Hall of Fame: Aaron Freiwald

At first glance, Aaron Freiwald’s career seems to defy a single definition. Originally an investigative journalist, then an author, and now a celebrated trial lawyer, Freiwald’s career has certainly had twists and turns. But a single, bold line runs through every facet of his work: a devotion to the pursuit of justice. The thrill he finds in forging his own path allows him to continue finding the next way he can obtain justice for those who need it most.

For more than 25 years, Freiwald has used that passion for justice to build a renowned plaintiffs’ law practice, ensuring his clients have access to the care and compensation they need and are owed. He has tried high-profile litigation against major companies in cases related to medical malpractice, chemical exposure, defective products, auto accidents, victims’ rights and more. He has prevailed in numerous multimillion-dollar settlements and jury verdicts against hospitals and health systems, insurance companies, chemical and consumer product companies and more.

Even within his work as a trial lawyer, Freiwald draws upon his past to continue broadening his horizons. Freiwald’s early work as a foreign correspondent mirrors a new division of his firm, an initiative to represent companies in Mexico and other Latin American countries that have claims against U.S. companies and that want to bring civil cases in U.S. Courts. In one case that is a model for the work Freiwald Law is doing in this area, Freiwald successfully represented two of Mexico’s largest egg-laying chicken breeders in a multimillion-dollar action against an American animal health company over a defective animal vaccine. “We can represent companies from Mexico and elsewhere on a contingent-fee basis, which completely changes for the better the risk assessment any company makes before deciding to bring a lawsuit for business losses caused by another company,” Freiwald explains. “Hiring a big commercial defense firm is prohibitively expensive for many companies, but a contingent-fee arrangement can make a lot of sense for companies considering litigation in the United States,” he adds.

Freiwald also draws on his journalism background in producing his legal podcast, “Good Law | Bad Law,” in which he speaks with the foremost experts on legal issues relevant to today’s sociopolitical climate. Past discussions have included bail reform, immigration law and the future of the Supreme Court.

This year, Freiwald was inducted to Lawdragon’s Hall of Fame – a fitting recognition for a lawyer with a tireless work ethic, an eye for creativity and a staunch commitment to what’s right.

Lawdragon: Tell me a bit about your first career as a journalist.

Aaron Freiwald: I started as a writer all the way back in high school, when I was editor of my high school paper. Then, I was editor of my college paper, which was a daily newspaper. Ultimately, I spent about eight years in journalism as an investigative reporter, editor and author.

LD: Right, as an author, too – tell me about your book, “The Last Nazi.”

AF: “The Last Nazi” is a nonfiction history about one of the last major Nazis ever to be brought to trial. He was extradited from Argentina to Germany right around the time the Berlin Wall came down. There were a lot of changes happening in Europe, and really around the world – so, it was a powerful statement to bring someone to accountability after decades.

LD: What led you to that story?

AF: At the time, I was writing about law and politics in Washington and then in New York. I was becoming very interested in the ways in which the law and justice are part of history, and how those come together in important historical moments. I thought this was one of those milestone moments.

LD: How did the book and your journalism experience lead to your transition into the law?

AF: When I finished my manuscript for the book, I didn't immediately have an idea for the next one. I was really ready to be around people again. I had always hoped that I might one day go to law school, so at that point I said to myself, “If I don’t go now, I’m not going to.”

LD: When you graduated from law school, how did you find your practice area – being a trial lawyer handling major civil cases?

AF: I started out very briefly at a large law firm and quickly realized that was not for me.

LD: What made you realize that?

AF: I was an older new lawyer at that point. I wasn't really good at corporate life. I had carved a pretty unconventional path for my career, so that just wasn’t for me.

On the other hand, experiencing the creativity of being a plaintiffs’ trial lawyer, figuring out how to put the story of a case together – that was for me.

A lot of what we do as trial lawyers is storytelling. That was something that I had been doing in a very different way for a number of years already. So, I think it was the storytelling, the creative parts of putting a case together, that really drew me to plaintiffs’ trial work – as well as the social justice component of representing people and companies that have been wronged. I knew that if I could take my skills and the kind of energy and passion I bring to what I do to help somebody else and change their life, that would be very powerful. My early heroes were people like Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein; I wanted to have a sense of justice in what I was doing. 

A lot of what we do as trial lawyers is storytelling.

LD: From there, how did you decide that you wanted to start your own law firm?

AF: You know, I think I was always built to start my own firm.

LD: What qualities do you think make someone built for that path?

AF: An entrepreneurial drive and a knowledge of the art and science of charting your own path. I’ve always tremendously valued the freedom that comes with that. You also have to have a high level of energy and commitment to what you're doing. And I think you’ve got to mix in some amount of crazy.

I talk with my kids about making their own paths now that they're in their twenties. You don't always know how you're going to make things work, but if you point yourself in what you think is the right direction, you're going to figure things out. If you need to make a change, then you make a change.

That advice applies to the courtroom, as well. You have to plan and be prepared and carefully think through what you're doing. But you also have to be able to handle the surprises and the spontaneity of the courtroom. I find that combination very exciting.

LD: How did the firm grow? Has it grown in the way that you kind of expected it would, or have there been twists and turns to it?

AF: I’d say it's both.

We started out, like a lot of plaintiffs’ firms do, with medical malpractice products, liability cases and matters like that. What I've enjoyed about the freedom of having my own firm is that I have the ability to explore the unexpected when an opportunity comes along. That led me to a major toxic tort litigation that I handled against Dow Chemical.

