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(This article originally appeared on the Boston Bar Association website. Reprinted here with permission.)
A leader isn’t always the first one to speak up. A true leader exhibits command of speech so that when they do speak, their words carry weight. As we interviewed Boston’s most respected advocates and citizens for this profile, one phrase resonated among countless sound bites. “When Barshak speaks, everybody listens.”
From Fitchburg’s Finest to One of Boston’s Best
When he joined Mapplebeck, Alberts & Sugarman in 1957, Fitchburg native Edward J. Barshak had already carved out a reputation as one of Boston’s most promising trial attorneys. As the fifth attorney at what would later become Sugarman, Rogers, Barshak & Cohen, Ed set to work building what would soon become Boston’s top tier civil litigation boutique. An attorney with the unique ability to try any case, Ed took what was a historically an insurance defense practice and expanded it to encompass all types of complex civil litigation matters.
A Lawyers’ Lawyer
How did he accomplish this growth in practice? Talent played a major role, but also from his strong relationships with other members of the bar. Attorneys at Boston’s biggest firms — Ropes & Gray, Hale & Dorr, and Goodwin Procter consistently referred clients to Ed and Sugarman Rogers. With incredible skill in the courtroom and a reputation that preceded him, Ed also found himself working several high profile cases that didn’t necessarily fit into specific practice areas. In 1966 Justice Edward Hennessey selected Ed on behalf of the Supreme Judicial Court to investigate Boston Globe allegations of judicial wrongdoing against Municipal Court Judge Francis X. Morrissey. In 1971, Ed represented Doris Bunte after she was dismissed from the Boston Housing Authority Board by Mayor White for alleged misconduct, taking the case to the SJC where it was overturned. In addition, Ed took on a number of cases on behalf of his fellow members of the bar, defending them against accusations of improper professional conduct, including representing attorneys accused of associating with communist activity during the McCarthy investigations.
“How do you find the best doctor in town?” asks Sugarman Rogers partner and longtime friend of Ed’s, David Barry. “Find the doctor who the other doctors visit. The same is true for lawyers. One of the highest compliments I can give Ed is that he was the lawyer other lawyers would go to when they needed help.”
As a lawyers lawyer, it was natural for Ed to assume an official leadership position in the bar. He served as Vice President of the BBA in 1973 and as its President from 1974-1976.
1970’s Boston was a time of upheaval and controversy. The city’s future stood on a knife edge, with communities torn apart by the contentious desegregation of Boston Public Schools and resulting busing crisis. At the time, the BBA was not known for weighing in on community issues. Ed, with a steadfast belief in the nobility of the legal profession, believed the lawyers could help guide progress and make a difference by weighing in on public affairs. Ed worked tirelessly throughout his presidency to educate the public about desegregation and the busing movement, cementing the BBA’s reputation as not only a trusted voice in the legal profession, but the community at large.
Ed was also a staunch advocate for legal services, specifically advocating for adequate funding as a means to enhance access to justice. During his presidency, the BBA established the still active Legal Advocacy and Resource Center, which provides low-income residents of the Greater Boston area with free legal advice and referrals. Ed also led the BBA’s call for a comprehensive review of the judicial nominating process, which resulted in the formation of the Judicial Nominating Committee by of Governor Dukakis.
After 55 years of trying some of Boston’s most contentious cases, it would be natural to come across at least one fellow attorney who had something less positive to say about Ed Barshak. But lawyers from every corner of the bar speak of him with the utmost respect, bordering on reverence. Ed has managed to balance his devastating cross examinations with warmth and compassion, and an uncanny ability to get along with people very different than himself.
“It’s easy to explain why Ed never made enemies, or had anyone think negatively about him,” said Barry. “When you love something as much as Ed loves the law, when you believe it is a noble profession and your true calling – and your actions reflect that, it’s not surprising in the least that Ed is as widely respected and loved as he is. Ed is one of those people who is extremely lucky that what he is doing is much more than just a job. I can’t imagine Ed being anything but a lawyer.”
We interviewed some of the most influential members of the Boston community to get their thoughts on Ed’s career. In classic Barshak form, we will let the evidence speak for itself:
Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court Margaret Marshall (ret.)
Ed was a devoted leader and an active, longtime member of the Boston Bar Association. He served as President of the BBA, but long after his term ended he continued to be deeply involved in the Association and its activities. Ed was a wise counselor, committed to extending civil rights to all. He was a mentor to countless young lawyers. He warmly welcomed women and minorities to the legal profession, always accepting them as equals; not all of Ed’s colleagues at the bar were as welcoming fifty years ago.
