Alan Epstein is not your typical employment lawyer. An avid sailor and aspiring playwright, he took a two-year sabbatical to sail the Delaware, the Atlantic coastline and the Caribbean at a time when others might consider him at the height of his career.
Epstein values the pursuit of a life rich with new experiences and views his work for employees and other workers as protecting their own right to opportunity.
Following that two-year sailing stint, Epstein received national attention for his representation of attorney Scott Burr in his wrongful dismissal case against a prominent Philadelphia law firm, in a closely watched HIV/AIDS discrimination case in the early-to-mid ‘90s. Trial took place just after the general release of the iconic film, “Philadelphia,” starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, that mirrored the facts of the case Epstein tried. This was in the midst of the AIDS crisis, when homophobia was common and misunderstandings about the disease were rampant, including a pervasive fear that it could be spread by close contact. Since the film and Scott Burr’s matter were almost identical, any potential juror who had seen the film was carefully scrutinized, but not automatically dismissed for cause. Of greater concern in the jury selection process was the fact that over 80 percent of the large venire of 250 potential jurors completed lengthy questionnaires stating that they had personal or moral beliefs against homosexuality and a fear of casual contact at work with anyone who had been diagnosed as HIV-positive.
Discrimination in the workplace continues to be an important focus for Epstein, with his recent representation of an older female senior sales executive who sued her employer, a national healthcare provider, for wrongful dismissal and discrimination based on age and gender. The case settled for an undisclosed amount.
Epstein is also something of a pioneer in the area of private dispute resolution, having founded Judicate, Inc., in the ’80s which tapped former judges for mediations and later went public.
Epstein regularly volunteers his time to pro bono efforts and court-related functions and serves as a board member and officer of several local and national organizations. He earned his B.A. and law degree both from Temple University in Philadelphia, and currently serves as the Chair of the Employment Law Practice Group of Spector Gadon Rosen Vinci.
Lawdragon: Will you please describe for our readers the types of matters you tend to handle for employees or other workers?
Alan Epstein: I handle a myriad of matters for individuals, including employees, corporate board members and licensed professionals, ranging from the provision of transactional advice to full litigation representation.
Issues include general employment rights; employment contract interpretation; professional responsibility and resultant disciplinary matters relating to the practice of law, medicine, accountancy, pharmacy and architecture; licensing and disciplinary issues raised against financial and banking brokers and executives; individual responsibility related to executive officers; and board governance issues governed by federal, state and local statutes and ordinances.
I also give advice about and litigate cases concerning constitutional torts including unlawful government intrusions and defamation of individuals by institutions.
LD: How did this practice develop for you?
AE: I was for the first eight years of my practice employed by a firm that represented unions and litigated employment-related injury lawsuits for union members. When I and three of my fellow associates left that practice, I began concentrating my individual practice on the rights of individuals in the workplace and the civil rights of government employees and individual citizens and continue to do so today.
LD: What are some aspects about representing employees and workers that you find professionally satisfying? What keeps you excited about it?
AE: Protecting the important liberties of, and advising about personal responsibilities to, individuals is a very satisfying way of making a living. It is not only the way I can best serve my clients and society as a whole, but it also allows me to constantly create new and effective approaches to protections that are the essence of our democracy.
LD: Out of all the work you’ve done in your career, what would you say is the most interesting matter you’ve handled?
AE: Only because it caused the greatest attention by reason of the movie “Philadelphia” and its daily on-air coverage by Court TV, the case I litigated for an attorney with AIDS who was fired by a Philadelphia-based law firm with a national reputation and practice was my most interesting.
Scott Burr was the subject of the case, and he stands out as one of the most brilliant and courageous lawyers I have ever known. He, like the character portrayed by Tom Hanks in the movie, undertook his own representation long before I became involved, only shortly before motions for summary judgment were filed. It was several months after the denial of summary judgment motions based in important part on the issue of whether AIDS impeded essential life functions that the trial then began in October 1994. We lost Scott last year due to an unrelated disease process attacking his compromised immune system, but only after he spent many years as a successful complex litigation practitioner. He remains my ultimate litigation hero.
A close second was a discrimination/defamation case I handled by an orthopedic physician that first was the subject of an important Third Circuit opinion regarding ADA Title III protections for staff physicians and then a defamation trial after 23 years of litigation that ended in a record-setting defamation verdict in a Pennsylvania county Court of Common Pleas.
LD: Are there any trends you are seeing in your practice in terms of the types of matters keeping you busy these days?
AE: Yes. Workplace issues relating to high-level corporate employees, board members and professionals including contract interpretation, post-employment rights and obligations, corporate governance issues and discrimination have more than ever been omnipresent in the employment landscape, complicated by the ever-increasing reliance on high tech and social modes of communication.
LD: What are some challenges unique to representing employees in today’s world compared to earlier in your career?
AE: The over-reliance on discovery in litigation and the problems associated with electronic storage and device exploration. How courts will deal with those important issues is constantly evolving.
LD: Will you tell us about a recent matter that you’ve handled?
