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August 17, 2020
In Memoriam: Edward J. Barshak
Date: August 17, 2020
The Boston legal community has lost one of its finest. Edward J. Barshak passed away peacefully on August 12, 2020, at age 96.
For more than five decades as one of our founding partners, Ed was an icon of the trial bar and a fearless defender of civil rights. As a young lawyer, he courageously represented lawyers charged with engaging in communist activities during the McCarthy investigations and achieved the groundbreaking SJC ruling in Brown v. Commonwealth, 335 Mass. 476 (1957), recognizing a right to counsel for criminal defendants under the Massachusetts constitution – six years before the US Supreme Court’s decision in Gideon v. Wainwright. He later represented Mitchell Goodman in the now-famous federal prosecution against Dr. Benjamin Spock, Goodman, and three other co-defendants for advocating resistance to the Vietnam-War draft, culminating in the 1969 First Circuit decision vacating their convictions. In her book about the Spock trial, British writer Jessica Mitford aptly described Ed’s low-key, yet highly effective, courtroom style as “trim, soft-spoken, matter-of-fact.”
Ed served as president of the Boston Bar Association from 1974 to 1976 and was honored with the BBA’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014. In so honoring Ed, the BBA described his presidential priorities:
Managing Partner and current BBA President, Christine Netski, described Ed as one of the greatest “citizen lawyers” our city has known. “Ed’s unyielding commitment to public service and access to justice, whether in support of racial justice, the right to counsel, voting rights, civil liberties or fair housing, was a wonderful example to all of us that, as lawyers, we have the ability and responsibility to create a more equitable society.”
In addition to his leadership at the BBA, Ed served as a Director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, which recognized him in 2016 with the launch of the Edward J. Barshak Fund for Justice to provide litigation resources for the LCR’s anti-discrimination cases. Ed also served as Chair of the Massachusetts Board of Bar Examiners for many years and as Chair of the Joint Bar Committee on Judicial Appointments, among many other leadership roles. He was the recipient of the NAACP Boston Branch Special Award for Legal Assistance on a Continuing Basis, as well as and the Anti-Defamation League, New England Region, William O. Douglas First Amendment Freedom Award. He was also a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers.
Ed’s brilliant trial and appellate skills and his strong relationships throughout the bar made him a “go to” lawyer to handle the most complex and sensitive cases, ranging across an unusually broad spectrum of practice areas. Long-time friend and partner David Barry observed:
It was not just Ed’s razor-sharp intellect that made him such an exceptional advocate. His genuine appreciation for the life experiences of others, whether clients, witnesses, or opponents, and his ability to truly listen to what was happening around him were qualities that distinguished him throughout his career. As Sugarman Rogers General Counsel Regina Roman noted:
Ed was a wonderful teacher and mentor to all his colleagues at the firm, although his style was far from conventional. His notes for a lengthy cross-examination of a key witness often consisted of a list of seemingly random words on a single sheet of paper. As David Barry noted, “It was all in his head and his intuitive feel for the witness as a person enabled him to extract what was most important, always with the context of the larger themes of the case in mind. That was the secret to Ed’s genius as a trial lawyer and it was a hard thing to teach.” Ed also made it his mission to make sure that younger lawyers had a multitude of opportunities to grow as practitioners, even when they might not have felt ready to take on certain tasks or roles. His door was always open – regardless of what was on his plate – and his infectious belly laugh could frequently be heard emanating from his office. Ed’s love for the law was palpable. He showed up for work each day with a skip in his step and a twinkle in his eye, no matter what challenge awaited him.
Ed cared deeply about the firm he built. He led the firm with fairness, equity, and kindness, and every decision he made was grounded in honesty and integrity. He was committed to having a firm that allowed lawyers the freedom to handle cases and engage in public service activities they cared about and that allowed lawyers and staff alike room to have fulfilling lives outside the firm. It is no accident that the firm has been led by women for more than two decades and that so many of the firm’s women have held leadership roles in the Boston legal community.
As reflected in the testimonials of his colleagues in the bar when Ed received the BBA’s Lifetime Achievement Award, he was truly revered throughout the legal community, but always portrayed an unusually understated view of his accomplishments. As Sugarman Rogers partner Michael Appel observed, “Yes, Ed was a towering figure, but he was a humble man. When he spoke, he spoke of the issues, the facts, the concerns of the client or others in need or in conflict. It was not about him. For Ed, the important thing was to solve the problem – not to take credit for solving the problem.” Ed never had difficulty facing hard facts and tackled every legal problem with the highest ethical standards in mind. He also knew how to accept defeat with grace and often said that “you’re not a real trial lawyer until you’ve lost a big one.”
Ed was not only passionate about the law. He was passionate about life and lived every minute to the fullest. He was devoted to his family and happy to boast about his children and grandchildren, all of whom simply adored him. The richness of his family life was something to behold. He loved to cross-country ski in Vermont and boogie board in Truro and was active in both sports well into his eighties. He loved classic fiction and political biographies, especially those of his heroes, Abraham Lincoln and FDR. He relished concerts at Symphony Hall and Tanglewood and could rarely say no to a good martini, straight up, with a twist. But most of all he loved and understood all kinds of people, a natural gift that made him a superb lawyer and a truly wonderful human being. We will miss him dearly, but he has left a powerful and enduring legacy that will benefit us for many years to come. Our thoughts are with all his family and friends at this difficult time.