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Duluth law firm celebrates 125 years

How does a business exist for more than a century? "By reputation and accident," said Harold Frederick, an attorney with Fryberger Law. "Well, and community involvement," added David Oberstar, president of the firm. "We're involved in the communi...

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How does a business exist for more than a century?

"By reputation and accident," said Harold Frederick, an attorney with Fryberger Law.

"Well, and community involvement," added David Oberstar, president of the firm. "We're involved in the community and you get to know a lot of people that way."

Whether through serendipity, prestige, local involvement or a combination of all three, the Fryberger, Buchanan, Smith & Frederick law firm have cemented themselves as a Duluth staple. The 125th anniversary milestone they're celebrating this year is a testament to that heritage.

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Before the age of radio and the diesel engine, there was Herschel B. Fryberger Sr.

"He was a giant, H.B. Fryberger," said James Stewart, another attorney with the firm. "I don't know if there are lawyers like that anymore."

He worked big cases, said Stewart. He did trial and appellate work and was involved in hundreds of cases. Being a great lawyer meant being involved in the big cases, and that's what Fryberger Senior did, working with industry barons in mining, timber and the railroad.

"That's probably the single strongest part of the whole story was he was just a great lawyer," said Stewart.

Fryberger Senior was joined by his son Herschel Fryberger Jr. in 1932. Another prominent member of the firm's storied history is Nick Smith. The son-in-law of Fryberger Junior, he helped push for the merger with another Duluth firm. As the business began to grow, so did the services provided and the offices that opened.

They expanded to St. Paul in 1991, giving them a foothold near the legislative center of the state and opportunities to lobby on account of their Northland clients. Four years later, they expanded across state lines into Superior. That made it easier to help clients in Wisconsin.

"We have a lot of clients that need legislative representation and we can provide that," said Oberstar. "By having them come through our firm and using our offices down in the twin cities, it gives them a better connection to the area.

The firm's involvement in a number of integral cases have helped shape the landscape of the city. When residents of Duluth were deciding where to funnel I-35 to town, they considered going over the ridge and around the city before settling on channeling it through the city. That meant relocating the railroads downtown. Harold Frederick and the Fryberger law firm helped make that happen.

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Frederick joined the firm in 1968, after working as a city attorney. He worked alongside some of the individuals that helped grow the business - who also emphasized the importance of community.

"When I was practicing with Nick Smith and Herschel Fryberger (Jr.), there wasn't a lot of economic activity in Duluth," said Frederick, "so we decided we would spend a lot of time working community projects and that's been pursued over the years."

While the firm has kept its base of operations in the Lonsdale building since 1906, it's growth in personnel and forms of law it practices continues to evolve.

The firm has blossomed to employ 23 attorneys spread across multiple states who provide more than 35 legal services. No longer just business, Fryberger attorneys also focus on a variety of other practices like environmental and timber law, municipal financing and electronic commerce.

However, it's not just community involvement that's important said Stewart. To stay competitive means growing and connecting with new clients in other industries.

"We have younger lawyers here who are associating themselves with young entrepreneurs who are starting the businesses in Duluth and Superior of the next generation," said Stewart.

Stewart said they're looking into more places to grow. Whether that's through assisting in another business venture or cracking further into the real estate market.

Many of their attorney's are from the area. Cities like Grand Rapids, Ely, Fargo and Grand Forks have all been home to members of the firm.

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"I think it has more to do with people wanting to stay in the region, or people from smaller communities who want to be in a bigger place that isn't the twin cities," said Oberstar, a native of Virginia.

Other significant milestones of the firm include projects that individual attorney's were passionate about. That includes work to help rebuild the YMCA and contributing to the Great Lakes Aquarium.

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