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Common Ground

Former Judge Robbie Barr makes human connections everywhere she goes

Photo by Paul Wedlake

Published in 2023 Colorado Super Lawyers magazine

By Natalie Pompilio on February 28, 2023


Robbie Barr is used to people telling her she can’t do something. She’s also used to ignoring them.
“With most things in my life, where people say, ‘You can’t be a lawyer. You can’t be a judge. You can’t leave the bench and move to Denver. You can’t dye your hair blue,’ I do it anyway,” says Barr, 69, the founder of BarrADR in Denver. “Maybe whatever’s scaring me is where I need to go.”

The 5’2” Barr took up taekwondo in her late 50s, sported a shiner caused by errant nunchucks on her 65th birthday, and is now a third-degree black belt. After decades of staying close to home, she began traveling around the country and the world, visiting Africa and Europe and always planning her next adventure.

“There are so many things you can do past age 60,” she says. “Our parents’ worlds shrank. My world is expanding.”

Barr describes herself as “more than an extrovert.” Professionally, she’s known for her ability to listen and bond with others.

“She’s able to make those connections, the human connections, that many mediators and many lawyers can’t make,” says U.S. District Court Judge Charlotte Sweeney. “In most cases, it’s very rarely the legal claim that’s inhibiting settlement. It’s often some other thing behind the scenes. She’s very good at ferreting that out.”

“When counsel suggests Robbie as a mediator, I always say, ‘OK, but I want you to know we’re personal friends,’” says attorney Danielle Urban. “In every situation, they say, ‘Who cares?’ or ‘Great!’ Then when she tells you you have a crappy case, you’ll listen.’”

Barr likes complex cases—the more intricate, the better. Recent mediations include a class action involving incarcerated people in Utah; an environmental case in Missouri that dealt with homes damaged by coal dust; a school sex assault in Colorado; and a Michigan case about managing space on public transportation.

“I have an overblown sense of justice and injustice,” Barr says. “I enter mediations not only thinking about what’s legal and what’s going to happen in court, but what’s fair. What’s going to make everybody feel heard, a compromise that’s equally painful on both sides.”

One of the forces that drives all of it is her 3-year-old granddaughter, Vivienne. Says Barr: “I’m trying to create a world in which, if someday someone says to Vivi, ‘Women can’t do this’ or ‘Women can’t do that,’ she can start laughing.”

Barr grew up in Texas. Her mother, Frankie Schmidt, was a registered nurse who met future husband Bob Meripol when he visited her emergency room with a burn. They married in 1950 and quickly built a family, welcoming the first three of their five children in a 27-month span. Barr was the second, flanked by two brothers. In a bit of foreshadowing, Barr says she played the role of family peacemaker: “I wanted everyone to be happy and for things to go smoothly.”

Lou Alpert, a friend since junior high, remembers going to Barr’s home on weekends to help with chores so the pair could go out. “She came from a family where they encouraged her to work very hard,” Alpert says. “Sometimes I think when the rest of us were out playing and rolling around, she was not.”

Barr, center, is flanked by an older and younger brother.

Alpert’s father was the first lawyer Barr ever met. “He was instrumental to opening my eyes to the then-radical notion that women could be lawyers,” she says. “Most women working at that time were secretaries, teachers or nurses. They were helpers, not fighters.”

After graduating from Newcomb College of Tulane University in New Orleans with an English degree, Barr moved to Miami to support her partner, who was starting medical school. He suggested she take the LSAT, saying, “You talk all the time. You might as well get paid for it,” she recalls.

At the University of Miami School of Law, she studied contracts with The Paper Chase author John Jay Osborn Jr., whose vibrancy and humor reassured her “you could be a lawyer and a person at the same time.”

“There was a lot of status display in law school: Where did you go for undergrad? Did you go to Princeton? What do you drive? People were deadly serious and overly competitive and not interested in learning about each other as human beings,” Barr says. “That’s something that never appealed to me.”

Upon beginning her legal career at a small Florida firm, Barr found she loved being in the courtroom. In one case, she represented an accused drug dealer whose meeting with an alleged buyer in a store parking lot turned out to be a sting operation and left him shot five times without warning by an undercover officer. The incident was voice recorded.

There were seven other defendants in the case, each with their own lawyer. During depositions, most of those attorneys, all male, attempted to intimidate Barr.

“They’d all try to bully me, interrupting me or talking over me. So did the defendants, who were all cops,” Barr remembers. “I learned a lot about how to control a room by lowering your voice, and how to win people over by demonstrating you’re a straight shooter and that you’re not going to take advantage of them even if you disagree with them, and how to disagree without being disagreeable.” The case settled favorably for her client.

Incidents like those weren’t uncommon when Barr began practicing in 1980. “’Me Too’ was not even a figment of someone’s hopeful imagination,” she says. “Throughout my career, there’s been gender bias, conscious and unconscious. I try not to focus on it, but it’s totally there.”

But there were hopeful moments, too. When Barr was pregnant with her second son, she noticed the opposing attorney in a civil case, a tall man with a deep voice, was going out of his way to block her from the judge’s view when he addressed the court.

“He was trying to minimize me. What he didn’t know, and I found out later, was the judge had a daughter who was about my size who was also a lawyer. Every time he did that to me, the judge would rule against him,” Barr says. “I learned you can be who you are—your short, pregnant self—and get a great result.”

