Ethical advocate

Richard Beilin, who practices law in New Jersey, studies a case file in his office. (Jill Walker)

For the past 25 years, Richard Beilin has practiced law in Morristown, New Jersey, site of General George Washington’s headquarters during part of 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 TV series about a fictional lawyer], 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.”

Beilin says the bulk of his workday is devoted to reviewing clients’ files and other paperwork. (Jill Walker)

Films and television also rarely 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 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 nonadversarial in nature.

TV programs about law firms are more focused on entertainment than accuracy, Beilin says. (Jill Walker)

Beilin frequently represents 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.”

“Ultimately you have to really care about the people you are representing.”

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 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 20 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.’”

Beilin, seen here standing next to a bookcase in his office, says he enjoys helping people by drafting ordinances for local towns and governments. (Jill Walker)

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.”

“Ultimately you have to really care about the people you are representing,” he concludes.

This profile accompanies the essay Think you know all about Americans by watching TV? Not so fast. It is abridged from the original, which appears in Pop Culture versus Real America, published in 2010 by the Bureau of International Information Programs.

The author, Karen Hofstein, is a writer in New York City.