By Karen Hofstein
The room is lined floor to ceiling with bookcases holding thick volumes bound in hand-tooled leather bearing the titles American Jurisprudence, New Jersey Practice, and Uniform Commercial Codes. A long table in the center of the conference room is surrounded by a series of comfortable chairs. Seated at the head of the table is a friendly looking man with dark auburn hair who leans back and says, “One thing I always say to people is, ‘If everybody always did what they were supposed to do, you wouldn’t need lawyers, because every single thing a lawyer does is based on the premise that somebody isn’t going to do what they were supposed to do. That is why you have to write down contracts. That’s why things end up in litigation. As society gets more and more complicated you need people who understand [these complexities] enough that other people can rely on them.”
For the past 20 years, Richard Beilin has practiced law in the state of New Jersey. The holder of a B.A. degree from Rutgers University and a law degree from George Washington University, he is currently part of the firm of Wacks & Hartman, located in Morristown.
Established in 1715, Morristown enjoys a special place in American history as the site of General George Washington’s headquarters during the Revolutionary War (1775–1783). Today the town is a quiet community filled with Victorian-style houses, office buildings, stores, and restaurants. As the county seat, Morristown is also the site of a large courthouse teeming with daily activity.
When asked how the real practice of law compares with what is seen in television and films, Beilin laughs, “The one time I watched Ally McBeal [a lawyer television program], it made me nuts because the client would come in and the very next day they would have a trial.” The reality, he says, is very different, as a case may take months or even years to come to trial. “Many attorneys I know who do trial work won’t have more than one or two trials a year.”
Films and television also rarely accurately represent the amount of time lawyers spend at a courthouse waiting for their cases to be heard. “I remember at the time I was doing a lot of work in bankruptcy court. You could show up at court at 9:00 a.m. and be literally number 115 on the motion list. You’d sit there for three and a half hours before your case got called. I would always bring other work or reading to do while I was waiting. But they never show that on [television shows], how someone has to sit around for three hours with nothing to do. They don’t show the down time when you are not on trial.”
These days, Beilin says, it is very rare for him to be in court, as the majority of his work is non-adversarial in nature. Most of his time is spent representing the interests of homeowners associations (including condominium boards) and municipal governments. He drafts the ordinances and resolutions that become law for the towns. He also deals with the day-to-day issues that arise in the enforcement of these regulations.
Much of Beilin’s time is spent attending town council meetings at night. In the month following the introduction of an ordinance, there are public hearings before the council votes on whether it should be adopted. He notes that when an ordinance is to change the speed limit on a street, “you’d be surprised at how many people show up.”
Beilin says, “You are writing [laws] that affect people on a day-to-day basis … this is the ground level of democracy.” He continues, “At town meetings you see what the most important issue is to a particular person and it really does get discussed and listened to. The council members look at people’s problems — like street road access to fire protection services — and try to solve them.”
“I genuinely do like the fact that most of the members of the boards and councils are volunteers, and they are doing a job that is thankless a lot of the time but they really do try as hard as they can. They are overwhelmingly honest people. It sounds corny but it’s nice to help people.”
Beilin adds that he has found a great deal of fulfillment in representing the needs of individuals and fondly relates a particular exchange he had 15 years ago with a grateful client. “When I was doing bankruptcy law, a client called me and said, ‘Last night was the first good night’s sleep I’ve had in months. Thanks.’”
Among the many things Beilin considers essential to being a good lawyer is “having the ability to separate the things that are important from the things that aren’t.” He also says, “It is important to know when you are right and insist on it, but also know when you are wrong and have the ability to explain to people why they are right or wrong.” He notes, “Many times a lawyer will tell a client that they will win them a $1 million judgment only to try to persuade them later to accept a $30,000 settlement. A lot of times the biggest impediment to settling a case is not knowing how to manage your client’s expectations.” He adds, “Ultimately you have to really care about the people you are representing.”
As a member of the local attorney ethics committee, Beilin does a great deal of work on ethics issues. He says, “When advising a client you can think of other than purely legal issues — like economic issues and moral issues.”
His cell phone chimes out with a ringtone set to the theme from the classic Italian western film The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. He excuses himself to answer a call from his wife. For the past 19 years, Beilin has been married to his high school sweetheart, Lorraine. They live in Morristown with their two children, 13-year-old Katie and 10-year-old Sam. Beilin is a dedicated husband and father who says that one of his “most favorite things to do in the world is to go to Sam’s baseball games.” As to daughter Katie, he says with pride, “She’s an excellent student and all-around great kid.”
Beilin is a “huge baseball fan,” with the New York Yankees as his favorite team. As a former college English major, he frequently relaxes at night by reading 19th-century books and what he describes as “big fat Russian novels.” He is also a film buff with an encyclopedic knowledge of old movies. His favorites are an eclectic variety that includes ET, Apocalypse Now (“it has a great literary quality to it”), Woman of the Year, Auntie Mame, and It’s a Wonderful Life.
The last of these films is a particularly apt selection for Beilin in that he is very similar to the George Bailey character (played by Jimmy Stewart). Both are dedicated, hardworking family men who have committed themselves to improving the lives of the people in their respective communities.
Karen Hofstein is a writer in New York City.