Man of Milwaukee

Why Frank Gimbel loves jury trials and Don Quixote

Published in 2009 Wisconsin Super Lawyers magazine

By Nancy Shepherdson on November 16, 2009


Frank Gimbel considers it a shame that more cases don’t go to trial these days. In his 49-year legal career he estimates he has been involved in 200 jury trials, both as a prosecutor and criminal defense attorney, and has enjoyed trying his damnedest to win every one.

He’s also had a blast leading the redevelopment effort in downtown Milwaukee for the past 15 years, a task requiring the same persuasive skills, only applied to a jury of politicians and businesspeople.

“Frank is one of those old-fashioned lawyers who has a bit of the actor in him. He can create vivid pictures in the jury’s minds,” says Tom Brown, a partner at Gimbel, Reilly, Guerin & Brown in Milwaukee.

As a prosecutor in 1976, for example, Brown was trying to convict popular restaurateur Sally Papia and her alleged mob-tied associates of arson and extortion. Gimbel was her defense attorney. “My mother came to see closing arguments,” Brown recalls, “and Frank went on the attack, accusing the government—essentially, me, as prosecutor—of overreaching. After it was over, my mom came up to me, livid and very emotional, saying, ‘How can he say those things about you?’ She didn’t understand that he was playing a role, doing what he had to do in court.”

Gimbel realizes that, as a criminal defense attorney, he is called upon to represent people others would find distasteful. In fact, on an early summer day, in his bright 11th-floor Plaza East office, his face darkened as he recalled a recent case in which he defended the killer of a 13-month-old baby. He conceded the man’s guilt up front and used the trial phase to convey factors that could mitigate punishment. The jury was out for eight hours considering his words. He counts that as a victory for the justice system.

“That you defend someone doesn’t mean you endorse their behavior,” says Gimbel, who nevertheless tries to find something to empathize with in all his clients. “If defense attorneys don’t protect the system, the innocent ultimately suffer.”

Gimbel is respected enough that, in 1976, he became the first criminal defense attorney elected president of the Milwaukee Bar Association; a decade later, he was the first criminal defense attorney elected president of the State Bar. “He was so classy and articulate and involved in the community that a lot of silk-stocking lawyers said, ‘He’s not so bad,’” says Brown.

After graduating from Marquette University Law School, Gimbel ran for state representative as a Democrat in 1962 at age 26. He lost but earned more votes than the Democratic candidates for governor and senator in his Republican-leaning district, and came to the attention of Patrick Lucey, Wisconsin’s governor from 1971 to 1977. By 1963, Gimbel was emceeing a Wisconsin Democratic Party dinner for Vice President Lyndon Johnson that drew 2,500 people to Milwaukee.

Lucey, now 91, still remembers that, as state party chairman, he was anxious about having a full house for Johnson. He wasn’t disappointed. “Frank sold a lot of tickets,” he says. “Frank has always performed well on every task he takes on.”

Lucey put in a good word to Attorney General Robert Kennedy on Gimbel’s behalf, and Gimbel soon became one of four assistant U.S. attorneys in Milwaukee. He considers it the beginning of his professional career and an essential step in becoming an excellent defense attorney—his unwavering goal since middle school.

“I’ve seized opportunities to help people running for office—including Senators Kohl and Feingold, Governor Lucey and various Milwaukee mayors—and they remember people who help them win,” Gimbel explains matter-of-factly.

Not bad for a siding salesman’s son.

Until age 12, Gimbel lived at 40th and Auer in Milwaukee in a two-flat his parents rented for $40 per month. It was a Jewish immigrant neighborhood; a deli called Jake’s still serves kosher hot dogs on the corner, but now to a largely African-American population. His father, Harold, the son of Jewish immigrants, owned a failed tavern and then a liquor store after Prohibition before hitting on a good thing.

Taking advantage of post-World War II demand for residential siding in the burgeoning Milwaukee suburbs, the Gimbel family moved to Whitefish Bay in 1948. “My parents constantly urged me to be involved in life to the max, i.e., do more than was necessary to get by. Every extracurricular activity I engaged in and gained recognition for resulted in high praise, ergo, I had a motive to do more.”

While at Whitefish Bay, he was a sports star, sports editor of the school newspaper, extemporaneous speaker and all-around popular guy. Selected to star in the senior class play, he found a showcase that confirmed his desire to follow his uncle into litigation. He played the prosecutor in Night of January 16th, an Ayn Rand murder mystery in which audience members serve as the jury and decide the outcome of the case. The defense attorney? Bob Habush, now partner in Habush, Habush & Rottier in Milwaukee. It was the only time the two titans of Wisconsin law faced each other in court. For the record, they had three performances together. The final tally: Habush 2, Gimbel 1.

Don Quixote, whom Gimbel calls his “idol,” looks down from a painting on the wall of Gimbel’s office. The admiration seems misplaced—this is the guy who tilted at windmills, after all—until one looks up the Oxford English Dictionary definition of quixotic: “striving with lofty enthusiasm for visionary ideals.”

A person only needs to remember the seedy, dangerous Milwaukee downtown of the 1970s and ’80s to understand how apt that idolatry is. Gimbel saw the pawnshops, run-down hotels and taverns of that era and envisioned a vibrant place to eat, shop, meet and be entertained.

