Law Review: Lawyer Jerome J. Shestack inspired many others

Jerome J. Shestack, a titan among Philadelphia lawyers, died Aug. 18.He was generous with his time and his expertise.
Jerome J. Shestack, a titan among Philadelphia lawyers, died Aug. 18.He was generous with his time and his expertise. (JACK SCULLY)
Posted: September 02, 2011

As a Washington reporter for The Inquirer during the tumultuous years of the President Bill Clinton impeachment proceedings and, later, the 9/11 attacks and the war in Iraq, I certainly knew of Jerome J. Shestack, the prominent Philadelphia lawyer who died Aug. 18 at age 88.

He had been the American Bar Association president in 1997 and 1998, and earlier had sat on the ABA screening committee that split on the U.S. Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork, a result that helped derail his appointment.

He served on important commissions. He was well-respected by top lawyers in town.

But I hadn't met Shestack, and I knew of him then only in the way that most people whose careers play out on national and international stages are known. A distant, distinguished eminence - important, to be sure, but so shrouded by accolades, titles, and commendations it is hard to get past the resume and hagiography to the real person.

That changed a few years ago when I came to Philadelphia to write about the world of law firms and litigation. Shortly before leaving Washington, I had a chat with Shestack's old friend William Coleman, the former transportation secretary and key litigation strategist in the Brown v. Board of Education battle.

The first thing Coleman said was that if I really wanted to understand the law as a business, and Philadelphia's distinctive mix of high-end corporate and plaintiffs' practices, I had to look up Shestack.

Shestack not only knew that world thoroughly but also would be delighted to talk about it.

Everything that Coleman said was true.

What struck me most about Shestack the first day I met him for lunch at the offices of the WolfBlock L.L.P. law firm was his generosity and graciousness.

Shestack had been all over the world, had served presidents, had written speeches for top political candidates like Hubert Humphrey and Sargent Shriver.

He was a leading human-rights activist and had taken part in weekly telephone calls with Andrei Sakharov to buck up the dissident's spirit during his confinement by Soviet authorities.

Yet here he was in the WolfBlock cafeteria asking me what I wanted to know about lawyering in Philadelphia and beyond, and what he could do to help me.

 I didn't know it then, but soon I would learn that this was the essential Jerry Shestack.

I had once mentioned to Jerry that my wife worked as a consultant to corporate clients facing criminal investigation under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act; a short time later, articles and newsletters on the latest litigation and Justice Department FCPA enforcement actions began arriving from Jerry in the mail.

His opinions were pointed, and he tended not to pull punches. When WolfBlock folded in March 2009, a victim of the legal-market collapse, he excoriated firm managers for failing to take steps that he believed would have saved it.

What his closest colleagues and friends most remember about Shestack was his steely resolve. Ralph Wellington, a former chairman of Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis L.L.P., which Shestack rejoined after WolfBlock closed, recalled that he had tried his first important case with Shestack as a young lawyer at Schnader.

After 21/2 years of grinding litigation, the jury came back with a verdict in favor of the other side.

Wellington was devastated; millions of dollars were on the line, and maybe even his career. But on the way back from the courtroom, he said, Shestack quietly but firmly announced they would file a motion for a reconsideration.

The judge hearing the case was new; he had made some mistakes.

"We pack up our things and start walking back," Wellington recalled. "He is calmer than you can imagine, and he has already outlined what we are going to do to get this turned around. By midnight, I had a draft motion ready for him, we file it the next day, and 10 days later, the judge reverses himself and sets a new trial.

"What I learned was if you lose at any step along the way, all you do is figure out your next step. He was unfazed by it. He had this 'OK, let's roll up our sleeves' approach."

Current Schnader chairman David Smith recalled Shestack's unflagging work ethic. Shestack, a Harvard Law graduate, pressed hard, but never gratuitously so.

"Jerry was tough but never tougher than he needed to be," Smith said.

He also was supremely practical.

Dimitry Afanasiev, whom Shestack took under his wing when Afanasiev was a law student at the University of Pennsylvania in 1990 and who chairs a 500-lawyer firm with offices in London, Russia, and Ukraine, said Shestack once had told him that he had never lost a case.

Afanasiev, correctly finding this an astonishing claim, asked how that could be.

"He said, 'I settle the cases which I cannot win,' " Afanasiev recalled.

These qualities created a huge Shestack fan club. Among those speaking at his memorial service was Canadian Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella, who said that after she had gotten to know him and his wife, Marciarose, the former KYW-TV anchor, "I went from being a Jerry fan to being a Jerry fanatic to being a Jerry addict."

In fact, the calls from around the world began to pour in to Marciarose soon after it was announced that Jerry had died.

"My big sadness is I don't think he knew how treasured he was," she said. "He knew people respected him. He was no fool. He knew his abilities. But the outpouring of such love and such appreciation and such recognition. I just wish he had known it."

And that reflection is quite possibly another of Jerry's legacies. It isn't enough to know that you quietly treasure the good people in your life.

You need to tell them.


Contact staff writer Chris Mondics at 215-854-5957 or cmondics@phillynews.com.

 

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