Lincoln Lawyer Balances Business, Passion

Published in the Lincoln Journal Star on December 25, 2005

His canary yellow tie matches his neatly folded handkerchief matches the photograph of a wildflower hanging in the lobby.

Herb Friedman shot all the photographs of flowers scattered throughout the otherwise utilitarian third-floor law office at 633 S. Ninth St.

The longtime lawyer is well-known in Lincoln for his contentious cases and his television commercials.

That’s one side of his life.

He’s also passionate about the works of Gilbert and Sullivan – particularly “Pirates of Penzance” – and quotes at length Robert W. Service, the people’s poet.

He writes letters to the editor defending lawyer advertising and attacking the political crusade on “frivolous lawsuits.”

He married his second wife, Kathy, 15 years ago and has three children: a lawyer in Lincoln, an artist in New York City and a businesswoman in North Carolina.

He takes his camera wherever he goes – just in case he encounters wildflowers.

He prepares a succulent leg of lamb.

And, for 15 years, he has paid for a free taxi program designed to keep drunk drivers off the roads during the holidays.

“It just seemed like a better use of money than putting on a party for lawyers and having them get drunk,” he said.

So, that’s Herb Friedman: a dash of family devotion, a pinch of academia and high culture, a soupcon of business sense, a splash of feisty nonconformity, all basted liberally with dogged dedication to the downtrodden.

Back in the 1970s – after Friedman had graduated from the University of Nebraska law school and served two years in the U.S. Army as a legal officer – he operated a Lincoln firm with John Stevens Berry.

Their motto: “Work hard. Raise hell. Do justice. Make a lot of money.”

Berry has some especially fond memories of the mid-70s – particularly the diverse pro-bono cases he and Friedman took on.

They represented a Beatrice youth who, after stealing a doughnut, was taken from his mother and placed in foster care.

Visions of Jean Valjean, jailed in Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables” for stealing a mouthful of bread, flashed through the lawyers’ minds.

They helped the family reunite.

When police busted a small Lincoln poker game, Friedman and Berry came to its rescue, noting that the Lincoln Country Club’s gambling night never had attracted authorities. The lawyers brought in Oswald Jacoby, a famous poker authority, to testify that the game was based on luck, not skill.

“We were a little bit of a lightning rod,” Berry said. “Now, we’re separate lightning rods.”

The longtime Lincoln lawyers split in 1977, but their motto stuck.

“One doesn’t really know him unless they know the lawyer in him,” said son Dan Friedman. “He is a trial lawyer, first and foremost.”

Herb Friedman, 69, has practiced law in Lincoln for more than four decades.

His cases have been visible and polarizing – ranging from defending adult theater operators to attacking the Legislature’s use of Christian prayer to representing JoAnn Brandon, whose daughter’s 1993 murder was depicted in the Oscar-winning movie “Boys Don’t Cry.”

In his highest profile case, Friedman represented Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers in challenging the Nebraska Legislature’s practice of paying a chaplain to lead prayers.

Dan Friedman, 30, now a lawyer in his father’s firm, remembers the trip to Washington, D.C., where Herb Friedman argued the case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court more than 20 years ago.

“He’s been a great professional role model,” Dan Friedman said. “The passion to find justice for his clients was always palpable.”

In 1983, Herb Friedman told the Journal Star: “I won’t go to jail for ’em and I won’t lie for ’em and I won’t bend the rules for ’em. But I’ll fight like hell for ’em.”

This year, Friedman was back in Washington, where he was awarded the Frank Carrington Champion of Civil Justice Award for his legal advocacy on behalf of JoAnn Brandon.

“Herb’s a formidable advocate,” said Richard Boucher, who represented Richardson County in the Brandon lawsuit. “Herb’s pretty dogged and determined.

“Most people know him from advertisements, but he does so much more than that.”

More than 20 years ago, Friedman ruffled feathers in the legal establishment when he became the first lawyer in the state to advertise on TV.

His critics said the ads – as well as direct mail solicitations, which Friedman also uses – were unprofessional and undignified, another step down for ambulance-chasing personal injury lawyers.

Friedman doesn’t understand the criticism.

What’s wrong with letting people know you exist and offer a service? He asks, adding that people need all the legal help they can get when up against monster insurance companies.

“There are people who advertise on television and end up looking like baboons,” Berry said. “Not Herb.”

Friedman has spoken out on issues apart from lawyer advertising – and his influence in Lincoln goes beyond that of his law firm.

“The American tort system is once again under attack by those who would profit from its destruction, and if they succeed, one of the major checks to unbridled corporate power will be destroyed,” he wrote in 2003 in one of his many letters to the Journal Star regarding tort reform. He calls it a political tagline that’s all smoke and mirrors.

Friedman is a long-time Democrat active in the Nebraska Civil Liberties Union, he has been involved with trail lawyer groups on local, state and national levels and he chairs the City of Lincoln Cable Advisory Board.

He once formed a committee – Knowledgeable Nebraska Investors for Free Enterprise, or KNIFE – to unseat then-1st District U.S. Rep. Doug Bereuter, alleging he supported big banking over small investors. He also has served as president of the Lincoln Action Program board.

“Most people couldn’t imagine Lincoln without Herbie Friedman,” Berry said.

Charlie Friedman remembers “daddy days,” when he saw the softer side of his father.

As a child, Charlie and his dad spent every Saturday together.

“I was always aware that other dads took their sons to softball games, etc.,” Charlie Friedman said. “We’d go out and take pictures of flowers.”

They also occasionally went to “crime scenes,” he said. One night, he and his dad went to a bar where a client had been beaten up.

Charlie, 38, is Herb Friedman’s oldest son and a successful New York artist, creating sculptures, photography, and video.

He had no inkling toward law, he says, no desire for the paper shuffling, legal strategizing and conceptual debates.

And his father never pushed him toward it, he said.

“He’d say, ‘You can do whatever you want, but you have to love what you do.’ Like my dad, I’m going to the tune of my own drummer.”

“He’s a fierce, commanding person,” Charlie Friedman said of his father. “He also was never afraid to show his love for me.”

Nearing 70, Herb Friedman is not ready to retire.

“I still enjoy the battle,” he said.

“I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve done. I’ve tried to be a credit to the profession. I’ve tried to make a good living.

“Won some. Lost some. But being a trial lawyer is an exhilarating way to make a living. You’re kind of a modern-day warrior.”