Not Your Ordinary Joe

How Joe Friedberg wins friends and influences people

Published in 2009 Minnesota Super Lawyers magazine

By Marc Conklin on August 1, 2009


It’s dark. It’s raining. You stand in a strange neighborhood, rows of houses staring back at you. A light glows from one of the windows. A man stirs in the kitchen. You don’t know him, but you step to his front door anyway and knock. You’re not looking for food or shelter; you have something to sell. And to be successful, you’ll need to do one thing: decide in 60 seconds which opportunity this man represents—a chance to make a lucrative sale, or to have your nose rearranged.

In Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell explodes the romantic image of the born genius, arguing that even the world’s most talented people require hard work to succeed. In fact, he says, if you quantify the intense practice needed to master any craft, it adds up to about 10,000 hours. For Bill Gates, that was the time spent tinkering on an ASR-33 Teletype in high school. For the Beatles, it was the 1,200 shows they performed in Hamburg before returning to England. 

So how would Gladwell explain the successful 35-year career of Joe Friedberg? When you look at this charismatic criminal defense attorney—who went from practicing pro bono poverty law to representing the likes of Randy Moss, Russell Lund, Norm Coleman and victims of the Dalkon Shield birth control device—you begin by noting his 14 years as a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman. That kind of experience is a 10,000-hour gold mine of training in how to sway a jury. But the complete case runs even deeper. 

The Case of the Traveling Shmatteh Salesman

Born in Brooklyn in 1937, Friedberg spent the bulk of his youth on Long Island, where his family moved when he was 6. Looking back at that childhood, perhaps the most formative element in Friedberg’s life was the one most often missing: his dad. “My father was a traveling salesman in what we Jews refer to as the shmatteh business,” Friedberg says from his Fifth Street Towers office—a long way from the Southern clothing mills where his father sold piece goods. “He worked almost his entire life, and he was gone five or six months a year.”

One would expect that kind of absence to cut even deeper with an only child, but Friedberg understands how much his father’s identity was tied to his work. “When he was 83, he finally started talking about quitting,” recalls Friedberg. “I said, ‘Don’t do that, because you’ll be home with Mom and she’ll drive you nuts.’ But it was time.” Almost as an aside, Friedberg adds with his trademark wit, “When he complained that his car kept getting caught up on the sidewalk, that to me was a worrisome sign …”

Unfortunately, Friedberg’s father lived only a year after retiring. That fact, coupled with the memory of mentor Doug Thomson’s declining professional abilities late in his career, serves as a cautionary tale and motivator—keeping Friedberg in a constant state of work and performance appraisal. “It’s been many years since I’ve tried a significant case without associating with another lawyer,” he says. “Hopefully I check myself, but I think ego is a real hazard in making that kind of self-evaluation.” (He needn’t worry. Longtime colleague Peter Wold, who most recently collaborated with Friedberg on a 2008 homicide trial, says: “If anything, Joe’s gotten better.”)

The Case of the Whip-Cracking Co-Ed 

By Friedberg’s own admission, his dad’s work ethic didn’t take root in him for quite some time—at least on the academic front. Track was his passion in high school (he beat the state cross-country champion his senior year), and when he landed at the University of North Carolina, his life’s goal was to be a coach. Unfortunately, his performance on the field far surpassed that in the classroom. “Chapel Hill was paradise,” recalls Friedberg, who was already selling encyclopedias on the side at the time. “But my academics were very poor. I’m very fortunate there were no drugs in college in those days.”

Enter Carolyn Kohler, a student at the nearby Woman’s College (now UNC–Greensboro), who met Friedberg on a frat house porch during her first trip to UNC. “I think he had flunked out and gone back in,” she remembers fondly. “He was absolutely wild.”

The two started dating, and although Friedberg himself didn’t grow more serious, his relationship with Carolyn did—until one day she asked the critical question of his life. As Friedberg remembers it: “She said, ‘I can’t take you home. You don’t do anything. You’re an itinerant encyclopedia salesman who occasionally goes to school. Haven’t you ever had any ambition?’” 

A Hollywood screenwriter couldn’t have written Friedberg’s response any better: “Well, I thought about being a lawyer once …” 

The rest is history. In September, the Friedbergs will celebrate their 47th wedding anniversary. But even more impressive, Carolyn has also served as her husband’s Girl Friday for virtually his entire legal career. 

“If you dug down deep into Joe’s psyche, one of the biggest secrets to his success is Carolyn,” says fellow attorney Paul Engh. “She takes care of him and manages the office, and that’s a big deal.” Wold concurs: “If Carolyn doesn’t like you, it doesn’t matter if Joe does. She’s his biggest fan. They’re best friends and partners. It’s an amazing relationship—very rare in this profession.”

