Legendary Philadelphia attorney, humanitarian and former American Bar Association President Jerome J. Shestack died Aug. 18 at 88 from renal failure.
A dean of the Philadelphia bar and advocate up to the end of his life, Shestack most recently worked as a retired partner at Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis, the firm he left in 1991 to join Wolf Block and rejoined after Wolf Block’s collapse in 2009.
Shestack was one of very few Pennsylvania attorneys to serve as president of the ABA, taking on that role from 1997 to 1998. For six years he had served on the ABA’s Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary, making recommendations to the president and U.S. Senate on qualifications of prospective federal judges. In 2006, he won the ABA’s top honor, the ABA Medal.
He spent years advocating for humanitarian rights, serving for 20 years as president of the International League for Human Rights. He also served as ambassador to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights under President Jimmy Carter and as a member of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Shestack led the International Bar Association Standing Committee on Human Rights and founded the New York-based Committee for Human Rights, now known as Human Rights First. He also served as general counsel of Amnesty International. In the domestic sphere, Shestack was a founding member and the first executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, convened by President John F. Kennedy in 1964.
“I do know that without human rights, a rule of law does not exist. I do know that the concept of a just society which recognizes the dignity and worth of the individual is powerful and enduring,” Shestack wrote in The Legal in 2006 on the anniversary of Human Rights Day.
A litigator by trade, Shestack handled cases for ABC, NBC, CBS, Westinghouse, Hertz, RCA, Advanta and Comcast. He spent several years as head of Wolf Block’s litigation department. For the last two years, Shestack has served as discovery master in the Avandia mass torts litigation in Philadelphia as well as discovery master in the federal multidistrict litigation involving the drug. He also remained a trusted adviser to many large corporations.
“In every sense, Jerome Shestack was the consummate Philadelphia Lawyer. He exemplified the ideals of keen intellect, personal character and professional commitment,” Philadelphia Bar Association Chancellor Rudolph Garcia said in a statement. “He was a natural-born leader and international human rights advocate who was a treasured friend and colleague to countless lawyers, judges, public officials and ordinary citizens.”
Whatever it was Shestack had his hands in, he gave 100 percent. Perhaps he said it best himself when he told Legal contributor Molly Peckman what made for a great lawyer.
“Immerse yourself in the law with all the passion of a first love and make it enduring,” Shestack told her in March 2009.
Enduring he was.
While many older partners settle into retirement, Shestack kept working and kept vocal. He fought for those around him as he did for the rights of those around the world.
When Wolf Block dissolved in 2009, Shestack was not shy in expressing his feelings over the situation. In e-mails from some partners to the staff of Wolf Block, Shestack responded that it was a pleasure to work at Wolf Block, but said certain people figured in its demise.
“Your optimistic note is appreciated,” Shestack responded to one partner’s e-mail. “But it’s hard to bypass the fact that the dissolution happened because of the abysmal failure of leadership and a few greedy lawyers unwilling to cut back on high compensation.”
As one of his mentees put it, Shestack demanded justice and goodness in the world, and sometimes “that meant annoying the hell out of people.”
Though unhappy with the operations of one firm, Shestack found a new home in the world of large law firms. A familiar home.
Shestack spent the bulk of his career at Schnader Harrison, joining the firm in 1955. He became a protégé of firm founder Bernard Segal. The only reason he left the firm in 1991 was because he reached the retirement age outlined in the firm’s retirement policy that he wrote. He wasn’t ready to retire and, as of a week ago, still wasn’t thinking of retirement, according to David Smith, the current chairman of Schnader Harrison.
Smith was visiting Shestack in the hospital Aug. 11 and the two were talking about what Shestack’s role would be upon his return to the firm. Smith said Shestack wanted to focus more on mentoring the firm’s attorneys — something he did throughout his life.
Smith became a protégé of Shestack’s after Smith’s University of Miami law school professor introduced the two in 1974. Smith soon found himself as a summer associate at Schnader Harrison.
“He was always persuasive at anything he wanted to persuade,” Smith said of Shestack.