With 10 years under her belt, Barr, at the urging of colleagues, challenged a sitting judge for her spot on the Miami-Dade County Circuit Court. Campaigning in North Miami, she talked to older Jewish voters about her father’s family. In farm-friendly Homestead, she brought up her mother’s rural origins. In Little Havana, she spoke some Spanish.

“You need to find common ground,” she says.

Barr won. “I wasn’t thinking that as a sitting judge I could do anything about [pervasive] gender bias, but from the bench I did think I could do something about the attorneys and litigants who came in front of me by treating them to a fair trial not infused with prejudice,” she says. “Above all, the job of a judge is to make sure people know you’ve listened to them and they’ve been heard.”

As judge, Barr oversaw the criminal case that prompted the Florida legislature to pass the controversial Evelyn Gort and All Fallen Officers Career Criminal Act of 1995, a “three strikes” law that was overturned a few years later by the Florida Supreme Court.

In 1993, off-duty Miami-Dade police officer Evelyn Gort was shot and killed during an attempted robbery. Suspect Wilbur Leroy Mitchell, 23, was already a convicted felon. Prosecutors wanted a first-degree murder verdict, which would make the death penalty a possibility. Some observers were surprised when the jury instead found Mitchell guilty of manslaughter.

Barr, relieved the death penalty was off the table, sentenced Mitchell to life in prison. She says her decision was influenced not only by the prosecution’s argument but also the victim impact statements. Gort’s 16-year-old daughter read a letter she’d written from her mother’s point of view, asking forgiveness for missing the daughter’s first prom and other life milestones.

“I literally had to bite my cheeks and pinch my legs” to stay composed, Barr remembers. “From a judicial point of view, it was a win. From a human point of view, it was a tragedy.”

In 1997, Barr and her family moved to Colorado. “It was very attractive as a place to raise your kids compared to Miami,” Barr says. “Miami is a giant teenager that doesn’t have itself together.”

Before leaving Florida, Barr had taught for the National Institute for Trial Advocacy; connections there helped her land at Judicial Arbiter Group (JAG). She found herself well-suited for mediation.

“I can talk to people from any walk of life,” Barr says. “I’ve worked in a fishing rod factory and worked as an emergency room clerk in Arkansas. I was a tour guide and a barmaid in New Orleans. I cleaned yachts and worked as a cashier in a drug store in Florida. I’ve done a lot.”

Plaintiff employment attorney Qusair Mohamedbhai, who met Barr through JAG, says she can connect with people of all backgrounds. “It can take months for our clients to trust us, and we’re their lawyers. She’s able to do incredible things in a very short amount of time. It’s just who she is,” says Mohamedbhai. “The breadth and depth of her skills are remarkable. … If she needs to raise her voice to be heard, she’ll do it. But most of the time, we’re leaning in. That’s her power.”

Barr “leaves the ladder down to pull people up,” adds Kim Sporrer, executive director of the Colorado Women’s Bar Association. “She’s one of those people who is very busy but is willing to take the time to make a call for someone or write a speech about them or nominate them for an award.”

Tracy Ashmore, now a shareholder at Robinson Waters & O’Dorisio, was just starting out when her very first mediation case went before Barr. “Really listening to people is harder than it sounds. You can learn to nod and to have empathetic listening skills, but you can’t learn to really care,” she says. “She actually, really, truly does care that everyone feels heard.”

In 2010, Barr and her husband divorced after nearly 30 years of marriage. At first, she says, the split seemed “like a crash of your dreams. … It was a clarion call to revisit who I am and who I wanted to be.”
She began to travel more, and, on one trip, met Craig Jones. The pair describe each other as soulmates and have been together for almost eight years.

She also decided to create BarrADR, using her home as collateral to borrow startup money. As required by law, JAG asked Barr’s clients if they wanted to stay with the firm or follow Barr into the unknown. Every single one went with her. Barr was able to repay her loans within six months.

She attributes part of her success to the Korean concept of cho shim, or beginner’s mind, which stresses approaching each task with curiosity and openness even if you’ve done it hundreds of times. “The problem with judge mediators is we think we know everything. We think we know what really happened because we’ve seen everything before,” says Barr. “Often that’s not true.”

She continues: “I have to know and understand the law, so I can comment with authority to the lawyers about the viabilities of their legal arguments, and I have to know and understand people and what motivates them. Once their very human dispute with a neighbor, a builder, an employer, a partner or a polluter has morphed into a legal dispute, they enter an arena about which they know little and over which they have little control. I have to explain, in logical and understandable terms, what the various outcomes might be, the best- and worst-case scenarios, and the risks of going to trial. I have to do that in a persuasive fashion, to be perceived as even-handed, and help them come to a resolution without the power I used to have as a judge to compel compliance.”

Barr and Jones had been together for about a year when Muhammad Ali died in 2016. Jones felt the loss personally, explaining to Barr that athletes like Ali “had a huge influence on me, providing pride and confidence in me growing up Black in America in the ‘60s and ‘70s.”

Without his knowledge, Barr purchased and framed a copy of the famous photo of Ali being supported by Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar after Ali had explained at a press conference his decision to not fight in Vietnam.

“The photo warms my spirit because these are my heroes,” Jones says. “Just as important, the photo touches me so deep because it reminds me how Robbie presented something so meaningful to me from her heart.”

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