High-flying Lawyer Jerome Shestack, The Philadelphian Who Next Week Will Take Over As President Of The American Bar Association, Has Come From Poverty To The Pinnacle. One Colleague Compares Him To Benjamin Franklin - But The Flattering Verdict Is Not Unanimous.

Posted: July 29, 1997

Jerome and Marciarose Shestack have traveled a good 17,000 miles in the last four weeks - from Philadelphia to Poland to the Czech Republic to Philadelphia to Los Angeles to Washington and back to Philadelphia.

Today, after they take the train to this afternoon's funeral of retired Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan Jr. in Washington, they will head to an airport again. They will fly to San Francisco, where Shestack will take over as president of the American Bar Association, the first Philadelphia lawyer to lead the group in nearly three decades.

Considering that Shestack's predecessor clocked 200,000 miles, the couple's recent travels are just a morning stretch. Over the next year, they will be everywhere, from Indiana to India, from the Capitol to California, as he talks up human-rights causes and the elegance of the law.

Not that Jerry Shestack has ever been reserved in his long and sometimes controversial career.

``I don't shy away from the things I believe in,'' said Shestack, who at 72 looks every bit the elder statesman of the 60 lawyers in Wolf, Block, Schorr & Solis-Cohen's litigation practice in Center City.

Shestack, who is on the National Law Journal's list of 100 most influential lawyers, has been a central figure in hot-button civil actions over the last three decades, including the long-running ``Baby Neal'' case, in which he represented the state when the American Civil Liberties Union sued the city and the state over the child-welfare system. His clients are an alphabet soup of corporate America: GAF, UPS, ABC, CBS, NBC.

He also has been at the fore of civil-rights and human-rights causes here and abroad - from his days rallying lawyers to oppose Alabama Gov. George Wallace's segregation policies in the 1960s, to his service to the Carter administration as ambassador to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, to his work winning political asylum for an African woman who had fled her homeland to escape ritual genital mutilation.

Locally, particularly among nonlawyers, he's also known as Mr. Marciarose, husband of the first woman to anchor a prime-time TV newscast in a major city. The Shestacks, married 46 years, live in a sprawling two-level penthouse apartment near the Art Museum - five bedrooms; four baths; one houseboy, Raul. It's an art- and book-filled aerie where he and Marciarose - a lithe, graceful woman with an easy smile and keen wit - can retreat to write and read, two of their shared passions. It also is home to an enviable collection of Americana. The other night, he casually pulled a book from a shelf and opened the cover. ``To Mr. Shestack,'' it read. ``From Martin Luther King Jr.''

``This means the most to me,'' Shestack said.

Shestack's long-sought post at the bar association comes at a crossroads in the 119-year history of the group, which includes about 40 percent of the nation's 946,500 lawyers.

Conservatives regularly accuse the ABA of playing politics and of wielding too much power, especially in rating federal judges.

``It's now just a liberal lobbying group,'' said Robert Pambianco, research associate at Capital Research Center, a conservative think tank in Washington. Pambianco points to the ABA's public positions on abortion (pro abortion rights), the death penalty (against) and affirmative action (pro). ``An organization cannot be a professional organization and an ideological interest group at the same time,'' he said.

Zachary L. Grayson, a former partner at Wolf Block, explained the synergy of Shestack and the ABA. ``Twenty years ago, Jerry was too radical,'' Grayson said. ``Jerry hasn't moved. The ABA has.''

For years, Shestack had made no secret of his desire to become ABA president. ``It gives him a bully pulpit for a year,'' said Lawrence J. Fox, of Drinker, Biddle & Reath, a longtime friend of Shestack's.

Shestack's mandate as president is professionalism and volunteerism, as well as establishing an international criminal court to handle human rights abuses.

Shestack gained the limelight in 1992, after Dan Quayle, then vice president and a lawyer himself, was denied the chance to speak at the ABA national convention. Shestack quipped that the ABA probably would have allowed Quayle to speak if he had been a man of ``personal stature or legal ability.'' (Last week, Shestack reflected on the remark. ``I think I should have been more respectful of the office,'' he said.)

It was Shestack who founded the ABA's Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities, which became a platform for the ABA's support of women's rights, pro-bono work, nondiscrimination and legal services for the poor.

Shestack, now a $400-an-hour litigator, grew up poor in Atlantic City, the son of a paperhanger and grandson of an Orthodox rabbi. The extended family lived together. His grandfather was his earliest mentor.

