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This article by Kathleen McGinn Spring was prepared for the May 28, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Stark’s Law: Growth Without Misery

A murder is about to take place. The crime may occur

in Washington Crossing State Park, or possibly near Queen’s Rock,

which creates an appealing swimming hole in the Delaware near Trenton.

Albert Stark, new author and principal in 218-person Lenox Drive law

firm of Stark & Stark, is not yet sure where the murderer in his novel-in-progress

will strike. But he does have a working title — Outrage —

and is closing in on final details of plot, character, and motivation.

"I have to talk to Sister Elizabeth at the state prison,"

he says. "I need to know what goes through the head of someone

on death row."

Stark works on his novel in the same spacious corner office where

he conducts his legal practice, which is centered on personal injury

cases involving litigants who have suffered brain damage. He handed

off responsibility for the day-to-day workings of the firm long ago

so that he could concentrate on the legal work he relishes. Now he

also uses some of that freedom to write, working from 7:30 a.m. until

11 a.m., filling up the blank pages of black, bound books in the precise

handwriting he learned as a student in the Trenton public school system

in the 1950s.

"I always wanted to be a writer," he says. "My first jobs

were with the Trentonian and the Trenton Times. I was editor of my

sixth grade newspaper, my high school newspaper." Instead of pursuing

journalism, however, he followed his father, Sidney Stark, who died

nearly 10 years ago, into the law.

Stark’s first book, "Beyond the Bar: Challenges in a Lawyer’s

Life," which he has published through Xlibris, traces the first

15 years of his career. Sitting in his large, comfortable office,

surrounded by framed awards, his silver hair curling just a bit above

his collar, Stark is a supremely confident man. A successful attorney

and businessman, who has had the ear of every governor since Robert

Meyner, he has vastly expanded the firm founded in 1933 by his father

and his uncle, Amel Stark, an 88-year-old who still comes to work

every day.

Yet he succeeds in bringing readers of his book all the way back to

the emotions of a newly-minted attorney feeling his way in a complex

world full of lessons no law school teaches. He portrays the courtrooms

— and back rooms — in which he worked as a young lawyer as

a universe in which everyone but him moved easily in accordance with

unwritten rules. He writes about the uncertainty that lies beyond

law school, about how a new lawyer comes of age through trial and

error.

In one of his first cases, his compassion is aroused

by a prostitute at risk of losing her child. Stark fights for her

only to feel the sting of humiliation when he informs the judge that

his client’s doctor has told her not to appear in court because she

has "an infectious disease."

"Mr. Stark, are you telling me that she has the clap?" the

judge asks, as prisoners, waiting their turn before the bench, burst

into raucous laughter. Setting the courtroom scene, hilarious to everybody

but him, Stark recalls that he was "too stunned, ashamed, and

embarrassed to turn around."

Telling his story largely through the stories of his early clients,

Stark writes of a restaurant owner, a longtime friend, who might or

might not have burned down his restaurant. He introduces the colorful

denizens of Lorenzo’s, a Trenton steak house where the powerful still

gather. He glows with pride as he finds evidence to convict a guard

of killing a prisoner. Most of the stories are cliff hangers. Will

the client accept a settlement offer — often proffered at the

very last minute. Or will he roll the dice on winning a jury verdict?

Will the murderer walk? Will the motorist, probably a scapegoat in

the death of a popular cop, be found guilty?

Working for the Mercer County prosecutor’s office, Stark’s idealism

takes hit after hit. He is encouraged to return damaging evidence

to a prominent doctor and to go easy on the son of a judge’s friend.

He catches fellow attorneys tampering with witnesses. "Their behavior

made me feel that I could not always trust fellow members of the bar

or the people who run our public institutions," he writes.

A political liberal, Stark and his wife, Ellen, have been married

for some 37 years. "Do you know my wife?" he asks of a person

who figures large in his book. "She’s an activist. We met in New

York. She was a hippie." (She was also a microbiologist.) After

a career in regional planning, including work on the clean-up of the

Delaware River, Ellen Stark is now involved in bringing social justice

films to the Global Cinema Cafe and in working with the Hispanic community

in Mercer County. She had wanted to be a doctor, but her science career

was derailed by an injury suffered as she gave birth to her son. The

injury also changed the course of Stark’s career.

But before any of that happened, Ellen all but forced Stark to quit

his job in the prosecutor’s office. In his book, Stark presents a

picture of the anguish of the late 1960s. First a good friend, probably

an innocent man, was killed by a policeman during the Trenton riots

of 1967. Then, in short order, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy

were killed. The final straw, at least for Ellen Stark, was the Democratic

convention in Chicago, during which protesters were shot and killed.

