The Great Communicator
When Leo Bearman Jr. speaks, juries listen
Published in 2009 Mid-South Super Lawyers magazine on November 9, 2009
Leo Bearman Jr. had been practicing law with his dad for only a few months when Leo Bearman Sr., a larger-than-life icon in the Memphis legal community, handed him the case file for his first jury trial.
“Thanks, Daddy, but do me a favor,” Bearman said. “If you’re there I’ll be worrying about how I should have asked a question or if you disapprove. So please don’t come to court.”
“That’s fine. I’m tied up that day anyway,” the elder Bearman replied. “Just get the case ready.”
In the courtroom, young Bearman was surprised when, just moments after the morning break, the judge announced, “We’ll take another recess now. Send the jury out.”
When the jurors were gone, the judge spoke: “Mr. Bearman.” Bearman rose from his seat, then realized the judge was addressing someone in the back of the room. There stood his father.
“Mr. Bearman, what are you doing here?” the judge asked.
“Well, I promised my son I wouldn’t come down but this is his first jury case and I’m nervous,” Bearman Sr. explained. “I’m just going to sit in the back and watch. I’ll be real quiet.”
“Mr. Bearman, your son’s doing fine,” the judge said. “You can’t stay here.”
Bearman Sr. laughed. “Apparently you didn’t hear me,” the judge said, more firmly. “I’m ordering you from this courtroom.”
“And for about 20 years [my father] never sat in on a case of mine, which was the best thing that ever happened to me,” recalls Bearman, a shareholder in Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz in Memphis. “It allowed me to develop my own style and my own reputation. It allowed me to handle the problems of a trial without being able to turn to somebody and say, ‘What do I do next?’”
That individual style—courteous, respectful, kind and never condescending—has made Bearman, 74, one of the most admired trial lawyers in Memphis. During the past five decades, the man named 2009 “Litigator of the Year” by the litigation section of the Tennessee Bar Association has won many products liability cases on behalf of vehicle manufacturers, pharmaceutical companies and makers of medical products. Bearman is currently the only attorney in the state elected to both the American College of Trial Lawyers and the American Academy of Appellate Lawyers.
“I personally believe he’s perhaps the pre-eminent trial lawyer of my generation in this community, and I think many people feel that way,” says Clifford Pierce Jr., an attorney with Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs in Memphis, who has known Bearman since high school. “His name is always the first to come up when someone is thinking of major cases in this community.”
There was never any question about Bearman’s career path. “Daddy was a lawyer and that just seemed to me to be the thing to do,” he says about his father, who passed away in 1988. “I really never thought about, frankly, doing anything else.”
After graduating magna cum laude with an English degree from Yale University, he went to Harvard Law School. “It was a traumatic experience,” Bearman says. “It was a confrontation with a lot of very great minds from all over the country. It was exhilarating and very difficult all at the same time.”
In 1960, he began practicing with his father across the street from his current office in the First Tennessee Bank building in downtown Memphis. “We were 50/50 partners, but his 50 always counted more than my 50,” Bearman says. “We never clashed. I learned a lot from him, not so much about how to try a case as other things like respect for the law, respect for the courts, respect for clients and community service. He never said, ‘Go out and be respectful.’ He just showed me that as an example, so it was easy to follow.”
Bearman’s uncanny ability to connect with a jury surfaced early. Instead of referring to notes on a legal pad, he memorized jurors’ names and explained technical terms through his witnesses without talking down to the jurors.
“He’s got a very affable, engaging manner about him and a good sense of humor,” says Pierce. “And juries like him. He gives off a relaxed feeling and people are immediately drawn to him.”
In 1980, Bearman’s firm, which specialized in insurance defense, merged with what was then Heiskell, Donelson, Adams, Williams & Kirsch. Over the years, the same witty but down-to-earth courtroom style that endeared him to jurors also caught expert witnesses off guard. “He can completely destroy an [expert] witness without ever raising his voice,” says Jerry Potter, a shareholder at the Hardison Law Firm in Memphis whom Bearman hired as an associate in 1976; the two worked together for 10 years. “The expert usually did not realize that he had been gutted until he went to get up from the witness stand and saw all the blood.”
