James E. Beasley: Famed trial lawyer
The namesake of the Law School was known for his unswerving integrity, his tremendous generosity and his dedication to aiding victims.
On Sept. 18, the Temple community lost its greatest benefactor and one of its most illustrious graduates, James E. Beasley.
Beasley graduated from Temple in 1953 and from Temple Law School in 1956. He was a nationally renowned trial lawyer who successfully tried hundreds of medical malpractice, aviation, products liability, defamation and personal injury cases, winning many million-dollar verdicts for his clients.
At Temple, Beasley is best remembered for the endowment he gave to benefit the Law School, which was renamed in his honor in 1999. The gift, the amount of which Beasley requested not be disclosed, was the largest ever made to Temple. The endowment has already been used to fund tuition for 107 Beasley Scholars and to create three endowed law faculty chairs.
In addition to providing them with a legal education, the gift has allowed Beasley Scholars to participate in extracurricular activities, such as the national trial advocacy team, and to choose public service employment after law school by easing their financial constraints.
“It is difficult to communicate the significance of his gift,” said JoAnne Epps, the Law School’s associate dean for academic affairs. “He changed the kind, quality and diversity of students we attract. In doing so, he enabled us to stay true to the goals that we hold very dear.”
Beasley was a self-made man who overcame enormous obstacles. He was born into a working-class West Philadelphia family and lost his father as a teenager. To help support his family, he joined the Navy and served on a submarine during World War II. Because he was still a minor when he enlisted, he altered his birth certificate.
When he returned home, he worked as a truck, cab and bus driver and did a stint as a motorcycle cop in Florida. He had dropped out of high school to join the Navy and he finished his high school degree while working full time.
The G.I. Bill allowed him to enroll at Temple, where he graduated in 2 1/2 years while serving as an ROTC cadet regimental commander, playing on the football team and working at a restaurant. As an undergraduate, he was elected to the Scabbard and Blade military honor society.
While a law student, Beasley clerked for Judge John W. Lord Jr. of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, becoming one of the first law students ever to do so. After graduation, he joined the firm Richter, Lord & Levy, representing victims of personal injury.
Eventually, he opened his own firm, known for many years as Beasley, Casey, Colleran, Erbstein, Thistle & Kline. His firm is now known as The Beasley Firm. Beasley’s uncompromising integrity and unflagging diligence in representing those injured by malpractice and defective products gave a voice to victims and transformed the practice of law.
He served as president of the Philadelphia Trial Lawyers Association and the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association and was chairman of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Committee on Standard Jury Instruction (Civil). He was a judge pro tem of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County.
Among other honors, he received the Philadelphia Trial Lawyers Michael Musmanno Award, the Temple University Law School Outstanding Alumni Award and the Temple University General Alumni Association Certificate of Honor. He was a diplomate of the American Board of Professional Liability Attorneys and a fellow of the International Academy of Science and Law.
He authored several handbooks and articles and was an instructor in trial techniques at the Law School from 1976 to 1980.
Beasley was known for taking on complex and challenging cases as well as cases that were not particularly lucrative but involved important principles. He tried more than 400 cases during his career and gained national attention for the large jury verdicts he won on behalf of clients, including a $105 million verdict against Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden on behalf of the families of individuals killed in the World Trade Center attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
Law School Dean Robert Reinstein said of him, “He was one of the great trial lawyers of the 20th century. His greatest strength was his ability to speak very clearly to juries. He was impressive to watch at trial.”
Epps noted that “his fame was neither accidental nor undeserved. He was extraordinarily effective as an advocate on behalf of a wide range of clients.”
Apart from the law, Beasley’s other passions were aviation and formation aerobatics. He owned and flew fighter planes, such as a Russian MiG and a World War II-era P-51D Mustang “Bald Eagle.” He was a member of the Six Diamonds Aerobatic Flight Team, where he flew the No. 2 position. He was an instructor certified by the Federal Aviation Administration and a qualified professional race pilot with the National Air Racing Group.
Beasley was a remarkably generous man, though he was very quiet about his philanthropy. He put many young people through college and would make anonymous gifts whenever he saw an unfulfilled need. Reinstein and others note that his gift to Temple was motivated by his own good fortune and his desire to help young people whose own parents were not in a position to provide for their education.
Beasley’s friends and associates describe him as a shy but demanding man with a marvelous sense of humor, boundless energy and unequivocal integrity. His son, James Beasley Jr., who earned an undergraduate degree from Temple in 1990 and received a master of laws in trial advocacy from the Law School in 2003, says he was trusting and loyal to a fault. Andy Stern, a 1986 Law School graduate who worked with Beasley, says that Beasley gave him an “extraordinary sense of confidence about who I was and what I could achieve.”
Former President Peter J. Liacouras recalls his well-honed sense of justice. “We were lucky to have him around for as long as we did and to have received so much support and generosity from him,” he said.
- By Christina M. Valente