For her part, Carolyn has a more colorful way of describing the couple’s business relationship. “You know those parade horses? I’m the guy in the truck that goes behind them with the pooper scooper.” (In case the analogy isn’t clear, she adds: “Joe’s the horse.”)

The Case of the Blue-Jeaned Dean

If Carolyn was Friedberg’s career catalyst, then his lifeline might have been the LSAT. No courses, books, videos or webinars existed back then to help students prepare for the test, but Friedberg walked in and aced it anyway. He then applied—with a D average—to law school at Georgetown and the University of Virginia. He was instantly rejected. “I don’t think they opened the letters,” he quips.

But since Carolyn was still studying in Greensboro, Friedberg also applied to UNC’s law school. And one day, he got a call that would change his life. “The dean’s secretary said the dean wanted to see me right away,” says Friedberg. “I told her I was in jeans and a T-shirt. She said, ‘That’s OK, so is he.’” 

When Friedberg arrived at the dean’s office, Henry Brandis took one look at him and said, “I wanted to meet the person with an undergraduate record like yours who has the audacity to apply to my law school.” Despite the confrontational introduction, Friedberg’s sales instincts soon kicked in, and by the end of the conversation, the motley undergrad had succeeded in reminding the progressive dean of himself. Brandis agreed to let Friedberg into his law school on permanent probation, but Friedberg hardly needed the ultimatum. “Law school was the first time I ever heard anything interesting from a lectern,” he says. And despite continuing to sell encyclopedias (and play lacrosse) on the side, he graduated Order of the Coif. 

The Case of the Dropped Third Strike

When Friedberg’s colleagues are asked about his talents, one of the first things they cite is his memory. Case in point: Even though at first Friedberg claims to recall virtually nothing from his Brooklyn years, he later offers several nuggets from the time (most of them baseball-related): the entire 1941 Brooklyn Dodgers lineup; how Kirby Higbee’s wife would always leave the box at Ebbets Field when her husband was called in from the bullpen; his father’s violent reaction to Mickey Owen dropping the third strike in the ninth inning of the ’41 World Series, and the fact that his father was driving a gray car at the time (Friedberg was 4).

His descriptions of said memories can range from the colorful to the cinematic. When asked about his move to Minnesota after a brief stint practicing at a Wall Street law firm, Friedberg describes it this way:

“It was November 16, 1964. I drove here in a 1962 Alfa Romeo convertible like the one Dustin Hoffman had in The Graduate. It was so cold that the vent over my clutch got frozen open over Black River Falls, and I drove the rest of the way in with a towel over my left foot. I turned the car off and stayed at the old Sheraton Ritz Hotel. It was below zero—colder than I had ever been in my life—and that car never ran again. I had it towed and traded it in on a green Comet wagon. You want to talk about a lifestyle change …”

(Note the use of exact dates, locations, colors—even similes grounded in cultural references. The trappings of a master storyteller.)

Also related to Friedberg’s feats of memory is his ability to grasp complex information instantly. Wold and his associate, Aaron Morrison, recall an example from the hotly covered 2008 Halloween murder trial in Grand Forks, in which the team represented the defendant: Princeton, Minn., native Travis Stay. With no eyewitnesses, the case hinged on the science of blood spatter and the prosecution’s expert witness on that topic. Morrison studied everything he could get his hands on. “It took me an entire year before I felt like I was starting to understand it,” he says. “Joe spent one afternoon on it, absorbed it all and did a brilliant cross-examination just one day later.” 

Stay himself credits Friedberg’s work with winning the case. “Another lawyer would have heard the first expert’s story and said, ‘Forget it,’” he says. “Joe went out and found the premier blood spatter expert in the country, and blew that testimony out of the water. If it weren’t for Joe, I’d be in jail.” (Stay was completely exonerated in the case, which remains unsolved.) 

Unfortunately for Friedberg, a strong memory can also be a curse. When he recalls the daughter he and Carolyn lost to brain cancer at the age of 8, his baritone voice suddenly quiets. “It was a long time ago, but it’s just like it was yesterday.” (They also have a son, Mike, who is 41 and an attorney, and a daughter, Andrea, who is 36 and a schoolteacher.) 

The Case of the Disappearing Blueberry Pie 

The other word that comes up often in conversations about Friedberg is “honesty.” “There’s no bull,” says Carolyn. “He doesn’t tell his clients what they want to hear, and occasionally they shop around and come back—sometimes after they’re sentenced.” 