It started simply. He was on the Fire and Police Commission from 1977 to 1982—operating under a consent decree with a chief determined not to comply—when he asked Mayor Henry Maier for a less stressful assignment. Maier must have had a devilish sense of humor. He had him serve as director for 12 years on a board (MECCA) that oversaw the construction of Milwaukee’s first Convention Center. And when the Wisconsin Center District was created in 1994 by the state legislature to oversee the $185 million expansion of the Center, Gov. Tommy Thompson appointed Gimbel to its board, for which he was elected chairman. He’s been re-elected every year since. “I’ll bill you later,” he says each re-election of the non-paying chairmanship.

In the years since the District was formed, three city blocks have been cleared, the Midwest Airlines Convention Center built, and U.S. Cellular Arena and the Milwaukee Auditorium remodeled. The area now anchors a revitalized riverfront of restaurants, pubs, hotels and shopping.

Dick Geyer, president and CEO of the District, believes that Gimbel has been able to lead such a renaissance because he doesn’t micromanage. “His first words to me when I was hired in 1996 were, ‘I’m counting on you to do this.’” This was the first event planned for the expanded Midwest Airlines Convention Center, the National Governors Association conference that Tommy Thompson was then heading. “We went from bare ground to finished with 30 days to spare,” says Geyer.

Not that the redevelopment has been without controversy. The $42 million spent on the renovation of the Milwaukee Auditorium was thought by many to have better uses elsewhere. Some strongly advocated tearing the old building down, while cost overruns caused grumbling about Gimbel’s leadership. But few can argue with success: The theatrical run of The Lion King this past spring, notes Gimbel, broke box office records in Wisconsin, bringing in more than 100,000 theatergoers to downtown Milwaukee.

Then there’s Gimbel’s “day job,” as The Business Journal of Milwaukee calls it, handling criminal, civil, employment and political cases. Gimbel is the guy you come to when you’re a district attorney in Winnebago County caught on tape taking a bribe. Or when you’re the Republican leader of the state assembly caught in a statewide political scandal and accused of felony misconduct in office. Ditto if you’re an official of the National Baptist Convention accused of embezzling or the leader of the Outlaws motorcycle gang, up on charges of multiple murder. Gimbel may not be able to get you declared innocent, but he’ll try to make sure the punishment fits your crime.

He’ll even defend you all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary. Gimbel represented an employee from the Small Business Administration who was convicted for taking a bribe in an FBI sting. The issue before the Court was whether entrapment could be used as a defense when the defendant hadn’t admitted to the crime. Gimbel was set to argue that it could. The courtroom was filled with observers and reporters and, for a brief moment, he says, Gimbel imagined the spectators might be there to witness his own brilliant arguments. No such luck: the first case called was Falwell v. Flynt. After it was over and his case was about to be called, “It was like rats leaving a sinking ship,” he cries in mock dismay. “Still it was a great adventure.”

How could it not be? The Court accepted his arguments, reversed the lower courts, and allowed the use of entrapment as a defense in such cases. Whether it was a valid defense, the Court ruled, was something for a jury to decide.


“I have gotten some notoriety, defended some villains and taken some controversial positions,” says Gimbel. Along the way, he’s learned to speak truth to power. Recently, at a sentencing hearing, Gimbel felt that a judge was demeaning his client during questioning. So he spoke up: “I feel that you are my client’s adversary right now, Your Honor.”

Bang! The gavel went down instantly. “We’re taking a recess,” growled the judge. After the break, from the bench, he told Gimbel he didn’t agree with him and felt the inquiries were perfectly reasonable. “Nevertheless,” Gimbel says with a twinkle, “the judge departed from the sentencing guidelines to my client’s benefit.

“In addition, I’ve been in front of him [since then] and he’s treated me well. Young lawyers would not have the temerity to speak up—you get more license when you’ve been around a long time. There are some advantages in selecting a 73-year-old lawyer,” Gimbel says.

Truthfully, it would be hard to select a lawyer who looks less like a graybeard than Gimbel does. Smoothly shaved bald, a legacy of successful cancer treatment eight years ago, he is sharply turned out in black shirt and off-white suit on the day of our visit. He is trim, tan and youthful, the legacy of a regimen of rowing, biking and stretches prescribed by his second wife, Anne, a yoga instructor.

On his wrist is another unusual touch: four plastic bands. The blue, in honor of his father-in-law, symbolizes his support for Alzheimer’s disease research; the orange is for Ronald McDonald House; red is for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and the second red is for ALS Research. This last he wears in honor of a partner, an ALS patient who is still of counsel to the firm, although he can no longer work.

Members of the firm are expected to contribute as much as they can, and if they are at the lower end of the billable range—as Gimbel often is because of his extensive community involvement—to bring in business.

“I’m still selling—I’m still the rainmaker,” he says, noting that his pro bono work often brings him in contact with paying clients. He has even had his own news segment every Friday morning on WITI Channel 6: “Frank’s Legal Opinion.”

“He’s not motivated by money,” says retired WITI station general manager Andy Potos, who hired Frank for his first TV gig in 1980, as well as made him the station’s lawyer. “Frank is very bright and interested in doing what’s right. He just hates losing and loves winning.”

Gimbel agrees. “It’s fun to go to trial,” he says, as he heads out into the no-longer-so-mean streets of Milwaukee.

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