Talking practice with Donald Beskind

January 20, 2010Duke Law News

“I absolutely love what I do,” says Donald Beskind LLM ’77 of the litigation practice he has maintained for almost 30 years. “My problem has been that I love two things — practicing and teaching. And I’ve been balancing that all of my professional life.” Beskind has now shifted the balance back to where it was at the start of his career, teaching at Duke Law. The long-time director of the Trial Practice program has rejoined the faculty full time as a professor of the practice of law while remaining of counsel at Twiggs, Beskind, Strickland & Rabenau, his Raleigh law firm. He shared some insights into the practice of law with Duke Law Magazine.

DLM: What’s the key to happiness as a lawyer?

Beskind: I think one piece of it is to not be doing something because it’s expected of you, but to be affirmative in making choices and seeking out that which you find rewarding and that for which you have talent.

DLM: How do you choose cases and clients?

Beskind: My mantra for choosing cases is that if possible you should take cases where you actually want to represent the client. That can mean that you care about the person or it can be that you care about the justice in their case. I represented plaintiffs, so perhaps more than in any other kind of practice, I had a choice about clients. When you want to represent a person or a cause, you do your best work.

Within the parameter of liking the client or the cause, I took cases, in effect, for either love or money and I was clear in my mind at the outset which I was choosing. If I took a case for money, it was a case that I was taking because it was a part of the business of the practice of law -- with the expectation that it would be successful. As a contingent-fee lawyer, that is critical to making a living.

But I also took cases for love — to feel like I was contributing something to society. In those cases I didn’t expect anything good to happen financially. Instead, I expected to lose money. I took the case because there was something about the case or the client that was important and the case needed to be taken. Often these were cases in which I was trying to expand the law – in the area of genetic misdiagnosis, in protection of the public from state negligence or from bars that over serve patrons.

My most recent “for love” case was one that was recently decided by the North Carolina Supreme Court. It was a 3-3 tie, so it wasn’t in fact decided — the lower court ruling stands without precedential value. I took it for the purpose of the Supreme Court appeal. The question was this: Does a bar, having served a patron and then realizing after serving that the patron is ripping drunk and about to drive, does the bar have any obligation to offer him coffee, suggest he not drive, call him a cab — to do something? This bartender observed about the patron, in front of the other patrons, “Is he f---ed up, or what,” and then watched this patron leave to drive home. And within a mile of the bar, the patron crossed the center line and killed a wonderful man, injured his wife, and left two children without a dad.

It was a case where the plaintiffs had won at trial, but the case had thrown out by the trial judge after the verdict and that decision had been unanimously affirmed by the Court of Appeals. I got involved at that point in trying to get the family discretionary review in the North Carolina Supreme Court — something rarely granted after a unanimous decision in the Court of Appeals. We were successful in getting heard but lost the case when a judge recused himself resulting in a 3-3 tie, meaning that the Court of Appeals decision stands. That’s it. Despite our best efforts we lost. And the family got nothing.

As for a “for money” case, [my firm] represented about 15 individual Honda car dealers in a [multi-district litigation] against Honda arising out of bribes that were paid by other dealers to Honda executives, so that when cars were in short supply during the last gas crisis, they got more than their fair share of the desirable models. ... We were representing the innocent dealers who did not get their fair share of cars. I served on the steering committee of the plaintiffs’ lawyers.

This was a very, very complex case … It involved tracing the money, tracing the cars, understanding and deconstructing the allocation system for automobiles and then trying to create an economic model that would recreate the system if it had worked correctly to figure out what the losses were. … That was a fascinating case that went on for years.

So those are very different kinds of cases taken on for two very different kinds of reasons. I thought both were interesting, challenging, and meritorious and I really liked my clients.

DLM: What is your advice to students about building a firm?

Beskind: It is really important to practice with people who have complementary skills. ... When designing a firm, don’t just pick your best friends from law school. Pick people who have different skill-sets than you do — different relationships — so that as a whole organism your firm has all of the skills where no one person can.

The second piece of advice that I always give people and that I followed rigorously, is that it’s better, when you’ve started a firm, to not be working than to be working on unproductive matters — things that would not either bring credit to the firm for the way in which they were handled, or bring in money to pay the bills. To take cases merely for the sake of keeping busy is not a viable strategy, because when the really good case comes along that you really need to jump on, you won’t have the time.

DLM: Can you reflect on building a successful practice outside of a major city?

Beskind: Beskind: I think there is a lot of pressure in any top-10 law school to head for the best known firms in the most visible locations. And yet both the work and the challenge are more widely distributed. We live in a virtual world. Work will be distributed to the people who provide the best combination of excellent product and reasonable cost. For many people, the big city is a fabulous place to live and they wouldn’t be happy anywhere else. But for many others, the cost of living and quality of life outside places like New York and Los Angeles is more attractive. For those people, increasingly who there is fascinating and challenging work to be done at every level, in other places.
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