Martin E. Gerel
October 27, 1918 - April 1, 2011
On April 1 of this year the law firm of Ashcraft & Gerel sustained a great loss with the passing of our sole remaining founding partner and our mentor, Martin E. Gerel. It was my great fortune to have been hired by and worked so closely with Martin Gerel for so many years. I’ll be calling him Marty throughout this reminiscence, and I’ve been able to do that for a few years, but there was a time when I was positive I’d never be able to call him “Marty.” For me and for so many in our firm it was always Mr. Gerel. That was more than a function of age. It had something to do with the respect he engendered in everyone who dealt with him and the esteem, almost reverence, with which we held him.
Martin E. Gerel and Lee C. Ashcraft started Ashcraft & Gerel in 1953, at least one of them while still working full time for the US government. They started in a small walk up office in downtown DC. They had two offices side by side and a tiny reception area. Marty loved to tell of how they had to share the fan by putting it between both of their offices. There was, of course, no air conditioning and we all know how sweltering it can be in DC in the summer. When the rare new client would come to the office, the lawyer who was interviewing the client would get the one fan they could afford. The other would sit in the other office and keep calling the office to make it sound like they were busy.
These were humble beginnings. Marty used to tell of growing up in New York where his family was very poor. During one period they were living near the beach in Coney Island, and in the summer his family would earn money by moving the furniture to the sides in their apartment and allowing bathers to rent a place to change clothes and leave their things while at the beach. He would tell of how their apartment was only a few blocks from the subway and as a small boy it was his job to run down to the subway to find people getting off the train heading for the beach and talk them into using their apartment as a bath house.
So, what Martin Gerel built, he built from scratch. His college degree from American University, his 1947 masters degree in economics and his law degree from Georgetown University Law School in 1949 are only minor details along the path to what he became and built. He grew our law firm to as many as 50 lawyers and at times we’ve had offices not only throughout the DC area, but in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts as well.
On the beginnings of the firm, I actually have copies of Lee and Marty’s hand written tax returns for 1953 and 1954, prepared by Lee Ashcraft's wife, Vera Ashcraft, showing for 1953 gross receipts of $843.00. There is a long list of expenses in the total amount of $1009.00. Telephone service for the year was $196.00. Office door sign writer, $14.00. Magazine subscriptions, $21.83. Stationery, $122.47. Mimeographing, $90. Office supplies $16.22. Typewriter rental $16.00. Parking $2.50. Business lunches… $21.05.
Marty worked full time and effectively until just before the end. Court appearances were not possible, but he was in the office getting more done during a day than most of us. People would marvel at how a man at 92 years of age would keep working the way he did. They would ask him why he’s still working and he always said he loved the work and that’s why he kept on.
He really did love the practice of law and the representation of his clients. After Marty passed away we learned from a prominent retired judge that years earlier a member of a committee at the bar association approached Marty to ask if he would be interested in a judgeship. Marty declined the offer.
It is no exaggeration to say that Mr. Gerel possessed virtually all of the positive character traits that one can list. He was quiet, gentle, dignified, poised under pressure, gentlemanly, loyal, courageous, honorable and devoted to family and friends. On his passing, someone called him a gentle giant. He was a leader among men. At our partnership meetings he always sat at the head of the table, not because we have any special seating rules or formal procedures, and not because he sought or particularly wanted the leadership role or even the center of attention. He sat there because we wanted him there and we left the seat open for him until it became a habit. We all looked to him for guidance. He knew about timing, and he would listen to the debate for long periods and would plan his comments, which were always measured and temperate.
And he was very sensitive to the views of others, rarely willing to push his own views. He was a true role model for the lawyers in our firm. I can honestly tell you that I have never encountered a lawyer as tenacious and vigorous in his advocacy as Martin Gerel. Young lawyers would go into his office to brag about a good settlement offer, and he would always find a way to try to get them to ask for more. And some of you in the local defense bar will verify that in Marty’s own cases, he always did ask for more. Sometimes amounts that might make one cringe. But it always amazed me how often he would get most of what he asked.
He loved it when he would tell us of having gotten a settlement we predicted he never would get or of having won a case most of us would never have taken.
Mr. Gerel is best known for his pioneering work in the field of Workers’ Compensation, first in DC and then in Maryland. In September, 2001, in a ceremony at its annual convention before hundreds of individuals involved in the field of workers’ compensation in Maryland, Martin E. Gerel was presented with the first Lifetime Achievement award issued by the Maryland Workers’ Compensation Commission’s Workers’ Compensation Educational Association. The presentation was by Commissioner Lauren Sfekas, herself a former Ashcraft & Gerel lawyer. Her introductory comments about Mr. Gerel echo what so many of us knew to be the character and continue to experience as the legacy of Mr. Gerel:
“What I remember most about working for Mr. Gerel was his dedication and commitment to the needs of the injured worker. If an injured worker came through the doors of Ashcraft & Gerel, he could get a lawyer to vigorously represent him, even if it was a small case that might not generate any attorney’s fee. As attorneys at Mr. Gerel’s firm, when we received decisions from the Commission which we thought were unfair, we knew we were expected to do what Mr. Gerel would do — take an appeal. Such cases would sometimes take many hours of an attorney’s time but would generate only a minimal attorney’s fee. Worse yet, the firm would sometimes absorb litigation costs, including deposition fees and expert witness fees. In Mr. Gerel’s firm, we were never held accountable for such expenditures. For Mr. Gerel, it was the cost of doing business. He never put his personal finances or the finances of his law firm ahead of the needs of his clients.
Mr. Gerel clearly deserves this award for all that he has accomplished, but I believe he deserves it more for the kind of man he is. I would like to tell you one short story that I think will tell you a lot about Mr. Gerel. Not too long ago I was at a hearing and I overheard two attorneys talking. The one attorney said, “I was in Prince Frederick yesterday and I saw Marty Gerel trying a disfigurement case.” They both then chuckled. I knew what they were thinking. They were thinking, “If there’s a God in heaven, when I’m Mr. Gerel’s age, I won’t be 2 hours from my office trying a two bit case for a ten cent fee.” I also knew why Mr. Gerel was in Prince Frederick that day. He was in Prince Frederick because that’s what it took to represent his client. He was in Prince Frederick because he was doing his job. The fact that Mr. Gerel was 2 hours from home trying a disfigurement case is what separates Mr. Gerel from the ranks of the ordinary. The fact that Mr. Gerel was in Prince Frederick that day is what makes Mr. Gerel a great lawyer. The fact that Mr. Gerel was in Prince Frederick that day is what makes him a great man. Mr. Gerel, thank you for all you have done to make the workers’ compensation community a better place and congratulations on your receipt of the Alfred M. Porth Memorial Award.”
Throughout our firm and the legal community people are already sharing “Marty stories.” Space limitations have prevented me from sharing my own favorite anecdotes here, but if you, the reader, and I have occasion to talk in the future, I would love to tell you mine and listen to yours. And Marty, you are loved and missed.
Roger G. Samet