Working for the prosecutor’s office, Stark writes, put him squarely

in the enemy camp in his wife’s eyes. "How could you watch what

has gone on tonight and go to work tomorrow with a clear conscience?"

she demanded after they had watched footage from the Chicago convention

on television. "Have you forgotten why you went to Selma or Tuscaloosa?"

Stark, who had worked in the civil rights movement in the South in

the 1960s, wanted to end the conversation — and hang on to his

job. But his wife wouldn’t let up, declaring that the man she married

would not stay in league with what she saw as institutions that were

suppressing legitimate dissent and killing protesters. The next day,

after a senior prosecutor condemned King, Kennedy, et al. as "pinkos,"

Stark quit. But with trepidation.

He told his wife that his father would be devastated. What’s more,

he had no idea of how he would support a family. "I am overwhelmed.

I have nothing in the wings," he writes. "I’m not so sure

I even want to be a lawyer."

But Sidney Stark, portrayed throughout the book as a man of patience

and perspective, accepted his son’s decision, and welcomed him into

his firm. Gradually Stark won business, often by accepting payment

over time — $50 a week in one case — or by taking on work

no one else would. In one such case, involving a building contract

dispute between John McShain, a high-profile contractor, and the State

of New Jersey, he won big.

The contractor, who had built the Kennedy Center, and who invariably

pulled out a brown bag lunch made by his wife when dining in upscale

restaurants, refused to give him any money upfront. It was a difficult

case, one that Stark knew would go on for a year or two and would

be difficult to win. The contractor wanted to seal their relationship

only with a handshake and an agreement to pay Stark one-third of any

award. His father said he was crazy to even consider it.

He did take it, though, and won, despite the fact that then Governor

Richard Hughes had told him that he had been the contractor’s attorney

of choice "because no other lawyer in his right mind would have

bankrolled McShain." The jury award was $922,212, a substantial

sum even now, but a fortune 30 years ago. One third went to Stark.

Stark’s first impulse was to give his father’s firm its cut, and to

buy a house. But his father suggested another alternative. "Wouldn’t

you like your own team?" the elder Stark asked. He took a small

amount, paid the taxes on the entire fee, and encouraged his son to

use the rest to build a law firm.

In a book that exposes the jitters not only of young attorneys, but

also of fledgling entrepreneurs, Stark chooses to follow the advice,

but with substantial reluctance. "I wondered what it would take

to build a law firm and run not only a practice, but a business?"

he writes. Even years later, as he ends his book at about the time

of his 40th birthday, he wonders in a conversation with his father

if "someday, I’ll develop my career to the point I truly enjoy

it."

"Controlling or creating your own destiny isn’t a picnic, is it?"

his father replies.

In the years since the time that Stark and his father

had this talk, law has become — if not a picnic — then certainly

a richly fulfilling life for him. He had started out to become an

urban development lawyer, only to see that door close when he realized

that he did not have the political connections to win work. He then

explored a number of areas of law as clients with all kinds of cases

presented themselves. Finally, he settled on personal injury law,

and specifically on representing clients with brain injuries suffered

as the result of accidents.

Sometimes called "ambulance chasers," personal injury lawyers

don’t always enjoy the highest reputation. How does he feel about

the pejorative nickname? How does he react when he reads derisive

articles about the huge fees paid in some cases?

"It’s true," is his surprising answer, delivered with some

heat. "There are ambulance chasers. There are people who charge

fees that are excessive."

Stark professes to practice in the field because the clients he serves,

who pay him a portion of any award or settlement they receive, would

never have a day in court otherwise. He mentions a Slovakian

roofer, injured on the job, whom he represented recently. He spent

$40,000 on the case, but the witnesses, illegal aliens, were afraid

to testify. He was not able to win the case, and received no payment

at all. He says that his client expressed gratitude anyway, telling

him that in his country he would never have been able to even bring

a case.

Stark first became enamored of personal injury law when he represented

a man who had been badly injured in a fork lift accident. After winning

an award against the trucking company responsible for the accident,

he visited the client and his wife, and saw the difference the award

had made in their lives. "The thrill of winning a case for a client

who was unable to afford a lawyer and who had put his blind faith

in me was indescribable. Never had I imagined that getting money for

someone could be so rewarding," Stark writes.

Stark came to his specialty within that field as he accompanied his

wife to rehabilitation sessions in New York. She and their son, Jared,

had been partially paralyzed during the child’s birth, in what Stark

believes to be a case of malpractice. Jared, now a professor of comparative

literature at Cornell, recovered completely, as did his mother, although

advice to avoid exposure to X-Rays ended her plans to become a doctor.

In watching their rehabilitation, Stark became interested in neurology.

He is passionate on the subject of the suffering not only of the brain-injured,

but also of their families. "It changes everything," he says.

