Preserving the Past, Informing the Future
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Heredity and environment tended to make John Kimberly Beach the ideal lawyer. There were six John Beaches in Connecticut in the direct line, and all of them were ministers or lawyers. Born in New Haven on October 18, 1855, he lived there until his death on July 6, 1938. A graduate of Yale in the class of 1877, he was long a teacher in the School of Law. Active work in the profession for over fifty years broadened and ripened his character and mind. The last of a line of lawyers, he grew up in an office with his father, a keen and able practitioner.
Judge Beach's apprenticeship brought him into close association with a fine and able group of men who were the leaders of the New Haven bar. This included, with his father, the brilliant and resourceful Ingersoll, the learned Baldwin, and the consummate solicitor Louis H. Bristol. These names with those of Torrance, Harrison, Stoddard and Watrous bring up memories of a bar, which has perhaps not been excelled in Connecticut in power and ability.
This young man was highly favored of fortune so far as concerns a propitious environment for a career in the law. With a sound New England toughness inherited from the Beaches was mixed the Quaker-Irish blood of his mother's family. This produced no complexes, but a rare combination of sweetness, friendliness and gayety, with a keen and dispassionate intellect ready to cope with the most intricate problems, and fully fitted to solve them. His mind and soul were exceedingly independent. Fishing in the North Woods, minding his pea patch in his charming retreat at Hammonassett, preparing a case for trial, or investigating the law for judicial opinions, he worked by himself. There remains a memory of him in middle life in the full swing of a busy practice. On a typical afternoon he would be found in his office, hour after hour, writing briefs in longhand on the arm of an old-fashioned rocking chair while he loudly argued the points with himself.
Upon beginning practice he was at once engaged with his father in many important patent causes. They were days of rapid industrial development. Connecticut was full of inventors, and lawyers and clients were litigious. His father had the confidence of the business community and the young man had thus unusual opportunities. In early years his name is almost always associated in briefs with that of his father. There are many such in a long succession of patent causes in the Circuit Court. They had as well an extensive general practice. For example, at the June Term of 1887 the Beaches appeared together in the Supreme Court in a suit to replevy a quantity of brass and copper, in an appeal from a probate decree allowing a claim against the estate of an insolvent debtor, and in an appeal from a judgment allowing damages for diverting waters.
After his father's death in 1887 he continued in practice with a brother. In 1898 he joined Samuel H. Fisher to form the firm of Beach and Fisher. Fisher came of a patent law family, and had had experience in Washington. These young men developed a fine business in patent soliciting, but the patent litigations were diminishing in number and importance, and when they were invited in 1902 to join the firm of Bristol, Stoddard and Bristol, they were glad to do so; and formed the firm of Bristol, Stoddard, Beach and Fisher. Henry Stoddard had retired from the bench in 1888, and fourteen years later was in the midst of a trial practice, which in character and volume has been without parallel in Connecticut. For the next ten years this firm enjoyed a splendid business in an atmosphere of cheerful friendliness, which tended to hilarity upon appropriate occasions.
Mr. Beach's practice had by then become largely general court work; the presentation of causes on behalf of or in conjunction with other lawyers. A few of his cases in the period 1908 to 1913 involved suits for diverting waters, for indemnity for damages caused by a strike of workmen against a carrier of strike insurance, against a life insurance company for distribution among policy holders of a so-called safety fund, for damages for property of a theatrical company destroyed by a fire on a railroad, and some important work in bankruptcy. It was during this period that for some years he was active in the defense of members of the hatters' union in the famous Danbury Hatters case (Loewe v. Lawlor, 208 U.S. 274, 223 U.S. 729, 187 Fed. 522). This was interrupted when he was appointed to the bench.
His briefs follow a common pattern. In his youth they are long and meticulous, with extensive citation of authority. Later they became simple, confined to clear reasoning for a few pages, covering only essential points, with sparing reference to decisions. He was wont to say that one strong assignment of errors is better than twenty weak ones. The essence of advocacy is simplicity; and Judge Beach learned this in his practice.
An outstanding characteristic in trial work was his fineness almost amounting to delicacy. He would not resort to cheap methods or tricks, and he resented the use of then by others. He seemed to regard a case predominantly as an intellectual problem. Having assembled the facts, he worked the matter out as one would a problem in mathematics. While this had the advantage of clarity and simplicity, it occasionally prevented a necessary shift in tactics to meet the vicissitudes of the courtroom.
On February 6, 1923, he resigned as law professor because of increasing pressure of his work upon the bench. Over a period of many years he had given instruction in the Yale Law School in Admiralty, Agency, Patent Law, Conflict of Laws, Sales, and Receivers. He taught by a combination of the textbook and case methods. For example, in his course on Sales the book he used was Benjamin's, which is to a large extent a classified digest of decisions.
Because of his soft voice and gentle manner the Judge was not at his best in public appearances at the bar or in the classroom. The true quality of his finely tempered mind is found in his briefs and opinions. He was born to sit upon a court of appeals. However, he succeeded in the chief function of a law teacher, the clear, orderly and comprehensive presentation of a course of study, available to the grasp of a student willing to learn. He received from Yale the honorary degrees of Master of Arts in 1908 and of Doctor of Laws in 1913.
He was, as C. R. Ingersoll said of his father, "notably a lawyer and thoroughly a lawyer." All of his intellectual interests were concerned with the law. Professor Hicks says of him, "He participated actively in the work of the American Law Institute as advisor to the reporter on Restatement of the Law of Agency. His colleagues report that, despite his advanced age, he was a learned, alert and stimulating associate." He was a member of the Connecticut committee on the federal rules of civil procedure, a work in which he took great interest. He was gravely disturbed about certain manifestations of the New Deal philosophy, especially the National Recovery Act, and what he called "its successor in purpose, the pending bill to reform the. Court."
