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Fred Pritzker
Fred Pritzker had an exceptional work ethic, said his surviving spouse, Renee Pritzker. (Photo: Pritzker Hageman)

Fred Pritzker was a formidable lawyer and a mensch

There isn’t any doubt that Minneapolis attorney Fred Pritzker and his firm were a force to be reckoned with. The list of seven- and eight-figure verdicts on the Pritzker Hageman website make that as clear as plastic wrap over food.

The firm has a national reputation for victories for plaintiffs and families affected by foodborne illnesses. When Pritzker died at 71 of multiple myeloma on Jan. 10, the Star Tribune termed him a formidable adversary to Fortune 500 companies, and not just in food poisoning cases.

But he was also called a sweetheart with a heart of gold, a devoted father and husband, a mensch, a close friend, a committed disability rights advocate and a philanthropist.

A St. Paul native, Pritzker graduated from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1976 and started his practice at what is now Meshbesher and Spence. He continued to work until days before his death, and he and partner Eric Hageman recently settled what is believed to be the largest foodborne illness case in the country. The settlement is confidential, Hageman said.

He had an exceptional work ethic, said his surviving spouse, Renee Pritzker. He worked as hard as he could, seven days a week, and believed that when you are doing work that you love, which he was, you do it with passion and do it well, she said.

Nothing was better than being “exquisitely prepared,” Renee said. He also believed that fear is an important part of practicing law and that the lawyer’s drive will follow the fear.

He would say, “If you have good systems, you can get everything done,” Renee said. “He had an amazing capacity to fit everything in.”

Friends and family noted Pritzker’s intellectual drive and curiosity. When he was researching an issue, he’d leave no stone unturned, Hennepin County District Court Judge Elizabeth Cutter said. He looked for solutions and found them, she added. That curiosity extended to philanthropy, about which he was “intentional,” Renee said.

Pritzker took deep dives into subjects, learning the medicine and science involved in a case. “He was as good with medical testimony as the experts,” Hageman said. His “master preparedness” and range made him an example to lawyers, Minneapolis attorney Thomas Glennon said, as did his belief that it is an honor and responsibility to practice law. He would say, “What ought to be done, shall be done.” Minnesota Lawyer named him an Attorney of the Year three times.

He was a good friend. “Every day I miss him,” said Cutter, his friend of nearly 50 years. “We planned to push each other’s wheelchairs.”

He exhibited dedication, warmth and friendship to clients, many of whom became friends. “He showed kindness and respect to clients and counsel,” whether or not their personalities meshed, Renee said. He made friends with defense lawyers and they traveled together, she added.

Pritzker’s devotion to his family, son Jake and daughter Sarah, made him the lawyer that he was, said Glennon. His family supported him and his work, and he made time for them. Two weeks before his diagnosis, he and Sarah went on a bicycling vacation in Israel, Renee said. “He had a wonderful adventurous relationship with his daughter.”

His family also led to his leadership in disability rights. Jake lives with Angelman’s syndrome, caused by a genetic mutation. Pritzker became president of Angelman Syndrome Foundation of America.  Ben Philpot, a leading Angelman syndrome researcher, said the family’s involvement in the foundation and in the direct funding of research has been globally transformational in helping to develop treatments.

“Even beyond his monetary philanthropy, the Angelman syndrome community will benefit from Fred’s philanthropy of time working to scrutinize proposals to identify the ones that would most benefit the community, his efforts to identify additional donors, and his advocacy for Angelman syndrome individuals and bringing them better clinical care. He asked for nothing in return, and most in the community will not recognize the benefits they have gained from Fred’s selfless efforts,” Philpot said in an email to Minnesota Lawyer.

Philpot also said, “Fred reminded me that my research was much more than a scientific pursuit, but that there was an individual and their family to think about on the other side of my research. This was the first of many valuable lessons that Fred would teach me.

“In our conversations Fred helped me appreciate Angelman syndrome from a whole new vantage, and he pointed out that in a world that now seems particularly full of hate, that his son Jake has never willingly hurt anyone or done a hateful thing in his life, and that despite the hardships of having Angelman syndrome, he would never, ever want to change this aspect of Jake.”

Pritzker also worked with Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid on a still-pending class action on behalf of disabled persons who want the Department of Human Services to modify its residential service system to provide individuals with living choices and prevent needless segregation of individuals in segregated residential settings. Justin Perl, director of litigation at Legal Aid, said that not only did Pritzker help frame the case and create its message, he and Renee also financed one of the lawyers on the case, Murphy v. Harpstead, which is set for trial in May.

Pritzker’s exquisite preparation carried over to the succession of Pritzker Hageman, which will continue as strong as ever, Hageman said. Renee said that Hageman, whom Pritzker called the best partner he’d ever had, was integral to the firm’s success during Fred’s lifetime. The transition was organized before Pritzker passed, and he was happy to know that the firm was in good hands, Renee said.

“We will go forward although we will miss him every day,” Hageman said.

People will also miss his sense of humor, Cutter said. He had a quick wit that he often turned on himself, she said.

He’d also play practical jokes on people in the office, Hageman said. Once, in retaliation, members placed what they said was a physical specimen on his desk with a request to analyze the sample. It was actually a candy bar.

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