Disappointments fueled Jere Beasley’s career

posted on:
March 2, 2009

author:
Cosby Woodruff

Attorney Jere Beasley is in federal court this week, representing Alabama in its civil suit alleging that generic drug producer Sandoz Inc. set out to cheat the state’s Medicaid program.

He is at home in the courtroom, where he has won more than $20 billion in settlements and awards during his career. Although one of the state’s most successful attorneys, Beasley admits he wouldn’t even be practicing law now, if not for three major disappointments in his life.

Beasley, founding attorney for the firm of Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles, didn’t plan on opening his own law firm until other plans simply didn’t pan out.

The Eufaula native wanted to be a football coach, but an injury while playing at the University of Georgia put an end to that idea.

He wanted to be governor in 1978 after serving two terms as lieutenant governor, but voters selected Fob James.

He wanted to work for an established law firm after losing the election, but he couldn’t find a job in another law firm that he liked.

All of that led him to open a one-man law firm in 1979. The firm, which turned 30 in January, now has 44 attorneys, more than 30 of them partners, and more than 200 people on the supporting staff.

Billions in verdicts

Three disappointments may have set him on his path, but he has suffered few professional setbacks since hanging out his own shingle.

If victory means getting a favorable ruling or settlement for his client, Beasley estimates that he has won — either at trial or by settlement — about 80 percent of the cases he has filed since starting the firm.

It is hard to estimate how many billion dollars those verdicts have brought in. But just four of them, all of which the firm said set national records for different categories of cases, represent more than $18 billion, Beasley said.

The largest was an $11.9 billion verdict against ExxonMobil, with Alabama as the plaintiff. The firm also holds record for the largest pharmaceutical drug settlement, a $4.85 billion settlement with Merck & Co. concerning the drug Vioxx.

In addition, the firm holds records for largest private environmental settlement, a $700 million agreement with Monsanto Co. and Solutia Inc. for pollution in the groundwater in Anniston.

The firm also claims the largest predatory lending verdict, a $581 million award from Hale County over a finance scam involving satellite dishes.

Skip Tucker, head of the group Alabama Voters Against Lawsuit Abuse and one of Beasley Allen’s most outspoken critics, said those huge verdicts illustrate problems in the legal system, not positives. Tucker insisted that Beasley has made a career of exploiting those problems.

“In my opinion, in my thinking, Beasley Allen does represent the most abusive practices of a high-dollar law firm,” Tucker said.

But Beasley believes people might have a hard time convincing his clients of this.

He said it was a rare day when a jury simply rejected his arguments and awarded his clients nothing. But those rare days stung.

And he said the pain was more for the client than for his ego.

“It is just not a good feeling,” he said.

Winning, on the other hand, has been satisfying for Beasley, especially when the victory resulted in public policy changes.

The firm’s first case of that type came in the early 1990s when it took on Kubota, a small tractor manufacturer. Beasley found internal documents that showed the company was aware its products were unsafe in rollovers.

The company, he said, decided settling lawsuits would be less expensive than upgrading the product. Kubota was willing, at some point, to reach a confidential monetary settlement, but Beasley’s clients had other ideas.

The clients insisted that any settlement and the supporting documents be made public. It changed the way Kubota does business, the firm now touts its safety record. The case helped launch Beasley Allen’s reputation as a product liability litigant.

In today’s world of the massive law firm, Beasley Allen, as the company is commonly called, is something of an anomaly. It doesn’t have offices in other towns. It hasn’t grown by buying other firms, and it doesn’t plan to sell to a larger firm.

But it has become one of the most prestigious law firms in the country.

Not his original dream

Growing up, Beasley never dreamed of a law firm like this.

His first dream was to play baseball, but he proved to be a better football player. He played at Perkinston Junior College (now Gulf Coast Community College) in Mississippi and at Georgia.

An injury ended his playing days and sent him back to the farm, literally. Beasley left college for a couple of years to try his hand at farming before deciding to go back and pursue a law degree.

He practiced for a time with a couple of partners in Eufaula before winning the No. 2 spot in state government.

Eight years later, he went for No. 1, leading to the second of three failures that ultimately set him on his career path. Voters went for an outsider, Fob James, sending Beasley back to private life.

“I was probably not a very good politician,” he said.

Fortuitous setbacks

Looking back, Beasley said it probably helped him, in the long run, to lose that election. If he had become governor, he certainly would not have founded a law firm in 1979 and may not have done so when his term ended.

He almost certainly would not have built the practice that he now has.

“Politics and the type of law I practice do not mix,” he said. “Had I been elected governor, I don’t know what would have happened.”

Still, the transition wasn’t easy.

When he left public office, Beasley had bills to pay and needed a job. No firms, it seems, thought they needed a former politician on their staff.

