort cases in the region.

Beasley Firm partners said planning in the years prior to the patriarch’s death, combined with the presence of several independently successful attorneys, will allow the firm to continue to prosper.

“This ship has been going for 40 years and we’re all united in keeping it going,” said James E. Beasley Jr., who has replaced his father as managing partner. “He left us with a great building, tons of capital and a great reputation. We haven’t made a lot of changes with daily operations.”

Soon after his father’s death, Stern said Beasley Jr. gathered the firm’s 16 lawyers and staff in the law library and reassured them about their jobs and the firm’s long-term future.

“Jim Jr. has been great,” Beasley Firm partner Slade McLaughlin said. “The big question was going to be about leadership, and Jim Jr. has really filled that void.”

Beasley Jr. moved into his father’s spacious office and cut back on his caseload a bit to deal with administrative issues.

“It’s not the benevolent dictatorship that my dad had,” Beasley Jr. said. “All of the partners are involved in the decision-making process.”

The reason no major changes have been made is because the elder Beasley had begun to incorporate others in major decision-making. In October 2003 the firm announced that seven lawyers – Beasley Jr., McLaughlin, Stern, Keith Erbstein, Paul Lauricella, James McHugh and David Yanoff – would join Beasley Sr. as partners in the firm.

The move was viewed by some in the legal community as trying to ensure that the firm’s top lawyers would stick around. Over the past 10 years, the firm has seen several defections by prominent litigators who formed their own firms, including Thomas Kline, Shanin Specter, Nancy Fullam, James Colleran and Daniel Thistle.

But the partnership agreement that was created upon that announcement clearly stated that Beasley Jr. would run the firm in the event of his father’s death or retirement. And Stern said that’s just fine with the other partners.

“Jim Jr. basically controls the firm, and that’s fine because that’s the way Jim Sr. would have wanted it,” Stern said. “But there’s a lot of give and take, and we all contribute [in running the firm]. I think things would have been a lot more difficult if Jim Sr. didn’t come up with the new partnership agreement before he died. It basically allows us to pick up where we left off.”

McLaughlin said Beasley Sr. had basically turned the daily management of the firm over to other lawyers two years ago. They put together a firm Web site and began to market in a more modern fashion.

While the firm’s bread and butter has always been medical malpractice cases, its partners have branched out into other areas, such as construction, product liability, First Amend-ment and class action. McLaughlin said McHugh now leads a six-attorney class action group.

Even so, McLaugh-lin realizes that competition for the top-flight medical malpractice work has become more intense. He said when he started his career as a med mal defense attorney in the early 1980s, there were four firms in Philadelphia that were getting most of the prime plaintiffs work – The Beasley Firm, Raynes McCarty, Kolsby Gordon Robin Shore & Bezar and the now-defunct Litvin Blumberg Matusow & Young. But now firms such as Anapol Schwartz Weiss Cohan Feldman & Smalley, Kline & Specter, Saltz Mongeluzzi Barrett & Bendesky, Eisenberg Rothweiler Schleifer Weinstein & Winkler, Feldman Shepherd Wohlgelernter & Tanner and McEldrew & Fullam have joined those older firms in competing for business. Several smaller firms and solo practitioners are in the mix.

“But I think you are going to see things revert back to the way things used to be in the Philadelphia market, with only a few firms handling those cases,” McLaughlin said. “The issues have become so complex, the cases are expensive to litigate and people don’t want to have to deal with the venue changes and the certificate of merit process. And we’ve been doing med mal work for more than 40 years, so people will know what they are getting and we’ll definitely be one of the firms that gets the referrals.”

But there is still a perception that the firm will have trouble competing without the allure of Beasley Sr. attracting high-profile cases. Much of that perception could emanate from the history of plaintiffs firms. When Beasley Sr.’s mentor, Nathaniel Richter, died, so did his law firm. More recently, after Gerald Litvin stepped down from the partnership of Litvin Blumberg 10 years ago, partners said it contributed to a slow decline that culminated in its dissolution earlier this year.

So how will The Beasley Firm avoid the same fate? Beasley Jr. said the aforementioned management conversion, coupled with the fact that most of the firm’s partners have been headlining their own high-profile cases in recent years, has made the transition smooth.

“Toward the end, my father let us take center stage on a lot of cases,” Beasley Jr. said. “Don’t get me wrong, he still had a full caseload and was often the first person in the office and the last to leave. But he had the foresight to see the benefit of letting us take lead roles. For instance, when we filed the Iraq case [against Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda on behalf of family members of Sept. 11 victims], I was the one who went on ‘Good Morning America.’”

Beasley Jr. said his father’s 1999 donation to Temple University’s law school – which he confirmed was for $20 million – has helped institutionalize the firm with potential clients because the school now bears the Beasley name.

As for whether the firm will continue to get major referrals without his father, Beasley Jr. said referrals have actually increased over the past two months.

“Back in the late ’80s or early ’90s, my dad was the one getting most of the referrals for the firm,” Beasley Jr. said. “But over the past 10 years, all of the partners have established their own referral sources.”

The firm’s partners have heard some of the talk about the Beasley Firm’s future but do not appear fazed by it in the slightest.

“People can say what they want,” Beasley Jr. said. “We’re just going to let our results speak for themselves. I think the thing that’s going to keep us strong is the fact that we are all close. And it’s not because we all work together; it’s because we like each other. We all understand this place is a fantasy and that we’re all fortunate to be here. I thank my dad every day for putting together such a great group of people and leaving us with such a wonderful place to practice law.”

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