Pro bono work is a key component of David L. Bearman’s law practice. His first trial as a professional attorney was pro bono, and this year he clocked more than 200 hours representing clients free of charge.
(Photo: Lance Murphey)
For donating so much of his time and legal expertise, Bearman received the 2011 Pro Bono Attorney of the Year Award for the Memphis chapter of his firm.
Bearman has worked for Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz PC for 15 years since that first trial. He has heard cases from child custody matters to an interstate water rights battle that was appealed up to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“I like the variety,” he said, referring to the wide breadth of his work. “It keeps it more interesting, more challenging.”
But he said people are his real business.
Bearman followed his father, prominent Memphis litigator Leo Bearman, into law, but that wasn’t originally his intention. After college, he was in the furniture business for 11 years, a business that made him realize he wanted to pursue another career path.
But the sales and customer service part of the furniture business did teach him a valuable lesson for attorneys as well: dealing with people.
Having that experience outside of law made it easier to engage with different types of people, he said, and it gave him a more familiar perspective when representing companies.
But when he decided to deviate from the furniture business, he asked his father if he could follow him at work and see what a high-profile lawyer does on a day-to-day basis. Then he went to law school at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law and upon graduation started at Baker Donelson, where he is now a shareholder and member of the business litigation group.
Bearman said pro bono work is not unique to him; it’s part of his dad’s legacy, and part of the firm’s culture to give back to the community.
Baker Donelson is itself a community, Bearman said. When one lawyer needs help with a case, he or she consults another who may be an expert in that area. Collaboration is a prominent feature in his pro bono work, just as it was in his big water rights case between Mississippi and the city of Memphis.
“I was taught by my father that every case I’m working on is the most important case that I’ve got.”
–David L. Bearman
Shareholder, Baker Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz PC
Bearman and what he called “an incredibly talented team of experts” from Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division and Baker Donelson won that case, which could have cost Memphis more than $1 billion and the rights to the aquifer that supplies the city’s drinking water.
But handling one person’s contract or unemployment dispute is hardly different, and no less important, Bearman said.
“A billion-dollar case is important, but a $10,000 case to somebody else is just as important to them,” he said.
The attitude of responsibility and duty with his job was something Bearman said he inherited from his father. Bearman said he treats his pro bono cases with the same care and dedication as his business disputes.
“I was taught by my father that every case I’m working on is the most important case that I’ve got,” he said. “But most of these cases just come to me by happenstance.”
Nonetheless, some pro bono cases appeal to him more than others. Issues with children particularly impact him, he said, and he tends to pick up cases with some injustice that he might be able to correct.
He said pro bono work has also honed his people skills, making him a better lawyer in all areas of his practice.
Also like his father, Bearman is an involved member of Temple Israel, and his daughter, Rachel, is studying to become a rabbi. Bearman said he spends his free time outside of work with his wife and three daughters, who all graduated from St. Mary’s Episcopal School. Leah, the youngest daughter, now attends the University of Memphis, where she studies psychology.