Ed has a delicious sense of humor, usually exercised at his own expense. He has created a law firm that has retained its heart, and its commitment to excellence. A first rate trial and appellate lawyer, Ed understood that civility toward opposing counsel or their clients, even in the heat of battle, is the foundation of our profession.
Laurence Johnson – Davis, Malm & D’Agostine
It is dangerous to try a case against Ed Barshak because it is so easy to underestimate him. Ed has the extremely rare capacity to dominate the trial of a case while appearing to almost disappear from it. His hallmark is the antithesis of egotism and bombast. He presents his client’s case with such subtle and understated skill that sometimes, if you aren’t paying close attention, he doesn’t seem to be doing much at all – until the jury comes back and he has not only won the case, but convinced the jurors so completely that they consider it a “no brainer” and wonder why the other side hadn’t given up long ago. Indeed, I doubt that most jurors recognize him as the great trial lawyer that he is, because they are apt to think that his side was so overwhelmingly strong that “anyone could have won that case.” Is he a tough opponent? Is he ever, but not of the “Sherman Tank” variety. His is the toughness of the natural forces of water and air; both seemingly insubstantial, that nonetheless wear away granite and level mountains. In my nearly fifty years of trying cases, I have tried against no one more formidable and at the same time more honorable. Ed has been a respected opponent, a valued counselor and a treasured friend. I cannot think of anyone more deserving of the Boston Bar Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award because Ed’s career has truly been a lifetime of achievement.
Richard Zielinski – Goulston & Storrs
Ed and I were co-trying a legal malpractice case in the late 1990s. Ed defended the law firm and I represented its former partner alleged to have committed the malpractice. The plaintiff was a privately owned Bank. On the second or third day of trial the plaintiff called one of its Directors, who had not had much direct involvement in the transaction at issue. He testified for about an hour and a half about Bank procedures, the Bank’s relationship with the law firm and a little bit about damages. The direct testimony finished about 5 minutes before the lunch break. I had deposed the witness and was prepared to cross-examine. My plan at that point was to get us into the lunch recess with a few harmless questions, review my notes then finish the cross in the afternoon. As I rose to begin the cross I felt Ed’s hand gently touch my right arm. He leaned over and whispered in my ear: “Richard let me take this witness.” Naturally I was surprised, but when Ed Barshak asks to take a witness you let him take the witness. In his low key style Ed calmly rose, and the cross-examination proceeded as follows:
Q: “Sir, did I hear you say that you served in the Greek navy before coming to the United States?”
We then broke for lunch. After a few moments of bewilderment I approached Ed and sheepishly asked: “Ed, can you explain what that was all about?” Ed looked at me patiently, smiled and said: “Richard, I wanted the jury to realize just how irrelevant this witnesses’ testimony is in this case.” I learned a great lesson that day.
Leonard Alkins – Former President, Boston NAACP
Ed Barshak is a lawyer’s lawyer! An expert in the field of First Amendment rights, Ed is a fierce champion for the disenfranchised. He is a true Drum Major in the continuing struggle for Civil and Human Rights for those who are without a voice. Ed’s reputation for fairness and his no-nonsense approach are legendary throughout the legal community. As President Emeritus of the Boston Branch NAACP having served 1995-2006, and on behalf of President Michael A. Curry, Esq. and the members of the Boston Branch, I thank you for all of your many years of dedicated service. We salute you as you receive this well-deserved recognition from the institution that you have faithfully and honorably served as a member and past President. We applaud the acknowledgement of the many young attorneys you have mentored throughout your distinguished, remarkable career. Thank you again for a job well done.
Doris Bunte – Former Director of Boston Housing Authority, Massachusetts State Representative
Forty-five years ago, as a single mother of three, residing in public housing, I was stunned to find myself faced with removal from the public office of Commissioner by the Mayor of the City Of Boston. The mayor served as Judge in the case. A Civil Rights attorney named Ed Barshak represented me through the process of removal. He continued to represent me and took my case to Superior Court, where I was found not guilty of the mayor’s charges against me. The mayor appealed the case to the State Supreme Court. Still represented by Ed, the State Supreme Court upheld the Superior Court decision and ordered my reinstatement. I wish to take this opportunity to publicly express my sincere gratitude to my friend Ed Barshak for changing my life.
