From the Barbershop to the Courtroom
Bernard Smalley of Anapol Schwartz on cutting hair, making arguments and watching waves
Published in 2008 Pennsylvania Super Lawyers magazine
By Adam Wahlberg on May 23, 2008
What was your first job?
I grew up working in my father’s barbershop, Smalley’s Barbershop in West Philadelphia. There were folks from all walks of life who came in, some of whom were stevedores who worked on the docks, some of whom were high school educated, less than high school educated, and others, one in particular, who became one of my mentors: William H. Hastie, the first African American to become chief judge of a federal court of appeals in the United States. At the time, he was coming to my dad’s shop and my dad was cutting his hair and I later got my license and cut his hair.
Did you ever run the barbershop yourself?
I did. My dad passed away five days before my 21st birthday and I took over the barbershop and went to undergraduate school and ran the shop at the same time. I kept the barbershop through undergraduate school and my brother took it over when I graduated from Temple undergrad.
What did you learn from your father?
My father was very much a counselor. People would come into the shop with their problems, whether it was economic or problems with a spouse or problems with a child, and he would offer his opinion. It’s what I do today.
What advice do you give to young lawyers?
Be yourself. Everyone has their own particular style, but your style has to be the one that prevails. I also say to be tenacious and never give up. While it is extremely rewarding, both from an emotional standpoint and monetarily, this is a hard business. The ability to affect someone’s life in a meaningful way, in the midst of tragedy, whether it’s a little girl who has lost her arm in a bus accident, or a 14-year-old child who has adult-onset chicken pox and loses both of her legs at the hip, they come to you at a point in time when they’re at their lowest. You can impact their lives in ways that virtually nobody else can.
What has been your most memorable case?
My first one. I was starting out as a very young lawyer. It was a medical malpractice case, very complex. This man was a Dutch citizen who was part of the Dutch Underground, and traveled to Germany, and on at least two or three occasions he brought back German citizens of Jewish heritage and got them their freedom. He ended up marrying this young Jewish woman whose family he had earlier saved. They met in the United States and married. He loses a kidney and his life as a result of a vascular compromise that should have been detected, and while it was an extremely complex case, I was very new to the firm, but this lady … I’ll never forget her, it’s been about 22 years, I get a Christmas card or memento from her every year. I believed in her when virtually no one else did. Three other law firms had turned down her case in part because of the age of her husband, he was in his mid-60s at the time when this happened, semi-retired so he wasn’t putting a ton of money up on the board in terms of loss of income. But I believed in her and I believed in her case. And as a result she believed in me. When the jury came back with a seven-figure verdict it was vindication both for her and for me, for my new firm, and it just let me know the power of believing and knowing that you’re right and just never, ever giving up.
How do you handle the stress of your job?
I have a great family, a great wife and two great sons. I take vacations and I’ve got a great group of friends that I can hang out with. I like to smoke an occasional great cigar. That all helps. But I say that with some trepidation because if you ever get to the point where you know that someone is depending on you in a major case, when you’re representing the loss of a child or the loss of an adult and you don’t feel the stress, you don’t feel the pressure, you can get a good night’s sleep, you really don’t need to be practicing in this area of law because you don’t deserve to have that client. The pressure has to be there. That’s the price you pay. If I ever prepare for an opening argument the night before I select a jury and can get a good night’s sleep, that’s not a good indication.
My wife and I also love the Caribbean. Whether it’s St. Martin or Jamaica, I love to just sit on the beach. My favorite occupation is sitting on the beach chair watching the waves come in, making sure that they come in one right after the other in a uniform manner, with a great cigar and a nice drink, and after about three or four days, whatever stresses there were just sort of wash away into the sand.
Where do you get your hair cut these days?
I go to my brother. His shop is called Smalley’s Unisex Salon. It’s no longer a barbershop in the traditional sense.
Sounds like you enjoy your life.
I’ve been blessed.
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