AE: Because of privacy concerns and attorney-client privilege constraints, I cannot provide the details of a case I recently settled for a highly-placed older female sales employee that gave rise to her federal lawsuit based upon the intersection of gender and age. That sex-plus claim was the subject of a recent settlement on the eve of trial only after the company's motion for summary judgment was denied by the court. The facts and circumstances presented in that case were emblematic of the real-life difficulties women over the age of 50 suffer in the workplace.
LD: What challenges were you up against in representing this employee?
AE: The issue of discrimination against older women is not new, but the cogency of sex-plus-gender claims has only recently been the subject of a handful of court decisions.
LD: It’s about time! Do you think this settlement might have a larger impact, beyond justice for your client?
AE: Hopefully, more and more employers and entities, especially those in highly visible arenas like broadcasting, sales and board membership, will become increasing aware that discrimination against older women is against the law.
LD: Is there a specific lesson from this work or is there anything from it you will find especially memorable?
AE: No unique lessons, just a constant reminder that the value of each person serving a private or governmental entity deserves to be treated fairly and viewed equally in carrying out their workplace responsibilities.
LD: When and why did you first develop an interest in becoming a lawyer?
AE: My aunt, Ruth Honig, was one of the first and may have been the youngest woman to practice law in New Jersey and the United States and will always be on the top of my "heroes" list.
LD: Did you have experiences as an employee earlier in your life that played a role in how you shaped your career?
AE: My first employment as a lawyer cemented my belief that employees are the lifeblood of our society and economy and deserve equal and fair treatment by their employers.
LD: Is there a specific reason why you chose Temple for law school?
AE: I was a journalism and creative writing major in college and accordingly most other professional pursuits were foreclosed. I was in my formative years also very interested and participated in stage acting that made law school a likely choice.
LD: Was there a course, professor or experience that was particularly important in your decision to build a career representing employees?
AE: Not really… although one of my favorite teachers in law school was a traditional labor lawyer and professor, my current avocation arises more from my formative years in practice.
LD: Did you have mentors early on?
AE: Yes, the partners in the law firm that I joined directly after law school. I have had the good fortune of many mentors in my younger career days, but probably paramount in that group was the revered jurist A. Leon Higginbotham Jr. of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.
LD: What advice do you have for current law school students who hope to represent employees?
AE: The practice of labor and employment law is not the most lucrative practice, but if you want the opportunity to affect the lives of your clients, regularly meet the challenges of constitutional issues and once in a while get to have the figurative opportunity to “stroke Abraham Lincoln’s beard,” take up the practice of protecting the rights of individuals in the workplace.
LD: Has the practice of representing employees become more or less difficult now than at the outset of your career?
AE: Not any easier now. Just as challenging and equally satisfying.
LD: Can you share a lawyer you have come up against in a negotiation or case that you admire, and why?
AE: There are many opposing lawyers who were fierce advocates for their clients but always approached that advocacy with civility and professionalism. Too numerous to name here. Thankfully, they far outnumber those opposing practitioners who do not meet their standards in that regard.
LD: How would you describe your own style as a lawyer?
AE: I am a very strong and forceful advocate of my clients' rights, but always remain civil, courteous and calm, even when confronted with rude and uncivil opponents.
LD: What do you like about Spector Gadon, and how did you end up there?
AE: After many years of practice as a lawyer, first with a large labor/litigation firm and then in a small employment and civil rights law boutique, I created a corporate entity providing former judges as mediators and arbitrators, called Judicate, the National Private Court System. I took that company public and ran it for several years as the CEO. I then bought a large cruising catamaran, went sailing for two years mostly in the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean and then came back to the boutique practice. After getting tired of the responsibilities attendant to the daily tasks of a successful business, I joined my present firm to again concentrate on the practice of employment-related law and the singular and important tasks associated with the representation of clients. My firm has been wonderfully supportive of my efforts to "save the worlds” of the employees I represent and I continue to engage in a full-time and busy schedule doing just that.
LD: You also serve on the firm’s Executive Committee, correct? Are there challenges that come along with that?
AE: I am a member of the firm's Executive Committee, yes, but I never look at what I do in that respect as being challenging. It is simply additional work that is important to keep the firm headed in the best direction for lawyers, paralegals and staff members who work with us.
LD: There are many high-quality firms out there. What do you try to “sell” about your firm to potential recruits – how is it unique?
AE: We try hard not to "sell" our firm. Lawyers and clients are attracted to us based upon our reputation of being aggressive and effective advocates of our client’s needs. The phone rings and we always answer with enthusiastic promises to be the best representatives the putative clients could retain.
LD: What do you do for fun when you’re outside the office?
AE: In normal times, exercising, running, traveling and sailing. Lately, in light of the current situation, I’ve been reading and watching interesting movies and documentaries.
LD: Do you have a favorite book or movie about the justice system?
AE: “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I had the wonderful experience of meeting and spending the day with its author Harper Lee, an experience that I will always cherish and is preserved in a photo taken while we were engaged in conversation.
LD: If you weren’t a lawyer, what would you be doing now?
AE: Sailing around the world and writing the ultimate stage play relating the human experience. Move over Eugene O'Neill!