``He used to tell me, `Justice, justice, shalt thou pursue,' '' said Shestack.

When he was 10, his father found a $20-a-week job in Philadelphia, and the family moved to Wynnefield. After Overbrook High School - where a teacher fostered his lifelong passion for poetry and he enjoyed the school's ethnic and racial diversity - he got his bachelor's degree in economics from the University of Pennsylvania in 2 1/2 years. He did a three-year hitch in the Navy during World War II. After the service, he taught briefly before heading to Harvard Law School.

He was 10th in his class during that first year, he recalled. In his second year, he met Marciarose Schleifer, a bright 16-year-old freshman at Emerson College. ``My ranking went down 50 places that year,'' he said.

After their graduations, they lived in Chicago and Baton Rouge, La. - he was teaching, she was studying - before he was asked to come to Philadelphia to work for the City Solicitor's Office, under Abe Freedman.

In 1956, he was helping Freedman represent the city in a U.S. Supreme Court case against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. On the train, the Shestacks met Bernard Segal, of Schnader, Harrison, Segal & Lewis, who was representing the state. ``He asked Marciarose what she thought of the wording over the Supreme Court: `Equal justice under the law,' '' said Shestack. ``She said, `That's a tautology.' He was impressed with her, so he offered me a job.''

``Equal justice is redundant,'' Marciarose said simply, recalling the story.

Segal, who in 1969-70 was the ABA's last president from Philadelphia, became Shestack's second mentor. They remained friends until Segal's death last month at age 89. When Shestack is handed the gavel next week at the ABA convention, ``I intend to give a speech in his honor,'' he said.

Justice Brennan was another close friend. The jacket of Reason and Passion, the new book on Brennan, has a photograph of Brennan taken last year by Shestack. Inside is an essay Shestack wrote. Shestack's Center City office is full of his candid photos of world leaders and complimentary letters.

Among lawyers, however, the feelings about Shestack depend on which table they sit at in court.

Colleagues unanimously call Shestack a lawyer's lawyer, a tireless champion of justice, and an over-preparer who pulls all-nighters.

John M. Elliott, of Elliott, Reihner, Siedzikowski & Egan in Blue Bell, has worked with Shestack - on the Helsinki accords commission, for example - and against him, in the courtroom. ``He's a remarkable attorney, and I do believe in intellect and spiritual vitality he ranks up there with Benjamin Franklin,'' Elliott said. ``I always would rather be on his side than against him.''

M. Kelly Tillery, of Leonard, Tillery & Sciolla, who has opposed Shestack in court, calls him ``a tough and aggressive litigator.'' Tillery describes Shestack's litigation style as ``slash and burn.''

Others credit Shestack's work ethic. ``He has an amazing capacity to work hard,'' said Burt Rublin, a former colleague who is now at Ballard, Spahr, Andrews & Ingersoll. ``During a big case, I'd leave the office at 1 a.m. and he'd still be there when I returned at 7:30 the next morning.''

``He pushes young lawyers,'' said Grayson, the former partner at Wolf Block. ``He trains them not to assist him but to become lawyers in their own right.''

That is what son Jon Shestack, 37, remembers about his childhood in Philadelphia. ``He was a tough taskmaster,'' he said. ``He also never tried to make me become a lawyer.''

Jon Shestack became a movie producer, and it was the premieres of his new movie Air Force One that drew his parents to Hollywood and Washington.

Dinner conversation at the Shestack apartment - which included daughter Jennifer, 30, now an account executive at Bloomingdale's - was ``about what's right,'' said Jon Shestack. ``He never talked about his cases - just the subject of equality.''

Just as Jerry Shestack juggled a law practice and ABA work, Jon is a mover in Hollywood as well as a founder of the Cure Autism Now foundation. Jon's son Dov, 5, was diagnosed with the neurological disorder. ``I couldn't have done this work [with the foundation] without my father,'' Jon Shestack said. ``His influence is far-reaching.''

Jerry Shestack wants it to continue that way. This is a man who refused to retire at age 65. ``When I was 40, I wrote the mandatory-retirement rule at Schnader Harrison,'' he said. Rather than seek to bend his own rule, he said, he moved a block away to Wolf Block, which bent its age rules to hire him. He said he would step aside in 2001.

``There is no end of just causes to pursue,'' he said, echoing the words of his grandfather.

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