“Even [during the Stay trial] in Grand Forks, Joe didn’t try to be a Plains Guy,” adds Wold, himself a North Dakota native. “At trial practice school, they’ll say, ‘Watch this guy and try to emulate him.’ Joe doesn’t do that. He’ll go to a jury and start with, ‘Look, I’m a short Jew from New York.’ And it works. He’s always himself.”

That authenticity allows Friedberg to work wonders in a courtroom. One of his favorite stories for juries—also used in the Stay trial—is his anecdote on the perils of trusting circumstantial evidence: A farmer worked his fields while a blueberry pie cooled. The farmer’s son saw the pie. He cut a slice, then another, until he had eaten the entire thing. Fearing his father’s wrath, the boy put the plate on the floor so the family dog would lick up the remaining crumbs. The farmer came in, saw the empty plate and bits of pie on the dog’s snout, then shot the dog.

“You could go over to the Hennepin County courthouse and listen to lawyers who think they’re being spellbinding with stuff like that, and they’re just miserable,” Wold says. “I wouldn’t even try to do that. But Joe can, and it has a lot to do with trust.” 

Trust, of course, has to be earned. And Friedberg has worked hard to earn the trust not only of his colleagues, but his adversaries as well. “Joe is the only criminal defense lawyer I know who will have dinner with the opposing counsel,” says Engh. Friedberg laments the increasingly toxic relationships among opposing counsel. “The biggest change in the practice of criminal law is the loss of conviviality between the prosecution and the defense bars,” he says. ”I can remember countless times that defense lawyers and prosecutors would share cocktails when waiting for a jury verdict, and some of us were even social friends with the other side. I see virtually none of that anymore.”

According to Wold, who is a generation younger than Friedberg, “There’s probably not a lawyer in Minnesota that prosecutors have lost more cases to than Joe Friedberg. But if you did a popularity survey among them, he’d be at the top of the list.”

Fourteen years of training in the ability to read and persuade strangers. A devoted wife and complementary business partner. A forward-thinking law school dean. Countless mentors and collaborators. Authenticity and a natural gift for memory, recall and storytelling. Combined, they make a decent case for explaining Friedberg’s success. 

But one piece is missing. What can you say about a man who now spends his days trying to re-elect a U.S. senator he didn’t vote for? It could be loyalty (he and Norm Coleman go back some 30 years and he even once represented the senator’s father). It could be the need to try new things (until accepting the case, Friedberg had no election law experience whatsoever). But for an old track star, it seems like a simple case of ultra-competitiveness. 

Months into The Case of the Everlasting Election (which Friedberg entered after Coleman tapped him to supplement his original recount attorney team of Fritz Knaak, Tony Trimble and Matt Haapoja) and on the verge of an appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court, Friedberg describes the Senate recount this way: “At times it’s the most boring thing I’ve ever done in my life. But everything that’s new is interesting. I don’t like it, but once you get into it, you get combative. You want to win.”

That sounds remarkably similar to Friedberg’s reflections on those formative door-to-door days. “I’d hate like hell to be trying to sell a set of encyclopedias now,” he says, the recount’s tedium sewn into his face. But then he reconsiders the statement and looks up with a twinkle in his eye and a slight grin on his face: “Actually, I might do it again one night on a bet.”

The Quotable Joe

“He confessed to nibbling on the breast of a lady. Does that not constitute a sex act?”

“I disagree with him, but that’s what makes horse racing.”

“Mr. Williams was having a good time with a woman who was 100 percent consenting.”

“I’ve always had this faint fear that there will be somebody in a jury I won’t recognize that I sold an encyclopedia to.”

“[As an encyclopedia salesman], you look for newly married couples who don’t have children running around to
pee on your materials.”

“I love the underdog mentality. It’s part of having a small-man complex.”

“I once thought about being a neurosurgeon, but I’m left-handed and clumsy.”

“I used to say I loved running, but in retrospect every step hurt. And trying a case is exhausting, at times painful. But I love trying cases. Someday I’ll have to think about what I mean by that.” 

“I’ve always been a gambler. I love shooting craps, and I’m damn lucky it’s not legal in this state.”

“My reputation has outgrown my ability. That’s clear to me.”

The Quotable Carolyn

“We see each other all the time, so it’s very hard for Joe to brag and make up stories.”

“Joe never stops enjoying talking. He’ll talk to a leaf if it blows in.”

“Joe’s always willing to give advice. It drives me nuts.”

“At home, I may lose the argument, but I usually get my way.”

“When we were young, we knew nobody, so we’d go out with our clients. It’s really weird

hanging out at a bar with your client who’s done time at Leavenworth.”

“Joe represented the Grim Reapers, and they’d come as a group on their motorcycles to deliver cash. The neighbors would jump down under their picture windows and say, ‘The Friedbergs are entertaining again, I see.’”

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