Lawyer's TLC Reaps Returns
by Douglas Malan
Connecticut Law Tribune
May 29, 2006
Atty. Ernest F. Teitell, President, Connecticut Trial Lawyers Association, presents award to Atty. Richard Bieder.
Lawyer jokes don't suit Richard A. Bieder. It's not that he lacks a sense of humor, but punch lines that rely on avarice and despicable acts don't fit an attorney who has logged 20-hour days for pro bono causes. Attorneys who've helped create a national network of lawyers to voluntarily represent victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks should be exempt from chiding.
For his efforts in creating Trial Lawyers Care Inc., believed to be the largest pro bono legal program ever undertaken, and safeguarding its clients' interests, Bieder will be awarded with The Connecticut Law Tribune's annual Pro Bono Award on May 31.
Trial Lawyers Care Inc. enlisted 1,100 lawyers around the country and from various practice areas to assist 1,700 clients in 35 states and 11 countries who filed claims under the federal government's September 11 Victim Compensation Fund. Cases handled by TLC attorneys netted approximately $2 billion in damages, and Bieder, a partner of Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder in Bridgeport, personally handled 19 cases through his firm and attained $48 million for his clients.
"He is one of the most innovative and caring lawyers that I've ever known," said former Koskoff attorney Michael A. Stratton, now a name partner at Stratton Faxon in New Haven. "He's always trying to figure out ways for trial lawyers to make a difference in the community."
In the weeks and months following 9/11, Bieder helped organize the TLC network along with Leo V. Boyle, then-president of the American Trial Lawyers Association, and the group's former president, Larry S. Stewart.
Bieder recalled working "16- to 20-hour days for the first three or four weeks," to get the program off the ground; he also created the organization's web site and handled any phone calls during the midnight to 8 a.m. shift. With fewer incoming calls compared to daytime and evening hours, Bieder was able to complete the work necessary to set up the program, which included collaborating with Kenneth R. Feinberg — special master of the victim's fund — to ensure meaningful compensation for victims and their families.
TLC operated with a $5 million budget thanks to donations from the American Red Cross and individual lawyers around the country, Bieder said, and the New York state court system provided temporary headquarters in a dilapidated building on Foley Square in Manhattan.
But it was Bieder who wrote the guidebooks for lawyers handling victims' cases and helped produce DVDs explaining why clients who suffered severe burns required special consideration.
"He's one of the most generous human beings on the face of the earth," said Michael P. Koskoff, senior partner at Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder. "There isn't anyone he doesn't want to help. There's no length he won't go to make an unfortunate person happy."
During the first year of the settlement process, Bieder spent 80 percent of his time with TLC, Koskoff said, and 25 percent of his time the following two years, all while balancing his regular caseload from the Bridgeport firm.
The pro bono projects are outgrowths of Bieder's belief that lawyers are obligated to serve the public, and his projects thrive because of his ability to operate on very little sleep. When he was in the Navy's JAG program in the late 1960s, he routinely awoke at 4 a.m. to jog with the Marines. Now in his mid-60s, he goes to bed around 9 p.m. and awakes at 2 a.m., all of which allows him to engage in activities that can lead to public recognition.
"When we started working together [through TLC] after 9/11, I saw his dedication, enthusiasm and real firm belief that this was not only an important thing to do but the right thing to do, without hesitation," said Ernest F. Teitell, of Silver, Golub & Teitell in Stamford and president of the Connecticut Trial Lawyers Association. "He's always been willing to take on a pro bono project. He really is an inspiration to lawyers in terms of doing things to help people."
"I don't know how to deal with praise," Bieder admitted, adding that his family's support allowed him to devote so many hours to his causes. "The things I do I don't do to receive praise. I mainly do it so my children and grandchildren have a model they will take into the future. I don't revel in it [but] it's nice to know I've been able to do some things."
Early in his legal career, Bieder often represented clients in criminal matters and "half the time we wouldn't get paid," he said. But those occasions to assist others presented opportunities on which he frequently capitalized and helped form the ideological basis for his involvement in TLC. He also was able to make a living balancing charity work and cases that paid the bills.
The success of TLC is evident not only in the settlement amounts but also in the cards and telephone calls from former clients who contact Bieder to offer occasional updates of their lives. The goodwill that permeated the program also affected the thousands of lawyers who volunteered their services.
"We decided to keep [TLC] alive because we got so much good feedback from lawyers who said it was the greatest thing they ever got involved in," said Bieder, noting that he's always on the hunt for the next opportunity to assist victims of mass tragedies.
Bieder's charitable projects influenced Stratton's thinking when the latter formed his own firm with Joel Faxon in July 2003.
"The more time that passes since I left Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder, the more I realize how difficult it is to live up to the ideals that Richard set," Stratton said. "Everyone ought to take a good, hard look at how he's practiced law for the last 40 years and try to emulate him."
Law Tribune Honorees for 2006: Richard Bieder, Supreme Court Justice Peter T. Zarella (center) and Gov. M. Jodi Rell's legal counsel, Kevin J. Rasch, who accepted an award on behalf of Gov. Rell.