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Next ATLA boss a “true believer” By Earl Ainsworth
(Reprinted with the permission of New Jersey Lawyer copyright (2003))
When clients enter the office of veteran trial lawyer Brian D. Drazin, they often say they are embarrassed because they are not the type to sue.
He immediately sets them straight, telling them not to be taken in by so-called tort reformers who want to deny wronged litigants their legitimate right to compensation.
For Drazin who in two months becomes president of the Association of Trial Lawyers Of America-New Jersey (ATLA), not delivering such a message — even before discussing the particulars of a client’s case — is a sin of omission, a missed opportunity to tell it like it is. It’s the chance to explain that it’s not trial lawyers’ livelihoods at stake, but the right of folks to bring their complaints to court.
In that regard, Drazin is an unabashed, self-appointed missionary. In fact, colleagues say he’s a passionate true believer who lives the issues and wears his emotions and commitment on his sleeve.
When talking to parents who’ve lost a child in a wrongful death case, he says there isn’t a time he doesn’t think of his own four children and experience a lump of emotion.
“It’s tough to look across that desk and tell them about the ‘terrible equation’ that, in New Jersey, permits them to recover only the economic value of their child’s services,” he says, referring to what he and other trial attorneys see as an unfairly restrictive wrongful death statute.
But colleagues note that anyone who might believe such reactions are the sign of a softy quickly learn a tough lesson.
Drazin is no pushover, as many losing adversaries have discovered the hard way over the years.
And when he assumes ATLA’s presidency in June, he intends to make a difference — not just with pressing issues in the legislature, but in how ATLA members get their views to the public.
He wants missionaries.
He’ll need them.
He’ll be up to his neck in hot issues and crucial causes, some that have been hanging around for years and others that have been on the front burner for just months.
With medical malpractice insurance — reform stalled between the Senate and Assembly over caps on pain and suffering awards and a possible reworking of, the state’s no-fault auto insurance system, Drazin faces what West Orange attorney Abbott S. Brown calls “enormous challenges.”
Taking the leadership reins when two critical issues for trial lawyers are in play, says Brown, is like a pitcher coming into a baseball game in the ninth inning with the score tied.
Drazin, a partner at the family firm Drazin and Warshaw, P.C. in Red Bank and Hazlet that includes brothers Dennis and Ronald, knows what he faces.
“Sometimes, I feel like I’m standing there watching the game, with the other players twice my size and the coach is sending me in!” he jokes.
But if he’s intimidated, it doesn’t show. In fact, he’s eager to engage. He brings to the job a polished, well-spoken manner and culture of advocacy, both of which trace back 56 years to when his father, noted trial attorney Louis M. Drazin, founded the firm. Behind the smooth demeanor lies something those who know him best say drives him — passion.
“When I think of Brian, I think of his passion for getting justice for people,” says Brown.
Passaic attorney Richard H. Wildstein, who will succeed Drazin next year, calls him “a determined advocate from consumer rights to all aspects of the civil justice system.”
Outgoing ATLA President, Bruce H. Stern, who has had Drazin at his side in Trenton for much of the past year, agrees.
“Brian is like his dad was and the way his firm is to this day. He doesn’t fold and take what’s offered. He’s not afraid to go to war.”
Drazin is quick on his feet, both ‘on and off the tennis court, where he gave as good as he got on the high school team. His ability to serve and volley translates to the way he articulates the issues.
Confronted with an issue like caps on noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases, he lays out his position in the simplest of terms.
In fact, what could be perceived as a self-serving argument for fatter legal fees, in Drazin’s hands, is a clear, convincing argument for access to civil justice.
“Before doctors talk about capping compensation, they should explain how they’re going to cap pain and suffering,” he says, twisting the scalpel a bit.
“Brian has those finely honed trial lawyer skills,” says Brown.
Wildstein calls him “politically adroit.” To that end, Drazin isn’t inclined to take what’s on the table in Trenton on medical malpractice and auto insurance.
Though some lawyers view the stalled effort in the legislature to enact caps as a victory of sorts, Drazin doesn’t see it that way.
He wants a law that utilizes some of the constructive reforms from the current med-mal bill. One example is a provision to improve discovery by eliminating defendant doctors who would file an affidavit of non-involvement if applicable. He’d also like a strong reporting system for the small number of doctors responsible for the majority of claims.
Drazin may well see such a law during his watch. He says he’s encouraged that ATLA’s message is being heard and that enlightened lawmakers realize that “caps impose hardships on women, children and other groups without wages” for measuring economic damages. Key Trenton lawmakers like Assembly Speaker Albio Sires and Majority Leader Joseph Roberts have pledged to oppose caps.
No-fault auto insurance is another issue where he sees progress, though that may be more wishful thinking than reality. ATLA has been trying unsuccessfully for decades to unravel no-fault. Not a year has elapsed without the organization saying it believes it has a shot, only to get nowhere. But Drazin isn’t fazed by naysayers.
“We have had a year in which to make our message understandable and appealing to everyone, thanks to Bruce Stern’s efforts. Now that we have a package that supports our argument, we need to go out and sell it.”