Anthony Doniger – Sugarman, Rogers, Barshak & Cohen
Ed Barshak is one of Boston’s finest trial lawyers. Ever. It has been a privilege beyond description to learn at the feet of this great advocate. I can think of no one who has connected with juries better than Ed. I always wondered whether the checkered suits and uneven ties (with the back piece longer than the front one) were part of the ruse (after all, whenever he appeared before the SJC he wore the same smart pin-striped navy suit and perfectly proportioned tie), but that is for the historians to debate. Ed, thanks for sharing your skill, brilliance and wisdom with me and generations of Sugarman, Rogers, Barshak and Cohen lawyers, and for being the ultimate citizen lawyer.
Sheila Decter – Executive Director, Jewish Alliance for Law (JALSA), Former Executive Director, New England American Jewish Congress
For over four decades, Ed Barshak shared his legal acumen and keen sense of justice on cases involving the American Jewish Congress. Desegregation, voting rights, fair court procedures, separation of church and state, religious liberty, housing discrimination and issues of genocide were all addressed with his sharp intellect and broad experience. He has mentored countless volunteer attorneys who continue to work for a just society and regularly call for his advice.
Judge Rudolph Kass (ret.)
In my first gig presiding at a single justice session of the Appeals Court, Ed appeared to argue for leave to appeal from the allowance by the trial judge of a motion for a new trial. Leave to appeal was required because there was no final judgment. Ed’s partner, Steven Cohen, had obtained a defendant’s verdict in a dangerous case for the defense. The plaintiff had been cruelly disfigured by burns in a head-on car collision. Her identical twin, strikingly beautiful, attended the trial. I gazed down at Ed and said, with a touch of severity: “Now Mr. Barshak, you know and I know that there are cases that could run up both my arms stating the proposition that the grant or denial of a motion for a new trial lies within the sound discretion of the trial judge.” Ed stood at the lectern, hands folded, no notes, and said: “Well, judge, unless it’s unappealable, and I don’t think that’s the law, I’m here to tell you that the good judge had a bad day.” That so disarmed me that I examined the trial judge’s 14-page memorandum of decision allowing a new trial, in which he flagellated himself for having committed some four errors in the course of the trial – rulings that in the calm of the appellate process didn’t look like errors to me at all. I granted the defense motion for leave to appeal. What the story illustrates is Ed’s gift for plain speech argument, without table pounding, arm waving or other forms of forensic hyperbole. He gently deflated my presumptions and rubbed my nose in reality. That’s advocacy.
Natasha Lisman – Sugarman, Rogers, Barshak & Cohen (ret.)
When I first joined Sugarman, Rogers, Barshak & Cohen, I would constantly run into lawyers, judges, and court clerks who would say “Oh, so you are working for Eddie!!! Lucky you!” “Working for Eddie” was indeed one of the great joys of my 36 years with the firm. Not only was he a fabulous lawyer to learn from, but, in a profession driven by ego, Ed is remarkably ego-free. A star lawyer, he is never a prima donna and has always been more than generous in ceding credit for court submissions and opportunities for court appearances to junior lawyers.
Paul Sugarman – Principal & Co-Founder, SUGARMAN
If asked to describe the aspirational hallmark qualities of a lawyer, I would simply give the name of Ed Barshak as the gold standard. Ed is recognized by the bench and bar as a highly skilled lawyer at the top of his profession, possessed of an unchallenged reputation for integrity and fair dealing. His reputation as a leader with a commitment to the bar and the court is evidenced by his selection as president of the Boston Bar Association and appointment by the S.J.C. as chairman of the Board Of Bar Examiners. In presenting this award to Ed the Boston Bar Association is reflecting the thanks of the community as well as the bench and bar.
Robert Muldoon – Sherin & Lodgen
Ed Barshak is one of the major figures in Massachusetts in the management of the Board of Bar Examiners process and was a tremendous help and counselor to me. One outstanding lawyer!
Joseph Steinfield – Prince Lobel & Tye
Being a member of the bar with Ed Barshak has been an honor; being his friend is a privilege. I cherish our many hours together – in the courtroom, at American College of Trial Lawyers gatherings, at American Jewish Congress meetings, and at countless lunches and social gatherings. His influence on the Boston bar generally, and on me personally, is incalculable. Ed’s lifetime achievement is ongoing, and the BBA could not have found a more deserving recipient.