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VOL. 125 | NO. 118 | Friday, June 18, 2010

Bearman Looks Back At 50 Years of Law

By Andy Meek

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Leo Bearman Jr., who next month will have been practicing law for 50 years, is such a towering figure in the city’s legal community that his longtime secretary resorts to classic literature to describe him.

Bearman

“To quote Shakespeare, ‘In thy face, I see the map of honor, truth and loyalty,’” said Judy Birchler, Bearman’s secretary of 24 years. “Leo will always be the map that all of us can use to gauge honor, truth and loyalty.”

Such effusive praise suggests Bearman – a shareholder in Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz PC’s Memphis office – isn’t cut from the same cloth as the average litigator.

Bearman’s fellow attorneys call him a storyteller and teacher, the “finest lawyer of his generation” and a fan of great literature.

Baker Donelson shareholder Kristine Roberts said Bearman encourages his fellow lawyers and law students to read more literature to hone their communication skills.

Bearman himself graduated magna cum laude from Yale University with an English degree before attending Harvard Law School, where he graduated in 1960.

Over the next half-century, he developed a reputation as one of Memphis’ top attorneys for his skill inside and outside the courtroom. His son and Baker Donelson shareholder David Bearman said those skills include the small nuances and subtleties about the way his father practices law, some of which can’t be learned from a law school textbook.

It’s “the way he can make an argument more persuasive by changing a few words in a brief or by altering the tone of his voice in court,” the younger Bearman said.

His father, who still answers his own telephone, is known as one of the go-to lawyers for big cases about commercial law and constitutional issues. And whether they realize it or not, most Memphians have been directly or indirectly affected by the outcome of cases he’s litigated.

Most recently, Bearman was part of the team that represented Memphis and the city-owned utility company in a high-stakes water rights suit filed by the state of Mississippi, which claimed the defendants had for years been stealing water from a common underground aquifer. At the conclusion, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. said “it’s unthinkable” what the cost to the city would have been if it had lost.

The little things have also loomed large in Bearman’s career.

For his pro bono work, clients have paid Bearman with everything from cherry pies to birthday cards to simple thank-yous.

One of the wins that meant the most to him came early in his career. A mother sued an insurance company after it refused to pay her a benefit.

It was an opportunity for Bearman to make a larger point to the woman’s skeptical daughter, who didn’t believe her mother stood a chance against the company in court. But Bearman won.

“So that was a major civics lesson for a young high school student who thought you can’t fight the big guys,” Bearman said. “The law allows you to do that. And that’s what’s great about the practice of law. That if you’re right, you can be sustained in your position.”

Mid-South Super Lawyers magazine in 2009 dubbed him “The Great Communicator.” Also in 2009, the litigation section of the Tennessee Bar Association named Bearman the 2009 “Litigator of the Year.”

Burch, Porter & Johnson PLLC attorney and former Tennessee Attorney General Mike Cody said Bearman “has been my role model as a trial lawyer since I began practice in 1961.”

Jerry Potter, a shareholder at the Hardison Law Firm in Memphis who worked with Bearman for 10 years, said he was always surprised when Bearman seemed nervous before a trial. Because once he walked into the courtroom, Potter said he would see “the picture of confidence” and a lawyer who was perpetually “smooth” in front of the jury.

Potter also called Bearman, an attorney he modeled himself after, a master of cross-examination.

“I have watched him time and time again destroy a witness on cross-examination and the witness not even realize it until it was too late,” Potter said.

Clifford Pierce Jr., an attorney with Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs who’s been friends with Bearman since high school, said Bearman is one of the best.

“He is recognized across the state as one of the very best lawyers in Tennessee,” Pierce said. “He is a true credit to the legal profession.”

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