A prime opportunity will be mid-May, when the Assembly is expected to hold hearings on the Senate bill containing relaxation of regulations on automobile insurance providers.
Drazin says the proposed reforms designed to allow insurance companies to make more money are “something I can’t imagine will work,” adding, “Deregulation didn’t work in telecommunications and it won’t work in insurance.”
While Gov. James E. McGreevey’s administration is proposing the reforms to attract more carriers to the state, premiums inevitably will rise, Drazin says, and so will the pressure on the governor to do something about it.
Drazin also hopes he will be able to move on reform of the state’s wrongful death statute, which he describes as “an insult” to survivors.
And, the environment for revamping may be improving.
“Since the Sept. 11 disaster, I think we have seen a resurgence of compassion for victims and families,” he says.
Though crowded off the agenda the past year by other issues, the wrongful death reforms ATLA supports are in S-667 and A-1509 both of which expand types of recoverable damages to include loss of society, companionship, comfort, marital care, parental care, filial care, advice, counsel, training, guidance and education.
He plans to emphasize and expand ATLA’s coordinated communication initiative begun by Stern. That includes day-to-day advocacy by individual lawyers, enlisting clients to tell their experiences, and continuing the relationship with the new public relations firm, Oxford Communications, “We have to do a better job to win the heart and soul of the very public whose interest we are trying to serve,” says Drazin.
And that means taking a page from the medical profession.
In his view, doctors have had a more-coordinated approach to communication than lawyers. “If you look at the Medical Society of New Jersey, their message is caps on non-economic damages. They have harped on that. They don’t even engage in the debate on other issues. They don’t even talk about weeding out bad doctors. If it’s in their thought process, it’s never voiced in public.”
Now, though, ATLA is making progress. But the effort can’t end with hiring a PR firm, Drazin says. He wants to mobilize ATLA’s membership in the kind of personal advocacy he already practices. He thinks it’s worth a lawyer’s time to give clients a brief talk about access to the justice system.
“We have to do a better job to win the heart and soul of the very public whose interest we are trying to serve.”— Brian D. Drazin
“Say to them, ‘I’ll look at your case, but first let me talk to you about whether you are going to have the right to sue and whether you are willing to stand up for those rights for yourself and your family.'”
This continuing commitment and drafting clients to “put a face on the issues have to come from the heartland of our organization,” he states. In’ that regard, he believes more smaller firms and solos are getting involved rather than’ leaving such efforts to large firms. And he notes the donations to ATLA’s invigorated public relations campaign are from small and large firms alike.
Drazin is the youngest of three sons in a lawyering family where, he jokes, “they put trial law in the baby formula.” His father died 15 years ago, but is still a towering figure in Drazin’s life. When he reviews his career, it’s the moments with his father after important victories that bring smiles to his face.
“It was truly special,” he says of their relationship.
As a teen-ager, Drazin was interested in medicines He did his undergraduate work at Franklin and Marshall College, where he met his wife, Beth.
In fact, he was in pre-med there. Were it not for his distaste for organic chemistry, Drazin might well be a doctor.
But the draw of the family firm with his older brothers was strong and he attended law school at Emory University. Before joining the family firm, he clerked for Superior Court Judges Lawrence Weiss and Edward W. Beglin Jr. in 1982 and 1983.
During that period, the landmark pollution case New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection v. Ventron Corp. was decided. It held previous owners of a mercury processing site in the Hackensack area strictly liable for mercury pollution during the company’s ownership. Drazin was intrigued by the case and thought it paved the way for a new frontier in representing clients who had been harmed by polluters. He talked to his father, who questioned whether he could ever find cases like that in the suburbs.
Little did father and son realize that the firm would bring a case from the suburbs that would be one of the biggest environmental torts of its time to be cited alongside Ventron in many subsequent cases.
The case Drazin calls the “battle of a lifetime” was Kenney v. Scientific, Inc. It involved the dumping of toxic waste in the Kin Buc landfill in Edison, had more than 100 plaintiffs, 300 defendants and took place at the same time as Andersen v. WR. Grace, which was the basis for the film A Civil Action.
The court in Kenney held that people who generate toxic waste and landfill operators are automatically liable, even when it’s disposed of legally because the nature of the waste is “abnormally hazardous.”
The case, which settled, took about five years, and taught the Drazin brothers enduring lessons.
“Selecting only those claims where there are recognized, demonstrable damages is essential in order to preserve resources, time and energy to advance the claims in a case like this,” says Drazin. Later, when speaking on the subject to a group of lawyers, his brother Dennis had this advice: “The first thing to do before taking one of these cases is to book a series of appointments with a good psychiatrist.” Drazin says taking command of ATLA is a dream come true, though there are a couple other aspects of his life that admittedly run deeper in importance. And that may tell much about the nature of the man.
“Nothing will ever make me as proud as being the father of four great kids and the son of a man like Lou Drazin. But the ATLA presidency is a close second.”
Reach special projects director Earl Ainsworth at email@example.com.