Q&A with William Robitzek, Attorney, Berman & Simmons
William Robitzek, a senior partner who has helped make Berman & Simmons a powerhouse law firm over the past four decades, will conclude his career with the firm at the end of 2014. Bill started with Berman & Simmons in 1979. He has won some of the largest jury verdicts in Maine history, and his cases have consistently broken new ground for the rights of people who have been harmed. For Bill, it’s time to move on to a new endeavor — a consulting business in which he’ll advise other lawyers on how to successfully resolve their cases.
What drew you to the law as a potential career?
Acting. When I was in high school and college I did a lot of acting, and after college, I taught junior high school for a couple of years. That was acting to a certain degree. You are up in front of a group, communicating to them. There is a performance component to working as a trial lawyer.
There is also a real analytical component that I enjoyed. To do the job well, you have to assimilate a lot of facts and a lot of law. You have to be able to do some good solid analysis and find a way to present that in a persuasive manner, so that you ultimately win the case. Those are the things that really attracted me to it.
If I wasn’t going to end up being a trial lawyer, then I was going to be a taxi driver, because frankly I couldn’t picture myself working in an office all the time, or working in a registry of deeds, or doing transactional work. It was going to have to be trial law.
How did you land the job at Berman & Simmons?
When I was talking to potential employers, I would invariably ask, so, how long before I get into the courtroom? And almost to a law firm, the answer was, well, in about two years you will carry someone’s bag into a courtroom. That wasn’t what I wanted to do.
I was interviewed by Gary Goldberg, from what was then Berman, Simmons, Laskoff and Goldberg. I asked him the question and he said, you get sworn in and you will be in court the next day. And he was almost true to his word. I got sworn in on a Wednesday, and I was in court for my first trial the following Monday. It was a divorce where the couple was fighting over some used tires and a pile of bricks, so it was a perfect case for a new lawyer. There wasn’t a whole lot of damage I could do.
Who have been some of your influences as you developed your career?
There was a professor in college who taught stage design. The primary thing I got from him was the sense of a craft, of doing something at a very high, meticulous level, so the product ends up being something of extremely high quality. Once I got here, Jack Simmons was certainly an influence along the way. Always very supportive. He is the consummate trial lawyer, he would take anything to trial.
The development of the Berman & Simmons partnership was significant. There were four of us who have been together for over 30 years. Me, John Sedgewick, Jay Sweet, and Steve Silin. Jack also, although he is not active at the present time. In leaving the firm, I’m leaving three partners with whom I have practiced with for a long, long time. We formed a strong bond over the years, each of us having our own strengths and weaknesses, but it was just a very supportive internal community.
What was your impression of Maine when you were hired in 1979?
My first impression of Maine was when I visited Lewiston, which was not as depressed as it would later become. I had the sense of the place as an old mill town that still had a certain vitality to it. We quickly found out that Maine is just a marvelous place to be in the outdoors. Both my wife and I loved that and we took up hiking and sailing and all kinds of things that brought us closer to nature and out of the city. I really enjoy kayaking, and I learned to snowboard because of my daughter.
What have been some of the biggest changes in the practice of law?
It is probably trite to say it, but we used to try a lot more cases. Within my first three years at Berman & Simmons, I tried 25 jury trials, an average of 8 a year. Now you are lucky if you get one or two a year. There are a whole variety of reasons why that has changed over the years.
The practice has become a lot more sophisticated than when I started, and a big reason for that is the use of technology. Back then I had a mimeograph machine. We worked with carbon copies, typewriters. With the advance of technology, you didn’t have to reinvent the wheel – or retype the wheel – every time a new case came through the door. You could just continue to refine what you had already done. It has become so much easier for people to share knowledge and experiences.
What accomplishments are you proud of, either individually, or as a team?
I’m proud of having been a part of this firm during this particular period of time. When I joined in 1979 we were a local law firm, sort of a general practice firm with maybe a little more litigation than other general practice firms. And that has now developed to a much larger firm, very sophisticated and involved in a lot of complex, cutting-edge litigation. Some of the cases I’ve worked on that have caught some notoriety are sort of outside the normal realm of trial lawyers in general practice. I’ve been involved in a number of larger commercial kinds of cases, and some with big numbers associated with them. That certainly has been good for the firm.
What have been some rewarding aspects of your work for Berman & Simmons?
It provided me with an amazing opportunity to take on virtually any kind of case that came through the door. When you look at the breadth of cases that I’ve been involved in, that is because of the way this firm was designed. We are willing to take risks, willing to learn about new areas of the law and even push the envelope of the law.
We are really collegial as a group, especially compared to other firms. Collaboration has been one of the hallmarks of the firm that has kept it together and kept it strong.
What are your plans for the future?
I’m going to do a form of legal consulting. I’m essentially setting up a consulting practice where I’m going to do whatever I can to help lawyers bring cases to successful conclusions. That might mean mediation or arbitration, or for others, it might be much more case specific, where they are trying to figure out how to proceed, what their next move should be. So they really want what I call a case tune-up. My new business is called Maine Lawyer Services.
The other piece I’ve been working on for the past couple of years with my relationship with the Maine State Bar Association, is working on mentoring issues for younger lawyers, and transition issues for older lawyers, so I’m still going to keep my hand in that, as well.