Our Man in Nicaragua and Guatemala and Germany
Aaron Freiwald wrote his way through the world before taking to the law
Published in 2019 Pennsylvania Super Lawyers magazine
By RJ Smith on May 16, 2019
Aaron J. Freiwald’s early career seems scattershot: a freelance writer traveling Central America; a Court TV pioneer; and the author of a nonfiction book on the capture of a Nazi war criminal. But Freiwald sees continuity.
“I’ve always thought of myself as an investigative journalist,” says the managing partner at Freiwald Law. “I feel that there are piles of documents somewhere in a file cabinet, and that if I can get to those dark and hidden-away places and shed some light, then I am going to play a part in doing something that matters.”
Podcasting is his next endeavor. In his firm-based studio, Freiwald records Good Law | Bad Law, hosting a variety of guests who stop by to chat everything from the viability of the electoral college to the potential unintended consequences of marijuana legalization.
“Hosting the podcast pushes a lot of the same buttons for me as being a trial lawyer,” says Freiwald, who litigates complex injury cases. “I love the challenge of learning the science or the medicine, fleshing out the story, putting together the evidence, and seeing how we can use the law in a way that matters. The podcast gives me a chance to do all that in a different medium, with a different voice.”
He traces his motivation back to his San Francisco upbringing. “My parents were pre-hippie college students in the early 1960s,” he says. His mother marched against the Vietnam War, and his father studied non-violent protest. “That was a very powerful influence on me. I was in high school in the 1970s, and I remember Watergate. Woodward and Bernstein were also a big part of why I wanted to go into journalism.”
At Columbia, Freiwald studied history and became editor of the student newspaper. He graduated and got a job in D.C., working for a fledgling satellite TV operation that lined up studio time with talking heads for media interviews. That put enough cash in the bank for him to do what he really wanted: head to Central America as a reporter. Armed with a “prehistoric laptop” from Radio Shack, he filed stories for various publications. In Nicaragua, he covered Americans breaking the U.S. economic embargo by helping the Sandinista regime harvest the coffee crop. In Guatemala, he covered the role of students in the first civil election the country had seen in decades.
“I wanted to see places, but not just to skim the surface,” he says. “Journalism and writing was my ticket to experiences that I wouldn’t have known otherwise.”
Wanting to return to the States, he got a job with Steve Brill’s Legal Times in D.C. in 1986, covering law and the DOJ.
“[I was writing] some of the same stories that you see in the news today,” he says, like Supreme Court nominations and independent counsel investigations. Freiwald then transferred to New York in 1989 to write for Brill’s magazine, The American Lawyer.
Impressed, Brill invited Freiwald to join the team helping brainstorm the early days of the Court TV network. There, his job was to figure out how to get cameras into courtrooms despite laws barring them; and to strategize what current trials would make for good TV. It was a good gig, but he had an itch to return to writing.
In his spare time, he had been working on a historical account of Nazi war crime trials, and visited Germany to listen to Holocaust survivors’ testimony. He also attended the 1992 trial of Josef Schwammberger, a commandant of three Nazi concentration camps in Poland who had been recaptured and tried in Germany. In 1994, he turned it into a book, The Last Nazi. But afterwards, he was at another crossroads.
“I thought, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do now,’” he says. “I [didn’t have] another book idea, and I didn’t just want to get another journalism job. I wanted to take the energy and passion I had for writing and apply them to another investigative field. I didn’t even know necessarily about becoming a lawyer. I thought law school itself would be great.”
Several multimillion-dollar verdicts later, Freiwald’s curiosity for the law extends beyond his medical malpractice specialty. He’s currently involved in a high-profile effort on behalf of three Pennsylvania school districts to challenge the tax-exempt status of three large health care systems. He says past definitions of what constitutes a charitable organization are no longer viable. He also views the effort as a way to replenish depleted school budgets. “It builds on lots of past experiences and yet it’s different, too, and I enjoy that,” he says.
Kind of like podcasting. When he was redesigning the firm’s space a few years ago, he jumped at the chance to create the studio, complete with legit recording equipment and acoustic tiling.
Good Law | Bad Law has reached more than 100 episodes, he says. “We’ve seen pretty remarkable growth in the last two to three months, and our downloads per episode have gone up something like 400 percent,” he says. “We have thousands of subscribers.”
A recent episode featured a conversation with a University of Georgia law professor who wrote a book on the prevalence of discrimination based on a person’s health.
The whole thing just gets his juices going.
“It’s so fun,” he says. “Sometimes I come home and my wife says, ‘Are you doing any real legal work?’ And she’s joking, but I feel like I should make clear that I’m working on this case, and working on that case, too.”
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