Justice Abroad: One Attorney's Fight for Human Rights
Meet the new generation of lawyers. Beyond Billables is our monthly blog series that features Hire an Esquire lawyers and other attorneys who have ventured off the beaten path of billable work. Whether they are entrepreneurs, adventurers, risk-takers, self-starters or simply superhuman, these attorneys know what life is like beyond the law firm. As director of the Torture Prevention Project in Uzbekistan, a part of the former Soviet Union, Robert Freedman had his house repeatedly broken into and searched. He was also accused publicly – including in the national newspaper – of being a spy.
Freedman’s work, which is built on his passion for human rights and his law degree from the University of Notre Dame, has led him on a path far beyond billable hours in comfortable wood-paneled offices.
Uncovering torture was a risky undertaking in Uzbekistan, where those who made accusations against the government could face serious charges for slandering the state. “Still, I received reports of torture - beatings, deaths occurring shortly after arrest and the use of electrical tools like circular saws,” said Freedman. “I got reports of abuse of common medications such as aspirin prescribed in such massive quantities that relatively little beating would provoke a chain reaction in the artificially-thinned blood and result in fatal internal hemorrhaging.”
When a trusted source told Freedman he was going to be arrested the next day, he fled from Uzbekistan in a perilous journey. He was already weak and reeling from the emergency surgery to remove his appendix, which he underwent without anesthesia. After making it to the border, he was confronted by Uzbek guards, who took his passport and had him stand against a wall, sweating and shaky from his infected incision. Freedman summoned up enough energy to yell, “Daite mne moi passport! Give me my passport!”
He made it out on a flight to Riga, Latvia, where he found dozens of emails from people who said they had been praying for him.
Among his most treasured accomplishments during his work in Uzbekistan from 2004 to 2006, which was for the human rights NGO Freedom House, was to help several families gain political asylum in the U.S. and the UK.
Along his non-traditional path, Freedman also served as a foreign service officer for the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. where his responsibilities included writing a daily brief for then-Secretary of State Colin Powell. His position also took him to Ukraine, where he worked for rule of law reform and to Tajikistan to lead a human rights development project.
Reflecting on the value of his work and the personal risks he took, Freedman said the takeaway is, “These are stories that keep being repeated in many countries. What’s important to remember is that individual human lives are being affected.”
He continues to do his part to encourage idealism and support America’s distinguished tradition of rule of law. He volunteers with projects like Lawyers in the Library in the San Francisco Bay area. Freedman suggests that individuals can have an impact on projects for human dignity and freedom by supporting or volunteering with charitable organizations known to do good work, such as the Red Cross, veterans’ organizations or groups that assist immigrants.
To refresh and rejuvenate, Freedman enjoys cycling and especially spending time with his wife and 4-year-old daughter, sometimes taking family outings to places like Lake Tahoe to absorb the natural beauty.
Lawyer Lightning Round
What’s the best part of being a lawyer? Being able to help people.
What’s the best part of being an entrepreneur or having a business or passion outside your legal work? It keeps you true to yourself.
How does your legal background help with what you love to do? I think it gives me more discipline in whatever I do, even in something like cycling.
If you could change one thing about the legal industry, what would it be? It would be for the profession to be more receptive to innovation and creative ideas.
What’s the secret to juggling the practice of law and living a full life outside of the law? Being responsive to your own needs and making sure you have time for family and other things that are important to you.
What’s your advice to lawyers thinking of changing careers, starting their own business or just taking some time off? Assess what you want to do and what you want to accomplish, then look at the skills you have to try to meet those goals.
Do you have one memorable horror story from your legal work? In the U.S. Supreme Court case of Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, it was a key education reform and First Amendment case and I was up at two in the morning assembling the report before the oral argument. It all worked out. We got it all done and we won the case.
What’s your next big adventure? Raising my daughter - that’s big enough right now.
Where do you want to be five years from now? I want my family to be safe and secure. My experience in doing human rights work taught me that life is really unpredictable.
If you could pass any law you wanted, what would it be? It would be universal education for preschoolers in the U.S..
Robert Freedman is an Oakland, Calif.-based attorney whose practice areas include civil litigation, IRS compliance, Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, nonprofit advising and commercial litigation. Freedman is also a Hire An Esquire attorney and is admitted to practice in California and Washington, D.C. View Robert’s HaE profile here.