Q&A With Paul Sugarman

The co-founder of Sugarman & Sugarman with his brother Neil, Paul Sugarman has, over the course of a 50-year legal career, scored victories over General Motors and Eli Lilly in personal injury cases and has championed court reform.

Published in 2009 New England Super Lawyers — November 2009

At what age did you go to law school?

I was pretty young. I started law school when I was 19. At the time that I went to law school, it was the last year that you could enroll after two years of college and that’s what I did. That was in ’51. So I was a little younger than most people entering law school even then.

 

Did you find that your young age gave you any advantage?

You learn pretty quickly! At that time, we had a lot of returning World War II veterans that were in the class. So I was dealing with an older student population at the time and this kind of added to my apprehension.

 

You were a captain in the JAG Corps for three years.

Actually, I was a first lieutenant. I was promoted much later. In those days, the draft was in full force, so there was no question that if they permitted you to finish college or law school, then you were soon to be notified that you were wanted somewhere. And that’s exactly what happened to me.

 

How did that prepare you for your future legal career?

I think it had a very strong influence because in the Army, only JAG officers were permitted to try general courts-martial. These were the highest-level cases––the most serious offenses. So we were put into situations where we were exposed to handling cases far beyond what our experience would have dictated. None of us had a lot of experience. We were handling serious felonies: rape, manslaughter––I didn’t handle a murder case in the service, but these were very serious offenses. I got to feel that the courtroom was a place that I thought my future in the profession was. I liked it.

 

Did you have legal role models?

I did. My mentor, when I first started practicing following release from the service, was a man by the name of Nathan Fink, who had started practicing in 1920 and had a great deal of experience, was highly thought of, and he influenced me a great deal. I ended up working for Nathan Fink and ultimately being his partner. J. Newton Esdaile was also a strong influence on my career.

 

How has the legal world changed over the course of your career?

It’s changed dramatically. We have primarily a plaintiff’s personal injury practice. When I started out, there was a great deal of hostility toward that practice. The consumer revolution, if you want to call it that, began to occur in the ’50s and ’60s. Massachusetts had always been a conservative state. When I started practicing we had no form of discovery in terms of deposition. You couldn’t ask for names of witnesses. The rest of the country was way ahead of us. They had all types of discovery that we, at least I, wished that we had. There were several attempts to get it here in Massachusetts and strangely enough, the plaintiff’s bar opposed it. They were afraid that the defendants were going to take depositions and cause them undue expense. Basically I think that they were used to what they had and they were leery about something new that would involve a whole new set of talents. So there were only a few of us that were in favor of it. Ultimately, the Legislature failed to do it because of the plaintiff’s bar’s opposition. Of course, the defendant’s bar is sitting there smirking. Finally, the supreme judicial court did it by court rule. And from there on in, as they say, the rest is history. So Massachusetts finally caught up and ultimately surpassed much of the rest of the country. Substantive law in Massachusetts changed dramatically, resulting in a more friendly atmosphere for personal injury litigation.

 

It’s surprising to hear that so many on the plaintiff’s side were reluctant to push for those changes.

It was surprising to me too because I had a sense of what it meant. I mean, information is the plaintiff’s weapon, not a defendant’s weapon. A few of us saw that but the majority at the time did not.

 

Have you seen that sort of reaction to other changes in the law?

Always. There’s always some reluctance to change. People are comfortable with what they have. I think the court system is the best example. When I came to practice, the court system was divided into rigid departments: the district courts, the superior court, the probate court. There was an attempt to consolidate the courts, which I thought was a much better way to go. There was a lot of political opposition to it and there was a lot of judicial opposition to it.  The governor appointed a commission on court reform; I was on that commission, chaired by Archibald Cox. The commission recommended some changes that went to the consolidation of the courts. Not completely, but it made a step in that direction. I thought it was an improvement, I would have gone further, but the political reality of the time was such that I don’t think it could have happened. But we got as much as we could. And now that battle has been played out and fought ever since. I think eventually it’s going to happen, but it hasn’t happened yet.

 

You’ve been practicing longer than many lawyers have been alive. What keeps you going?

Well, I like it! I also realize some of my limitations. I can’t do the same thing I did 30, 40 years ago and I don’t try. Also, I’ve learned to respect newer ideas. There are successful young lawyers here [and] some of their ideas may be a little different than mine. I’ve come to accept the fact that, as much as I’ve always advocated change, sometimes it’s difficult to see it when you get too close to it.

 

Any examples?

When computers first appeared, to me, they looked like something out of H.G. Wells. [laughs] But I’ve come to understand that I can’t get along without a computer.

 

Any plans to slow down anytime soon?

I’ve said I understand my limitations and I think that’s important. But there are a lot of things that I can do at this stage that I couldn’t do before. When a problem comes along, somebody who’s been practicing for 20 years may not have seen it before, but I may have seen it a dozen times. Life is a process of marshalling assets, and one asset I have is experience.

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