Cases sometimes take years to work their way through the courts or

to settlement, and he becomes close to his clients. Asked about the

oil painting of goose floating down a river, the only piece of art

in his office, he beams. "A brain injured client painted it for

me," he says. Other clients, some whose cases ended decades ago,

stop in regularly.

Stark has gone after landlords, trucking companies, contractors, manufacturers,

car companies, and a host of other entities implicated in creating

conditions or designing products that contributed to brain injury.

But he has never sued a doctor. Not once. And this despite the fact

that he believes his wife and son were injured through malpractice.

"I can’t," he says. "In the kinds of cases I handle, I

see the most fabulous work done by doctors. They do unbelievable things

to save patients and to put them back together again. I won’t sue

a doctor. Other people do. People in my firm do. But I won’t."

He did do research on the facts surrounding the injuries his wife

and son suffered. When his son turned 18, he gave him the material.

"I gave him a choice," he says. "He could sue or not.

He had two years to decide." His son quickly decided not to sue.

Stark has decided not to write about the cases he has handled in the

years after his book ends. He says many friends are asking for a sequel,

but he doesn’t want to write one. The cases he handles are just too

sad, he says, and he is too close to his clients.

He thinks his next book — after his murder mystery — will

be an exploration of what brain-injured people have done with the

money they received in awards. He has observed that many such individuals

show great creativity in compensating for what they have lost. One

client had been an avid outdoorswoman. After being injured, and winning

an award, she set about to create intricate gardens on her property

and hired an artist to come in and teach her to draw them. Stark says

that such results are common, and that he is interested in documenting

them.

For now, though, he is busy finishing Outrage and promoting Beyond

the Bar. He is selling the book for $100, and giving all proceeds

to Leadership Trenton. During a recent fundraiser, sales of the book

brought in $65,000.

Although he and his wife now live in Princeton, Stark remains close

to Trenton. His roots are there. His great-grandfather, Samuel Meyer

Stark, was the first Orthodox rabbi in the city, ministering to Jewish

families in the 1870s and 1880s.

Lou Stark, the rabbi’s son, was supposed to become a cantor. But Lou

and his wife took their talents to vaudeville, singing and playing

the piano in minstrel shows in Trenton theaters. Later Lou started

a grocery store, which failed during the Depression. Stark’s father

filed the bankruptcy papers.

Stark graduated from Trenton High School, attended Dartmouth, and

earned his law degree from Penn. A newspaper clipping on the wall

of his office tells of his tennis prowess as an 11-year-old competing

in Cadwalader Park. He played at Dartmouth, too, and became the 16th-ranked

junior in the country.

He still enjoys tennis, and perhaps more surprisingly, given earlier

doubts, loves both the practice and the business of law. During that

40th birthday discussion with his father, when he wondered if he would

ever come to a point where he enjoyed his work, he fretted about what

he saw as the typical condition of the 50 or 60-year-old lawyer. Misery.

That he has not ended up miserable, he says, is due in large part

to relying on a business consulting firm. He credits his counselors

with allowing him to concentrate on the work he loves — and to

avoid that which he doesn’t — through turning over the management

of his firm to partners. He did so in 1990, and has been free of most

of the details of running the business ever since. He remains in constant

touch with Chuck Santangelo, a consultant with a Florida-based firm,

described by Stark as a "silent partner."

Stark & Stark, a full-service firm that had just 12 attorneys as recently

as the 1980s, now has some 80 attorneys, a staff of over 200, and

offices in three cities. It is the largest law firm in the Princeton

area. In his book, Stark writes that his father was largely content

with a small, slow-paced practice and not initially thrilled to have

his son join — and substantially grow — his firm. Stark himself,

the young Stark in "Beyond the Bar," was also ambivalent about

growth when he first began to manage the practice. But, by taking

the advice of his consultant, he has been able to reap the advantages

of growth without having it take over his life.

Rachel Lilienthal Stark, Stark’s daughter, is among the Stark & Stark

attorneys. Like her brother, the professor, however, she is not interested

in the high-stakes adversarial life of a personal injury attorney.

Her specialty is intellectual property.

Stark writes about how much the practice of law changed from the time

his father began to practice and the time he began his legal career.

In the depths of the Depression, most lawyers practiced alone. "There

were no such things as the billable hour, time sheets, or hour requirements.

Lawyers actually put their feet on the desk and thought about a legal

problem. You could put something in the mail and not worry about a

response for a month. You billed clients when you thought about it."

And what of the changes in the intervening years? "Young lawyers

are smarter than we were," Stark replies. A reason, he believes,

is more rigorous law school admission standards. Another difference

is diversity. "It’s changed from an old boy network," he says.

"Women have added a lot to the profession. There have been an

increase in African Americans, Asians, Pan Asians. The profession

is a lot more open and a lot less judgmental."


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