Published: 1:00 am Mon, December 2, 1996
By Claire Papanastasiou
Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly
This is another in a series of reports about Massachusetts lawyers who, because of their age and experience, are considered deserving of “senior status.” Those who know and love Boston lawyer Irving “Chick” Sheff are about to find out how Sheff really got the “Chick.” It’s not a sexy story, he says. And it doesn’t involve his wife of many years, Maxine. It’s just cute.“My Jewish name is Yeshieke,” explains the 74-year-old lawyer, in his 10 Tremont St. office. “And when I was young, my sister and brother couldn’t pronounce my name, so it became `Chick.’ Then everyone I knew started calling me `Chick.’”Sheff then flashes a wide smile — as if to say, “See, I told you it wasn’t such an exciting story after all.”Maybe, but it’s still cute.Sheff displays the energy and wit of a man 20 years his junior. Perhaps that vitality is due to the fact he is still practicing his passion — law.“It is rewarding when you have someone who is hurt, and you are able to help them,” says Sheff, looking back at his trial days.
A lawyer since 1951, Sheff had original designs of attending the Georgetown School of Diplomacy upon graduating from George Washington University. Sheff had enlisted in World War II while an undergraduate and later resumed his schooling, like many other young men at the time, on the GI Bill. He served four-and-a-half years with stints in the Signal Corps, Anti-Aircraft Division, 3rd Amphibious Marines and the Air Corps. He also landed in the 106th Infantry Division, whose destiny would be met at the Battle of the Bulge. However, right before the division was to set out for Europe, Sheff was among six men called to report for maneuvers in Indiana.“That was the start of the nucleus of a new company which kept my fanny here,” says Sheff, comically but fatefully. “The 106th had the biggest loss during the war.”Once back from duty, Sheff returned to school. Upon graduating, his professional aspirations toward government work changed when a fellow named Maurice Toronto asked Sheff to accompany him on a walk to George Washington University’s law school.“I told him I didn’t want to go to law school,” recalls Sheff. “He told me, `I don’t want you to apply, I just want you take a walk.’”They walked and ran into another guy, Rex. The three continued toward the law school.“Maurice takes an application and starts filling it out, and he says to me, `Take an application,’” relays Sheff. “I say, `I don’t want an application. I don’t want to go to law school.’ … Anyway, I take one and I make Rex take one. Rex didn’t get in. Toronto quit after the first week. … That’s how I became a lawyer.”And then he flashes that smile again.It wasn’t until after he started practicing in Boston did Sheff’s love for the law begin.“Once I started practice I used to work until midnight, 2 o’clock in the morning,” says Sheff.He joined the National Association of Claimants Compensation Attorneys (NACCA), the predecessor to the American Trial Lawyers Association. Through that association, he met top trial lawyer Melvin Belli and a slew of other trailblazers in litigation, and eagerly listened to them.“I could sit with them all day,” he says, noting that a Boston group of established lawyers, such as the late Abner R. Sisson, met regularly before the Massachusetts Academy of Trial Attorney was formed. “I was enthralled with them.”After a stint with the law office of Isadore H.Y. Muchnick, former head of the Boston School Committee, Sheff opened shop in downtown Boston in the mid 1950s.“I was my own boss from the get go,” he says. “I had good luck and good people.”Sheff, who won one of the state’s first liquor liability tort cases in the 1980s, has noticed a change in the trial bar.“Mediation and arbitration,” he says, almost sadly. While he appreciates the merits of alternative dispute resolution, he says nothing matches a victory at trial.“Getting a verdict is a high,” he says. “That’s where the kick is. Now, if you are a good penmanship man and write up a lot of stuff, you can get along and make a good living.”As for personal-injury cases, Sheff says the most common mistake lawyers make is not brushing up on their medical knowledge.“You must know medicine,” he says. “Everyone here is trained in medicine. In fact, we spend a good deal of time on the medical aspect of cases. … Most lawyers don’t speak to their doctors sufficiently and they bring them into court without preparing them for trial.”Sheff openly questions the merits of the “litigation explosion” and criticizes tort reform efforts in Washington, D.C. Such claims, he says, are indicative of the attacks lawyers have “always” endured.“Tort reform is the worst thing that they can ever do to the public,” he says, noting that being a trial attorney has nothing to do with this sentiment.Perhaps the biggest pleasure Sheff experiences today is working with his son, Douglas.“Before, I didn’t let him do everything, but now he runs the show,” says Sheff. “He’s a tremendous lawyer. I think he is one of the best young lawyers in this city, and maybe in this country. And I’m not just saying that because he is my son. I look at his position within the bar and his trial work.”In his 40-plus years, Sheff has had many talented lawyers work for him, and many have become successful politicians as well as judges.Sheff himself never entertained judicial aspirations, and he’s very honest why he never ventured down that path.“I like my privacy,” he says, adding that a judgeship would also not cut it financially. “I did what I wanted to do. … And I enjoy what I am doing now and I am perfectly content.”