LD: Tell me more about that case.

AF: Well, I didn’t know how big it would become. The case involved 33 families who had brain tumors from a toxic chemical spill in Northern Illinois.

LD: How did the opportunity to try that case present itself?

AF: Somebody came to me who had tried knocking on the doors of several other plaintiffs’ firms in town. They heard I was somebody who might take on a case that involved a high level of risk. I was fascinated by the case, and I thought it sounded important and challenging, which it was. The case became the largest environmental brain cancer cluster ever. That challenge became the next 10 years of my life.

LD: Wow. That's a long-haul process. How did that case turn out?

AF: I could teach an entire law school course from my experiences in that litigation. Thankfully, it ended very well for my clients.

LD: Do you have any other examples of spontaneous moments like that that have changed the course of your career?

AF: I do. For instance, I wasn't necessarily planning on getting involved in representing victims of sexual assault and sexual abuse. But again, through a contact, one case became many cases. It’s been incredibly gratifying to help people who've suffered that type of loss and hardship.

So, there have been lots of spontaneous opportunities in my career that have opened new doors.

LD: Your dedication to helping your clients brings itself to your community at large, as well. I know, for instance, you worked to help provide underprivileged children with Chromebooks early in the pandemic.

AF: That initiative was started by my old friend and tennis partner, Lowell Rich, who grew up in West Philly. He is really devoted to giving back to the community in Philadelphia.

Right at the start of the pandemic, kids were expected to work remotely, but there are thousands of families in Philadelphia who don't have the money to have a computer for their child. We got to talking about it and we agreed we had to do something.

We’d already had some experience working with a school in Philadelphia, raising money for them to help buy winter coats for the kids. For kids, it's hard enough to get up and go to school. But, if you don't have a coat, not only are you cold, but it's embarrassing. So, those initiatives are something that I've been really blessed to be able to help him work on.

Everybody in our firm is active in their community in some way. One of our lawyers has high school students who intern with him so they can see what working at a law firm is like. And in other cases, we’ve been involved in programs working with victims of sexual assault in various ways, outside of trying their cases. All of that kind of work goes hand in hand with what we do, not just as lawyers, but as citizens.

LD: Speaking of work outside of your cases, I have to ask about your podcast, “Good Law | Bad Law.” Tell me a little bit about why you wanted to get involved in podcasting.

AF: I started the podcast because it felt like a way to bring together my journalism background and the law.

Every time I do an episode, I learn a lot and meet some really great people. The media is often so superficial, and when you get into issues of law, which run throughout everything – society, culture and politics – it's pretty hard to get an understanding of an issue with the amount of time the regular media can devote to it.

The podcast, in which we devote between 30 minutes to an hour to discussing an issue with somebody who can really have an in-depth conversation about it, is a chance to dig deep into some issues that we all care about.

LD: Absolutely. Back to the firm, what kinds of cases are keeping you busy these days?

AF: Well, it’s a very busy time for us because the courts are busy again coming out of the pandemic. We've got a lot of cases coming out of backlog and going to trial this year and next year.

The case matters right now are varied – we have medical malpractice cases, and then I have a very substantial legal malpractice case that involves allegations of fraud and unethical conduct. We also have a number of sexual assault and sexual abuse cases, including one I’m filing out of state shortly. We’ve had cases all over the country.

What I've enjoyed about the freedom of having my own firm is that I have the ability to explore the unexpected when an opportunity comes along.

LD: What would you say are some of the most memorable cases of your career?

AF: The cases I find memorable are the ones where we made a difference.

I mean, we can all pull out a case and say, "Oh, look at this big number I got in that case.” That's fine, and that's obviously a big part of what we do. We're trying to get compensation for our clients. But the cases that I find memorable and the ones that I will look on and feel proud of are the ones where we really made a difference.

Patient safety, for instance, is a big concern for me. I’m not sure whether that’s due to my journalism background, or things I’ve learned as a trial lawyer, or even doing the podcast where we look at problems on a higher level, but I have a lot of concerns about the safety of our healthcare system. I'm concerned about responsibility and accountability.

We have a case right now that involves that concern. In Pennsylvania, as in a lot of states, nonprofits can avoid paying taxes. That's part of what a nonprofit enjoys as a nonprofit. But, a lot – in fact, most – major hospitals and healthcare systems are nonprofits and enjoy avoiding paying property tax as a result.

LD: Right.

AF: Now, where do property tax dollars go? To support schools. Remember, one of the community involvements I've engaged in is helping support students from low-income areas, so this means a lot to me. These are schools where the teachers can't afford basic supplies in their classrooms, like pens and paper.

Now, Pennsylvania’s constitution says only those entities that are “purely public charities” can get exemption from property tax. Long, long ago, hospitals were charities. I don't think you can look at hospitals today and say they function anything like charities. In fact, they're really major corporations competing with other big healthcare corporations. Yet, these hospital health systems still enjoy property tax exemption in Pennsylvania, as they do in most states in the country.

So, we have filed a challenge against one of the largest health systems in the Philadelphia area seeking to have their property tax exemption removed. The case goes to trial later this year. If we are successful, that billion-dollar hospital system will pay its fair share of takes in support of our public schools just as the rest of us have to do.

LD: Wow.

AF: That’s the kind of matter that, as a trial lawyer, we ought to care about. We should be involved in cases that make a difference. I'm proud to say that I’ve done that, and that's the kind of fight that I'm going to keep fighting as long as I can.