A Better Place

Steven Lieberman fights for the powerless

Published in 2012 Washington DC Super Lawyers Magazine — May 2012

Steven Lieberman was a young teenager when his father embarked on a two-year crusade to allow group homes for people with developmental disabilities to open in the family’s Bronx community. Such inclusion was almost unheard of in the 1970s.

“There was huge community opposition. People were afraid that the residents with special needs would bring down property values, that they’d pose a danger to others in the community,” recalls Lieberman, 54, of Rothwell, Figg, Ernst & Manbeck in Washington, D.C. “He saw a group of unprotected and powerless people who needed help,” he says of his dad, who made women’s belts for a living and spent his evenings advocating for others. “He always believed in standing up to power when it was right to do so, and these were folks who really had no other champions.”

That crusading spirit was passed down to Lieberman. A successful intellectual property and patent litigator who describes himself as “aggressive but fair,” he devotes many hours to pro bono work, which accounts for 10 percent of his caseload and which, he says, makes him a better lawyer.

“There’s a wonderful quote from Winston Churchill that I think about from time to time: ‘What is the use of living, if it not be to strive for noble causes and to make this muddled world a better place for those who will live in it after we are gone?’” Lieberman says. “I think the test is when your children ask you what you do for a living. If you can’t explain what you do in a way that makes them at least a little bit proud, that’s very sad.”

As a politics major at Princeton University, Lieberman toyed with the idea of becoming a neurological psychiatrist or a history professor. But he was enamored with constitutional law, and after earning his J.D. from Columbia University Law School and completing a clerkship in the Southern District of New York, in 1985 he joined Cahill Gordon & Reindel, where he spent half his time handling First Amendment matters.

His first pro bono case came on his first day at the firm, when a high-profile activist named Rabbi Avi Weiss called and asked him to secure permission to put up a Hanukkah menorah in a New York City park where the Jewish symbols had been banned. The young lawyer called his new boss, Floyd Abrams. “After I told him all of this, he said to me, ‘Did you ask the client if he could pay?’” Lieberman recalls. “And I said, ‘No. Is that important?’”

Fortunately, Abrams was a staunch advocate of First Amendment rights and gave Lieberman permission to proceed. After Lieberman threatened to sue the city, New York officials backed down, allowing the religious symbol to be erected in the park, paving the way for similar Jewish displays, and fueling Lieberman’s desire to continue protecting religious liberties.

It wasn’t long before he carved a name for himself in a series of nationally publicized cases, including defending The New York Times in a 1986 defamation suit brought by the city’s chief medical examiner, Dr. Elliot Gross, whom the newspaper had accused of altering the autopsy results of suspects who died in police custody. The court dismissed the action on summary judgment; nearly three decades later, Lieberman still advises The Times, as well as Fox News, The Wall Street Journal and many other media outlets in intellectual property matters. He has also appeared as an expert IP commentator on TV and radio.

Admittedly “not very knowledgeable technologically,” he’s found ways to distill complex concepts into simple ones. “For years I would sit down with my kids when they were 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 years old,” Lieberman says, “and if they didn’t understand the argument, or if they thought the other side should win, then I knew my argument was no good.”

In 1990, Lieberman worked his first patent lawsuit on behalf of a pharmaceutical company with a new AIDS drug called AZT. Lieberman teamed up with lawyers from Rothwell Figg, who, shortly before trial, lured him to their firm. Ten years later, he served as lead counsel in an antitrust claim by Mylan Pharmaceuticals against Bristol-Myers Squibb, which involved an effort by Bristol-Myers to try to block the generic manufacture of a popular antidepressant by improperly listing it in the Orange Book of FDA approvals. The result: a $535 million payment by Bristol-Myers to settle antitrust counterclaims brought by Mylan and class action groups, plus amendments to the Hatch-Waxman Act governing the generic drug system.

Lieberman’s pro bono work is just as valuable. Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, senior rabbi at The National Synagogue and an active member of Amcha—The Coalition for Jewish Concerns, has kept Lieberman on “speed dial” for so long that he’s lost track of the number of cases. “Even though I am a pro bono client, Steve … gives incredible attention to every case I bring before him. He treats me like I am his most important client,” Herzfeld says. “I tell people, ‘You should become a rabbi, but if you are going to be a lawyer, then be a lawyer like Steve Lieberman.’”

Rabbi Herzfeld gives the example of an intensely publicized case in which two top-level officials from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee were indicted for allegedly gathering and disclosing classified national security documents to Israel. In 2007, Lieberman, who did not legally represent the men, filed a stirring amicus brief for Amcha, challenging the government’s efforts to hold a trial largely in secret with witnesses and documents that would not be fully disclosed to the public view and likening the case to the infamous Dreyfus affair. Convicted of treason in 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a young French and Jewish artillery officer, was eventually exonerated and his anti-Semitic accusers exposed for wrongfully singling him out as a traitor. 

“The American Jewish community has a particular interest in ensuring that the trial of Messrs. [Steven] Rosen and [Keith] Weissman does not lead to the same result,” Lieberman wrote in the brief. “Any use of ‘secret evidence’ runs the risk of deepening anti-Jewish sentiment in the United States.”

The case was later dismissed. 

In one of his gutsier moves, in 2009 Lieberman sued Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for threats against Jews ranging from supporting violent and government-instigated attacks on synagogues to public anti-Semitic statements and the depiction of Nazi symbols in the government-owned newspaper.

“We spent a lot of time trying to figure out how you sue the president of Venezuela. It was very hard,” says Lieberman, who explains that it was too dangerous for the witnesses to file suit in Chavez’s own country. The commission responded by warning Chavez and issuing a report citing much of Lieberman’s evidence. “We’ve been told by people in the Jewish community there that the fact that the world is looking at what happens in Venezuela has made it safer for them,” Lieberman says. “The Jews are immigrating out of fear of what will happen, but the physical attacks seem to have decreased.”

Nevertheless, the pro bono case that brought Lieberman the greatest sense of pride involved “the most powerless clients you could possibly have: several hundred thousand people who were dead,” he says. Representing some of the families of the estimated half-million Jews murdered in 1942 at the Belzec death camp in then-German-occupied Poland, Lieberman sued to halt construction of a 30-foot-deep path at a proposed memorial. 

“The problem was that the entire camp was essentially one mass grave. Their bodies had been burned on these giant roasting racks and then the bones had been pulverized and the ashes scattered throughout the camp,” Lieberman explains. “The trench was going through the graves of tens of thousands of murdered Jews, which is a terrible desecration and a violation of Jewish law.”

Although the U.S. District Court dismissed the lawsuit, Lieberman considers the cause one of the most important of his career. “Under Jewish law, the greatest good deed you could do is to help somebody who’s completely powerless,“ he says. “Somebody needed to defend the people who had been murdered 65 years before.”

Lieberman is currently representing a Foreign Service officer in a workplace discrimination suit against the U.S. Department of State. The man, after rapidly rising through the ranks early on, contracted a degenerative muscle disease that left him in a wheelchair and affected his mobility and speech. Lieberman says the man was repeatedly passed over for promotions and eventually fired despite stellar performance reviews.

The case, if successful, will set a precedent for equal treatment for foreign service employees with physical disabilities.

“People with disabilities can do just about everything else in the United States now, but the senior ranks of the foreign service are off-limits to them,” Lieberman says. “That’s fundamentally unfair, and we’d like to change that.”

Of his dedication to pro bono work, Lieberman adds, “You have to feel like what you’re doing day in and day out is making the world a better place. If you spend all your time on cases that just involve the transfer of money back and forth between corporations, then you’re not going to have that feeling.” 

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