Lester Pines: a lawyer, but a father first

2012-11-21T05:30:00Z Lester Pines: a lawyer, but a father firstSTEVEN ELBOW | The Capital Times | selbow@madison.com madison.com

Lester Pines arrived in Madison with limited means in 1968 to attend the University of Wisconsin. "It was the best school that I could get into that I could afford," he says.

While he had high school aspirations to be a rabbi, he intended to pursue graduate studies in social work.

During his undergraduate years, he met his future wife, Roberta Gassman, who suggested law school. "That's probably what I should have had my eye on to begin with," he says.

In 1975, Pines joined up with Harold Langhammer and Mark Frankel and began doing criminal defense work. Pines turned out to be a magnet for high-profile cases.

Early in his career he was on a team that defended David Fine, one of the defendants in the 1970 Army Mathematics Research Center (Sterling Hall) bombing on the UW-Madison campus that killed researcher Robert Fassnacht. Despite that fact that Fine had been a fugitive for six years after the bombing, Pines was able to convince then-U.S. District Court magistrate, now federal judge, Barbara Crabb to let Fine out on bail. He later represented Fine's co-defendant Dwight Armstrong.

In more recent years he's continued to take on defense cases that have garnered intense publicity.

Last year, after Doyle's son Gus was arrested for what would have been his second drunken driving offense, Pines got all the charges dismissed, arguing that the officer who made the traffic stop didn't have probable cause. And in 2004 Pines went to bat for Audrey Seiler, the troubled UW student who made national news by faking her own kidnapping. Seiler eventually pleaded guilty to two counts of obstruction for lying to investigators.

In 1984 Pines joined up with Lee Cullen and Cheryl Weston to form Cullen, Weston & Pines. Because his firm represented police and teachers unions, he was getting a lot of business representing cops and teachers who were accused of crimes. Headlines from the 1980s and '90s are rife with Pines' cases: teachers and cops accused of sexual assault, abuse, theft, you name it — the kinds of cases that get a lot of ink.

"He's so bright, and he's so credible in the way he presents things," says John Matthews, executive director of Madison Teachers Inc. "But everything, in my opinion, is based on his confidence and his planning. It just goes like clockwork."

Over time, Pines' civil trial practice began to overshadow his criminal defense work. As his career was taking off, so was Gassman's.

She was entrenched in local politics, working in key positions with Mayor Paul Soglin and County Executive Rick Phelps, as well as working for local political campaigns. Over the years, both Pines and Gassman struck up a friendship with Doyle, who managed to make good use of their talents. In 2003, Doyle appointed Gassman to head the Department of Workforce Development, and Pines' role in government-related litigation widened.

In 2005 Pines defended Democratic defendants in the Capitol caucus scandal, which resulted in criminal convictions for several lawmakers and staffers from both parties for doing political work on state time.

He also bolstered his reputation as a fierce advocate for his clients in the realm of public opinion. A case in point was his relentless defense in the media of former UW Vice Chancellor Paul Barrows, who was subjected to a withering attack from lawmakers, media personalities, university officials and others after allegations, never proven, that in 2004 he had sexually harassed two women. Pines frequently defended Barrows in the public arena, and still does.

"Paul was subjected to horrific, defamatory statements about him and his conduct," he says. "And it turned out, of course, that none of it was true."

Barrows eventually won a $135,000 settlement from the university to drop his claim that he was discriminated against when he was demoted after the allegations came out.

"I will defend my clients in the court of public opinion," Pines says. "I will not allow my clients to be attacked by people in public office, or media figures, without responding."

In January 2011, as Scott Walker entered the governor's office, Pines' firm enlisted Doyle's legal counsel, Susan Crawford. When Republicans took control of state government and began pressing their agenda, Pines, Crawford and Tamara Packard, a partner at Cullen, Weston, Pines & Bach, began preparing challenges on state constitutional grounds.

Their first success came in March when Circuit Court Judge Richard Niess voided key parts of the voter ID law.

In September, Circuit Judge Juan Colas handed Walker his biggest setback to date by declaring that part of his signature achievement, the state law passed last year curtailing collective bargaining rights for public workers (Act 10), violated the constitutional rights of teachers and municipal workers.

"Susan Crawford and Tamara Packard played a huge role in these cases," Pines says. "I don't want to take credit for the results of the cases without acknowledging them because they are incredibly good lawyers and they will actually be here doing these things long after I'm gone."

Unlike many high-achievers in the profession, Pines managed to stay active in community affairs. He's a member of the Madison Downtown Rotary and former president of the Madison Jewish Community Council.

He maintains a close relationship with the tight-knit local Jewish community, which includes several attorneys and judges.

"You should have seen temple during the high holidays the week after he won the Act 10 case in Judge Colas' courtroom," says Kaiser, who was there. "It was like his own personal reception line."

An adjunct professor at the UW Law School, Pines helped develop a pre-trial advocacy course, which he's taught since 1994. In 2010, the Law School awarded him the Adjunct Professor or the Year Award.

Other accolades have rolled in over the years, including a 2005 induction into the American College of Trial Lawyers, an elite group that invites no more than 1 percent of the lawyers in any state.

Through it all, he's never shirked his family duties. He managed to play a 50-50 role in raising two daughters with Gassman, who is now an official with the U.S. Department of Labor. Anna, 35, is now a professor of public policy at Duke University, and Jenny, 32, is a Minneapolis attorney.

Anyone who knows Pines also knows the pride he takes in his kids. He brings it up whenever he gets the chance.

"My career as a lawyer pales in comparison to my being a father," he says. "My greatest achievements are my daughters, and I share that achievement with my wife."

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