By all accounts, Shestack was dedicated to his Jewish faith. The grandson of two rabbis, he learned Hebrew and Yiddish before English. One of the tenets of his faith, “justice, justice shall you pursue,” “was his single-minded commitment throughout his entire life,” Smith said.
It began when he was at Harvard Law School and advocated for women to be admitted. As a professor in New Orleans he advocated for blacks to be admitted to Louisiana State University Law School and fought George Wallace’s promise to ignore a court order allowing blacks into the University of Alabama in 1963.
And it was Shestack’s faith, he would always joke, that saved his life, Smith said. As a U.S. Navy officer on the USS Ticonderoga in World War II, the officer’s mess hall was attacked at lunchtime by Japanese kamikaze pilots. The ship happened to be serving pork, and because Shestack couldn’t eat pork, he was off somewhere else eating, Smith said. Though injured in the attack, he avoided the brunt of the force that hit the dining hall.
After his military service, he went to law school at Harvard and then taught. He later became a practicing lawyer and political player.
Many insiders believe that in 1987, as a member of the ABA committee reviewing judicial appointments, Shestack was responsible for the unqualified rating that kept Robert Bork off of the Supreme Court, his family said in a statement. Shestack maintained an impish silence on the subject, they said.
Shestack was an ardent Democrat. He worked for Adlai Stevenson and wrote speeches for Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Sargent Shriver and U.S. Sen. Ed Muskie.
“As a private practitioner, Shestack was committed to the law as a craft and as a profession rather than as it is today, a business,” Smith said.
The first time Smith met Shestack, Shestack gave him a reading assignment, “The Bramble Bush,” to understand Shestack’s view of what it means to practice law.
“He was right up until the day he died as wonderful a mentor as one could have, constantly pushing, ‘You could do more, you could do better,’ and helping to accomplish it,” Smith said. “And he did that for generations of Schnader lawyers, with a little bit of Wolf Block in between.”
Shestack always maintained a full-time litigation practice no matter what outside endeavors he took on. As Smith said, “He had unlimited energy and a willingness to use it for the public good.”
“Lots of people talk a good game on their commitment to the public welfare, but very few actually roll up their sleeves and dig into it as he did,” Smith said.
Pepper Hamilton partner Joseph C. Crawford first met Shestack in 1980 as a first-year associate at Schnader Harrison. Crawford volunteered to help him on a pro bono case and soon found a life-long friend.
One thing that spawned that mentor relationship and ultimately a friendship was Crawford’s willingness to push back.
“He would not work with someone who did not push back, who did not say, ‘Jerry you’re not thinking about this,’” Crawford said.
When Shestack moved to Wolf Block, Crawford didn’t think he wanted to switch firms, but Shestack convinced him to make the move within a few months. Crawford moved to Pepper Hamilton in 2005 with Shestack’s blessing.
“We went through the mentor relationship which never changed, but we went way beyond that. We went through all of the levels of friendship I’m aware exist. It went beyond age,” Crawford said.
In the 26 years they worked together, Crawford said he never saw Shestack have a problem with a client because the clients knew they were “getting everything” from their lawyer.
While very protective of judicial independence and respectful of the judiciary, it wasn’t necessarily fun for judges to have Shestack in their courtroom, Crawford said. Shestack would politely challenge the judges and ask them as many questions as they asked him, all in an effort to show why his argument was the right one.
“He did it with power and conviction because he really thought the practicing lawyer is something really special,” Crawford said, adding later, “What made him great was just the courage to speak the truth to power, the will to do what he knew was right.”
He is survived by Marciarose, his wife of 60 years and a prominent former Philadelphia anchorwoman and newspaper columnist. They met when he was attending Harvard on the GI bill and she was a 16-year-old freshman at Emerson College in Boston. They have two children, Jonathan Shestack of Los Angeles and Jennifer Doss of Philadelphia, and five grandchildren.
Contributions may be sent to the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Descartes Institute, for furthering communications for people with autism.
Shestack’s funeral and interment were set to be held Sunday. Shiva will be observed Monday and Tuesday at the home of Marciarose in Philadelphia with minyan at 7 p.m.
Contact Gina Passarella at 215-557-2494 or at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @GPassarellaTLI. •