“I had to overcome the perception of people who thought I was a corporate lawyer because I had been lieutenant governor,” he said.

That perception followed him after he opened his own firm, but it was mostly forgotten by the time of the Kubota suit.

Alabama becomes a client

When Beasley was lieutenant governor, he worked for Alabama.

As a private attorney, he still does.

One of the ways that he said he was able to do the most good was by representing large plaintiffs, especially the state of Alabama, in court cases. Not only was the state a client in his largest verdict, it is a client in a major Medicaid fraud case that he is currently trying.

“Representing the state is a privilege, because it allows a lawyer to make a difference on behalf of so many people,” he said. “While the state is no more important than any other client who we represent and is looking for justice, the impact can be much larger.

“It’s a big responsibility to work on behalf of the people who live in our state, who trust their government and their leaders to work for them, to make their lives better and to make sure they get a fair shake. It’s something I take very seriously.”

The suit against 72 drug companies that Alabama accused of defrauding Medicaid through false billing is perhaps the most complex case the firm has now.

It also may have the biggest impact, Beasley said.

“The real shame of this case is that by overcharging the Medicaid system, what the pharmaceutical companies are doing is hurting those that are the most vulnerable, the weakest,” Beasley said.

“This type of fraud affects the elderly, the poor, children — people who rely on help from the Medicaid system in order to have access to health care and medicine they need. These drug companies are lining their own pockets on the backs of these people, and they are also taking money from the taxpayer’s pocket — that’s you and me.”

The firm

While the firm has grown in size and reputation, Beasley has tried hard to control the growth. He rebuffed requests to open offices in other towns, specifically Birmingham, Mobile and Atlanta.

He never even looked at buying another firm.

“They may have someone we don’t need,” he said. “I would rather just hire our own people when we need them.”

When Beasley hires a new attorney, expectations are high. If the junior attorney does not make partner within a fixed time, it is likely they will no longer be with the company.

That means the firm will be in solid hands when Beasley is no longer a part of it, he said.

At first, he predicted that day would come in the next 10 years, then backed off that. Whenever the time comes for Beasley to step down, he said the firm would not suffer without its founder and most visible partner.

“It is going to be better than it is now,” he said. “We have some really good lawyers.”

Beasley remains the unquestioned leader at the firm.

“I work harder now than I did 20 years ago,” he said.

The 73-year-old said he spends 50 to 60 hours per week at work, but he said his office hours don’t interfere with his family, including wife Sara, three children and six grandchildren.

“At the end of the day, family is what’s important,” he said. “I say you should have your priorities as God, family, and work, in that order. I work very hard and really enjoy what I do.”

As it is, the firm has grown beyond what Beasley planned. When he moved into a three-story office at 218 Commerce St., he though the building was more than big enough to handle the firm’s needs for years.

Now, attorneys and support staff are in buildings up-and-down the block.

The firm grew beyond expectations, but not beyond management, Beasley said. Each attorney practices in one or a couple of specialty areas. That allows them to build expertise in that area.

Lawsuit abuse?

Beasley laughed at the suggestion that he has enriched corporate attorneys, who must defend suits that his firm files, but he didn’t deny the idea.

He said he respects most attorneys he faces and hopes the feeling is mutual. He even went so far as to sympathize with corporate attorneys who must defend their employers in tough spots.

“Corporations and insurance companies are in control,” he said. “Many times they don’t listen to their lawyers as much as they should.”

Beasley saves his strongest anger for those who insist Alabama courts are out of control and favor plaintiffs in lawsuits. He blames that perception on a decades-old corporate public relations conspiracy to make the courts more friendly to big companies.

Tucker and his organization are at the center of that disagreement, and that seems fine with both men.

Beasley listed all of the states that border Alabama and said his firm would have done better, financially at least, in any of them.

“We would have done better than we have done here,” he said. “That whole idea of jackpot justice was bought on by the other side.

“A lot of jurors believe we have a broken system.”

Tucker said that is an attitude he wants to develop because he accused Beasley of playing to a jury’s emotion.

“The Beasley law firm made Alabama the original tort Hell,” Tucker said.

Still, he said he was glad to see his rival reach the milestone.

“I congratulate my old friend and foe on his accomplishment,” Tucker said.

Beasley also scoffed at the reputation that his firm will sue anybody for anything. In fact, he estimated that about 80 percent of potential clients are turned away early in the process.

Instead, he sees his firm as a way to help people, often the people he considers underdogs, against powerful companies and groups they otherwise would have no chance against.

He said in many ways he believes that when he left politics he simply entered another area of public service. Helping Mr. and Mrs. Everyman has been a focus of his life, and leaving politics has gave him greater chances to do that.

“I think I have been able to do more good for people,” he said.

 

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