After the decision of the case of State v. McCook, 109 Conn. 621, Judge Beach, then retired, became greatly interested in the subject matter of Section 12 of Article IV of the Constitution of Connecticut with which that decision dealt. In an unpublished paper he has left, he has gone at great length into the judicial history of this subject, and with customary clarity has given his reasons for preferring the conflicting federal rule.
Judge Beach's last important undertaking was his work as state referee in hearing and reporting on an extensive investigation into conditions in the New Haven bar. He has left some notes on the foundation of legal ethics which are worth repeating:
The term "ethics" when applied to professional conduct includes as a matter of course common honesty and fair dealing in the contractual relation and it also connotes the existence of some rules of conduct for the breach of which the law does not give a remedy, but which have a sanction comparable to the social ostracism which follows persistent violation of the prevailing standards of personal conduct. So the persistent violation of such professional minor morals may justly result in professional ostracism. The time has gone by when the rule caveat emptor drew a distinct line between a business and a profession, but it still remains true that a business transaction may involve nothing more than a strictly contractual relation, whereas a professional transaction, though it also be contractual, includes always a relation of trust and confidence. A lawyer who does not feel and respond to this fiduciary obligation may do a considerable business, but he is not practicing his profession. Strict performance of this fiduciary duty is more important in the law than in any other profession; not merely to protect the interests of the client, but because any public distrust of the legal profession creates a corresponding distrust and impairment of the administration of civil justice.
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You might suppose there was no necessary connection between wholesale ambulance chasing and the loss of public confidence in the administration of justice. But the fact as indicated by the evidence is that the practice of ambulance chasing on a large scale is a highly specialized business and a highly competitive one. In the first place, the prospective clients are almost necessarily poor or ignorant, for it would be dangerous to employ on any large-scale persons who are in a position to make trouble. The next step is to make the employment attractive by offering to pay all medical and legal expenses, so that win or lose it will not cost the client a cent and the lawyer will rely on a percentage of the recovery for his compensation. Then to prevent the case from being captured by a competitor the client is required to sign a power of attorney giving absolute control of expenses, settlement or trial or abandonment of the case to the attorney. The lawyer being thus safely in full control of the joint enterprise is inclined to be autocratic in handling his client, and the net result appears to be that the average client is never sure that he has been fairly treated. and this not only for the reason stated but because the amount of the recovery, if any, is apt to be far below the rosy estimates held out by the attorney or his runner as an inducement to his employment
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In concluding this topic it might fairly be said that no single condition affecting the administration of civil justice confronts the profession and the courts, not only here but elsewhere, which is of greater importance than the problem of adequately dealing with the increasing accumulation of claims for damages for personal and property injuries, especially when that problem is aggravated by ambulance chasing and by the poverty of an overcrowded bar.
Judge Beach is the last man who has been a member of the Supreme Court of Errors without having passed through apprenticeship of work as a nisi prius Judge. Appointed in 1913 by Governor Baldwin after twenty-five years or more of active practice involving important responsibilities, he became immediately a useful member of the court. Beginning in Volume 86 of the Connecticut Reports and continuing until Volume 103, when he retired for age in 1925, he regularly wrote an average of eighteen published opinions a year upon a great diversity of subjects. There are nearly three hundred of his opinions in sixteen volumes of the Reports. His brevity is truly remarkable. His forty opinions in Volumes 91 and 92 average less than four pages in length; and this includes two rather long opinions in appeals from conviction for murder.
Notable brevity and clarity are virtues attained by few of our profession, but Judge Beach had the capacity to compress into a short paragraph of two or three sentences the essential facts and the fundamental law of a case. Examples of this may be found by taking his opinions at random. Good judges are always looking for the "nub" of the case. Judge Beach always found it, and generally stated it.
Space does not suffice to refer to many of his opinions. Mention is made of Napier v. Peoples Stores Co., 98 Conn. 414, overruling Wells v. Hartford Manilla Co.; Hartford-Conn. Trust Co. v. Devine, 97 Conn. 193, in which the court freed our law from the supposed sanctity of a seal; Blodgett v. Union & New Haven Trust Co., 97 Conn. 405, a leading case in succession tax law; and New Haven Sand Blast Co. v. Dreisbach, 102 Conn. 169. In the last in a field of law where he was thoroughly at home Judge Beach wrote an opinion longer than customary. For moderation, clarity, orderly progression from point to point, and thence to an irresistible conclusion, this opinion can perhaps not be surpassed in the Connecticut Reports.
It is difficult to reproduce the appearance or personality of Judge Beach. Professor Frederic C. Hicks has attempted it:
"Slight of build, without an ounce of superfluous flesh, moving about with quick bird-like motion, alert, friendly, animated, always aware of his surroundings, he had an engaging personality. Although he had strong convictions he was greatly respected for his fairness in practice and on the bench."
From the point of view of his juniors in the profession, he was a wise and kind preceptor, a tolerant and generous master. He knew how to delegate responsibility, and by reposing confidence inspired the strongest loyalty and affection. He well fulfilled Rufus Choate's requirements for the ideal judge, who must be a man "not merely upright and merely honest, and well intentioned, but a man who would not respect persons in his judgments," and in this he must possess the "perfect confidence of the community."[footer.htm]