Bob Friebert was a legal legend in Wisconsin – admired for his dogged pursuit of clients’ interests, his mentoring of scores of upcoming attorneys and his brilliant litigation skills that included four oral arguments before the United States Supreme Court.
“He was a tenacious attorney,” Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said in a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel obituary. “Anyone who hired him was going to get someone who would fight for them.”
Summarizing an appeal that Bob won at the U.S. Supreme Court, founding partner Tom St. John said, “Bob had been right all along. It just took a while, and he never gave up. That has been a hallmark of Bob's practice.”
Born in Milwaukee in 1938, Bob received his law degree in 1962 from the University of Wisconsin. Bob served as an assistant U.S. Attorney after graduation until 1964, and as the state of Wisconsin’s first public defender, from 1966 to 1968.
Bob was the consummate litigator. He was lead counsel on 120 cases and 80 reported appeals in addition to his four arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court, a number rarely seen for a non-Washington lawyer. He also had many arguments in the Wisconsin Supreme Court and in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
“Bob litigated anything that required the courts for resolution,” St. John explained.
Bob represented businesses and individuals, sometimes championing unpopular causes and positions. This work included successful defenses of Father James Groppi, a ‘60s activist jailed by the Wisconsin Legislature; the editor of an underground newspaper charged with publishing obscenities; and a gynecologist who ran an abortion clinic.
“Freedom of expression, fundamental fairness and protection of the rights of others were what Bob cared about deeply as a human being,” St. John said. “Bob spent a lifetime protecting free speech but opposing language that was truly harmful to people: bullying, racism, anti-Semitism and hate crimes.”
Working with both sides of the political aisle, Bob was one of Wisconsin’s – and the nation’s – go-to attorneys for elected officials.
Political commentator James Rowen wrote:
Calling Bob Friebert an expert on politics and election laws, as his obituary did this week, is a little like describing Bob Dylan as a harmonica player. It greatly understates his impact and involvement in Wisconsin politics over the last several decades.
Just a partial listing will give an idea of the breadth of his participation. Friebert was involved with every Democratic governor of Wisconsin from Pat Lucey to Jim Doyle – and no doubt some even before that. He was Al Gore's state campaign chairman in his first presidential run in 1988, and continued a long association with Gore ever since, including 2000 when Gore won the presidency but never got to take office.
Friebert and his partner, John Finerty, had a hand in scores, if not hundreds, of campaigns for state and local office, including many judicial races ranging from local judgeships to the State Supreme Court.
One of Bob’s lasting legacies will be his mentoring of other attorneys, including most members of Friebert, Finerty & St. John. As Tom St. John said in the Journal Sentinel obituary: “Bob mentored attorneys throughout the country over the years who have since become enormously successful attorneys. They all have ingrained in them Bob's love for the law, as well as his sense of moral responsibility and ethics. He was not only the best lawyer I ever knew, but the most honorable lawyer.”
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