Obituaries

Roscoe Trimmier Jr., at 71; pioneering trial lawyer at Ropes & Gray

Mr. Trimmier helped to choose and train young lawyers.
Mr. Trimmier helped to choose and train young lawyers.

A line divided Roscoe Trimmier Jr.’s life into before and after. There was the segregated South of his youth, and then his adult years studying at Harvard and working for Ropes & Gray, a top Boston law firm.

“One of the ironies of my life is that I spent the first 18 years almost solely interacting with black people,” he told the Boston Business Journal in 2009, when he retired after 35 years at the firm. “The rest of my life is just the opposite.”

As he rose to become the first African-American partner at Ropes & Gray, and a fellow of the prestigious American College of Trial Lawyers, he helped elevate the careers of others. He sought opportunities for a wide variety of young attorneys, particularly those neither white nor male and who, like him, came from a less affluent background than the lawyers blue-chip firms traditionally hire.

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“Roscoe has left behind multiple legacies,” said Wayne Budd, the first African-American US attorney in Massachusetts and now senior counsel at Goodwin Procter. “Roscoe was really highly regarded as a truly outstanding litigator, and was highly respected by the bar for his accomplishments as a lawyer. He also went beyond what he did for his own career with what he did for others in their careers. He served as a mentor and a door-opener to so many of the young lawyers.”

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Mr. Trimmier, whose opinions and professional wisdom were sought by colleagues throughout his life, died of cancer Thursday while in hospice care in Needham. He was 71 and had retired to Miami after living many years in Brookline.

In 1991, for the 25th-anniversary report for his Harvard class, he wrote that he was “blessed to have a career that is fulfilling beyond its financial rewards. I am a convert who views the practice of law as a noble profession that can provide direct benefits to society.”

When it came to seeking counsel, colleagues went to Mr. Trimmier.

“There wasn’t a lawyer here who didn’t look up to Roscoe,” said Harvey Wolkoff, a partner at Ropes & Gray and a longtime friend. “Roscoe had the best judgment of any person I knew, and I mean not just of any lawyer, but of any person.”

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Anyone who asked for assistance would find that Mr. Trimmier was always willing to help out on cases, said Lisa Ropple, a former Ropes & Gray colleague who is now head of litigation at Staples Inc.

As a member of the hiring committee and the associates committee, he helped choose and train young lawyers and he worked “to expand opportunities and representation in the ranks of Ropes & Gray,” said Ropple, who formerly cochaired the firm’s litigation department with Mr. Trimmier. Their joint leadership role was an example, she added: “How many major law firms in the country, let alone in Boston, had an African-American and a female cochair a department — litigation in particular?”

The older of two brothers, Mr. Trimmier was born in Charlotte, N.C., where his mother, the former Susie Stitt, had been a domestic, and his father, Roscoe Sr., was a laborer who had worked in a warehouse and at a steel company, along with starting a window-washing company, said Mr. Trimmier’s brother, Donald of Weymouth.

Their father was also able to take apart and fix anything and he passed that can-do confidence to his son. At Harvard, Mr. Trimmier fixed TVs and gave haircuts in the dorms, said his companion of 30 years, Donna Zerwitz of Brookline. “I’m very much going to miss his DIYness,” she said. “He wouldn’t even read the instructions on things.”

During Mr. Trimmier’s youth in North Carolina, a math teacher at West Charlotte High School wanted him to apply to Harvard. “He took my brother under his wing and guided him through everything,” Donald Trimmier said.

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Initially majoring in engineering, Mr. Trimmier found Harvard’s academics challenging, after a public education in the segregated South. Taking a leave of absence, he was drafted in the mid-1960s and became an Army second lieutenant.

Stationed in West Germany, he assisted in military judicial proceedings, prompting him to pursue a legal career. He graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School and joined Ropes & Gray in 1974.

At the firm, where he was part of the environmental practice group, Mr. Trimmier helped represent the Massachusetts Port Authority in a longstanding runway expansion case, and represented utilities and other corporate clients. Along with being elected to the invitation-only American College of Trial Lawyers, he was named to lists including the Best Lawyers in America and Massachusetts Super Lawyers, according to the firm. Mr. Trimmier also chaired the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary and had been a member of organizations including the Massachusetts Black Lawyers Association.

His marriage of nearly 16 years to Gail Snowden, who was a longtime bank executive in Boston, ended in divorce.

Mr. Trimmier encouraged their daughter, Leigh S. Merritt, to look beyond gender roles and told her, “Don’t be afraid to excel,” she recalled. He encouraged her to be kind and considerate, and to respect others, she said, adding: “For the rest of my life I’m going to have those ‘a-ha’ moments about things he taught me.”

Work demanded many hours from Mr. Trimmier, said Zerwitz, who formerly was director of public information for the National Bureau of Economic Research. He took on many cases and “his clients always came first,” she said, adding that “post-retirement was the best time of our lives. We enjoyed spending time together in the Miami area.”

In addition to Zerwitz, his daughter, his brother, and his former wife, Mr. Trimmier leaves his mother, who lives in Weymouth, and a grandchild.

A private burial is planned and a public memorial service will be announced.

Mr. Trimmier was quick with a one-liner, and “there was nobody that I laughed with more,” Wolkoff recalled.

In retirement “he owned every place he went,” said Joan Lukey, a former colleague who is now a partner at Choate Hall & Stewart. “He’d walk around his very lovely condo complex and everybody knew him. He had an aura of openness and caring for everyone.”

Mr. Trimmier, she recalled, “used to say that the only one who hadn’t asked for advice was the iguana who lived under the bush next to the ocean. If you had a problem or an issue or a request, you could always go to Roscoe. He had perfect judgment and always had time. Even the iguana came out from under the bush while we were walking around, and probably wanted advice, too.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.