When Sheldon Schlesinger walks into a courtroom, he’s ready to take on the country’s biggest corporations. “I’m known as the equalizer, because I can meet them pound for pound,” says the veteran Fort Lauderdale plaintiff’s attorney. “Through the years, I have had the privilege of helping people who have suffered enormous injuries. I feel fortunate to serve my clients.”
Through the decades, Schlesinger has taken on automobile manufacturers, pharmaceutical companies and large hospitals in personal injury, products liability and medical malpractice cases. In 1995, he was a member of the legal team that successfully sued cigarette maker Liggett Group and the tobacco industry on behalf of the State of Florida, resulting in a landmark settlement of more than $13 billion.
In 2011, Schlesinger, the founding partner and CEO of Sheldon J. Schlesinger, P.A. in Fort Lauderdale, was inducted into The Trial Lawyer Hall of Fame. For over 50 years, he has represented individuals and families in landmark cases across the nation. He is a member of the Inner Circle of Trial Advocates, an elite organization of the nation’s 100 top trial lawyers, and been honored by many other legal groups.
Reflecting on his career, Schlesinger says that plaintiffs trial lawyers have made the country a safer place for all citizens through what he calls “therapeutic verdicts.” For example, Schlesinger won the first plaintiffs’ products liability case against Toyota in the U.S. and one of the largest such cases against General Motors in the 1990s. “These were horrendous cases involving post-collision, fuel-fed fire cases with a number of deaths,” he says. “Since then, there are far fewer post-collision, fuel-fed fires. If a vehicle is hit from the rear, it doesn’t explode and turn into an inferno. That’s a result of the verdicts against the auto companies all over the country.”
Schlesinger adds that the trial process has also resulted in safety improvements in the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries. “Although hospitals and physicians have sought immunity from lawsuits, that legislation would not lead to a reduction of negligent care. It’s only the fact that providers can be held accountable for their mistakes that can reduce the number of these malpractice cases.”
With his many high-profile cases through the years, Schlesinger has been the subject of numerous interviews and stories in newspapers, magazines and television. He has appeared in Time Magazine, People Magazine, Forbes Magazine, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and has appeared on “60 Minutes,” “20/20,” “The Phil Donahue Show,” and numerous other programs.
After the conclusion of a lengthy medical malpractice trial in which Schlesinger represented a severely crippled young woman against a large prominent hospital and emerged victorious, the presiding judge entered a court order describing Schlesinger as “one of the most experienced and skilled attorneys which the Florida Bar has to offer,” and that Schlesinger’s “experience and ability in medical malpractice litigation is exceeded by no one.”
A Brooklyn Accent
Schlesinger was born in New York, and still speaks with a Brooklyn accent. “I always knew I wanted to be an attorney,” he says, noting that his high school yearbook lists “attorney” under his name. Schlesinger came to South Florida in 1948, and earned his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Miami. He joined The Florida Bar in 1955 and remains active 57 years later.
“When I started in the mid 1950s, a personal injury case lasted two or three days,” Schlesinger says. “It was one-on-one with the defense attorney and you had to be ready to stand and deliver. In my first case, I was well prepared with the facts, but didn’t know where to stand or how to move around in the courtroom.”
Today, Schlesinger has a model courtroom in his 10-attorney office building, where he conducts mock trials to give clients a feel for the atmosphere of being in court. “I’m proud to say I’ve never lost a case in our courtroom,” Schlesinger says with a smile.
Asked what makes a good trial lawyer, Schlesinger says, “You have to walk a mile in your client’s shoes. Then you have to be willing to go the distance, since these cases require tremendous amounts of time and money.” He also emphasizes the importance of putting in long hours preparing for trial. “It’s not a matter of fancy footwork in the courtroom. It’s a matter of understanding what the case is about.” In a medical malpractice case, for example, a good plaintiff’s attorney knows what went wrong, why the problem occurred and is familiar with the details as well. “When a professional takes the stand as an expert witness, you have to know as much about that topic as he does,” Schlesinger says. “And he has to know that you are also an expert, so if he embarks on gamesmanship, he finds himself in deep trouble.”
However, Schlesinger says corporate America has been steadily chipping away at the jury trial system through the years. “They would like to put a chain on the courthouse door with a big lock,” he says. “Trial lawyers have kept them from doing that so far. But I’m wondering how the costs and protracted nature of plaintiffs’ cases will affect our younger lawyers. How well will they be able to represent sorely injured individuals?”
That’s both a professional and a personal issue for Schlesinger. His sons Gregg and Scott are attorneys who practice with him in the Fort Lauderdale office. “Both have multimillion dollar verdicts under their belts for cases they have tried in a courtroom on their own two feet,” he says. “I’m proud of their ability to represent our clients.”
Schlesinger and his wife Barbara recently celebrated their 57th anniversary, and enjoy spending time with their children and six grandchildren. “I also enjoy fishing and restoring antique cars, including several Ford Model As,” Schlesinger adds.
Schlesinger is also one of Broward’s civic leaders and a long-time supporter of the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, the American Cancer Society and other charitable organizations. He has served as a member of the board of governors of Nova Southeastern Law Center. Schlesinger also served as chairman of the board of trustees of Broward Community College (BCC) for 13 years.
“I believe strongly that education should be available to everyone,” he says. “At BCC, one of my primary concerns was to keep costs affordable so the college could serve as a springboard to undergraduate and graduate degrees. It was education that gave me the opportunity to be a successful trial lawyer, and I want to be sure that future generations have the same opportunity.”
South Florida Legal Guide Midyear 2012 Edition
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