Take, for example, the trial in which Bearman represented an employer sued by an employee for slander. On the witness stand, the former wife of the employee testified that her ex-husband was a person of “wonderful” character. At lunchtime, Bearman looked up the woman’s divorce petition. When the trial resumed that afternoon, he began quizzing the witness about each complaint she had made when she filed for divorce. Shaken, she finally said, “I think I better quit being a judge of good character,” rose from the stand and walked out.
More recently, Bearman worked a water rights trial in which he represented the city of Memphis and the Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division. The state of Mississippi filed suit for more than $1 billion, claiming the defendants had stolen water since 1985 through excessive pumping from its underground aquifer. Thanks to Bearman, the case was dismissed on the grounds that it could only be tried in the U.S. Supreme Court. Mississippi’s 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that decision. “Cases involving disputes between states about water are not unprecedented,” he says. “But most involve rivers. This involves an aquifer, which makes it unusual. It’s not very exciting, but very important.”
In 1997, the Tennessee Supreme Court agreed with Bearman when, on behalf of the state’s municipalities, he argued that a legislative act allowing 225 people to incorporate as a city was unconstitutional. If the “Tiny Town Act” had gone into effect, he says, “it would have choked off the expansion ability of Knoxville, Nashville, Chattanooga and Memphis. … It was a very, very significant case because it could have affected all of the major cities in Tennessee.” His appellate argument was reportedly the first to appear on the Internet.
But the case he considers his most meaningful was, by monetary standards, a small one. When a client had trouble collecting benefits from a medical insurance company, she contacted Bearman. “My daughter said I shouldn’t fight it because a little guy has no chance against a big company like that,” the woman said. “But you always told me that if you’re right, and you’ve got a lawyer who believes in you, you can win.” Bearman won the case in small claims court. “Hopefully it was a good civics lesson for that young daughter,” he says.
Bearman does more than his share of pro bono work. One client paid him with a cherry pie, another with a Christmas card. “What many people don’t know is that for many years he has donated large amounts of time and expended great effort providing counsel and representation at no charge to people in need,” says Mark Glover, managing shareholder at Baker Donelson.
An avid reader, Bearman encourages other attorneys to spend time with classic literature. “I preach to my law school students [at the University of Memphis] and my young associates in the law firm––and to anybody else who will listen––that lawyers are communicators. Some of us try to communicate with jurors or judges. Some of us communicate by drafting wills. But we are basically communicators. So why not read the greatest communicators who ever lived? Why not read Shakespeare and Dickens and Dostoevsky?”
The man so relaxed in front of juries is less so in front of a golf ball. “I’m a strong believer in the sign in the pro shop that says, ‘Golf is not a matter of life and death. It’s much more important than that.’ It drives me crazy if I’m playing poorly. It drives my wife [Joy] crazy if I’m playing poorly. But it’s a good way to make yourself forget about your cases for a while and get out in the open and do something that’s extremely difficult and challenging.”
Both of Bearman’s sons are attorneys. David’s office is next to his dad’s, while Edward practices on his own. (Daughter Amy is a public school teacher.) “[David] will wander in here and say, ‘What do you think about this? How about looking over this memorandum? How would you handle this?’ I give him my best judgment. And Eddie still calls and says, ‘Daddy, what do you think about this?’ I love that.”
Bearman’s open-door philosophy extends to colleagues and students. “I don’t want anybody to feel that they can’t come in and ask me questions and get whatever advice I can give them,” he says. “Part of my job here is to give my fellow attorneys the benefit of my experience. I enjoy doing that. The door always stays open and hopefully people have no reluctance to come in and say, ‘What do you think I ought to do?’”
Nancy Henderson is the author of Able! How One Company’s Extraordinary Workforce Changed the Way We Look at Disability Today (BenBella Books). She has written about Southern people and places for Parade, Smithsonian and The New York Times.