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In Remembrance of Karl B. Friedman (1924-2018)

April 6, 2018

Karl B. Friedman passed away on April 4, 2018. Karl was more than one of the founders of our firm. For generations of Sirote’s attorneys and staff, Karl was an inspiration and a role model. For his clients, he was a passionate advocate who, more times than not, became a personal friend.


Karl joined Sirote in 1948, at the insistence of Jimmy Permutt. Karl had graduated from the University of Alabama School of Law, but he often joked that he learned the law through a plywood wall between his office and Jimmy’s. In addition to his wit, Karl possessed a powerful intellect and a compassionate heart.


“Karl had a gift with people,” says Maury Shevin. “He had a natural way that was impossible to resist. He would make you feel like you were the most important person to him. He did that with everyone, and yet it was always sincere. That’s why his clients were often his personal friends, life-long friends. Karl had a passion for the law, but what defined him was his humanity. There is a Jewish concept, Tikkun Olam, that says we have an obligation to repair the world; to make the world a better place. Karl took this obligation to heart, and he used the law to improve the lives of all people in our community.”


Karl Friedman was the second of three children to Max and Sid Friedman. Born in 1924, he married the love of his life, Gladys Cohen, on September 5, 1948, and together they raised three devoted children: Mark Friedman of Birmingham, Tracy Friedman Stein of Houston, and Lolly Friedman Miller of Houston.


Karl was preceded in death by Gladys after 62 years of marriage, and by his parents and his older sister, Elaine Royal. He is survived by his younger sister, Mickey Rubenstein of Birmingham. He is also survived by his sons-in-law, Gary Stein and Stuart Miller, and his adored grandchildren, Sam, Ben, and Ellie Stein. He leaves behind numerous nieces, nephews, great nieces, and great nephews.


A Passionate Advocate


Karl was profoundly influenced by his mother, Sid Friedman, who fought the injustice of segregation and prejudice long before the Civil Rights movement rocked Birmingham and the world. She treated all as a family of equals, and that idea shaped Karl and his sisters from their earliest years. In a 2012 interview for the Esther and Herbert Taylor Oral History Project of the William Bremen Jewish Heritage and Holocaust Museum, Karl described a particular birthday party that left an impression on him for the rest of his life:


“My mother was a hell raiser. She took up so many controversial points that she was conspicuous to Jews and non-Jews alike. She treated black people just as they were equal to everybody else. I had a birthday party when I was a kid, and she invited the black children in our neighborhood. Several white families wouldn’t let their children come because the party was mixed. That didn’t sit well with my mother, and she determined she was going to do something about it. That was the environment my sisters and I were raised in.”


“Our family life was open to myriad different people. There was an Indian chief; he was a dentist. There was a gentleman who was gay, a playwright. We knew it and didn’t care. My mother knew it and didn’t care. My mother was great friends with a black priest that came for Sunday dinner every few months. We had people from the arts. Mother had friends who were in New York who were on radio and in the movies. We didn’t learn about diversity in school; it came into our house.”


A Unique Education for a Unique Man


Karl was a man of keen intellect. His education, as he put it, was concentrated and very good. He attended Lakeview School in Birmingham and later Ramsey High School. He was promoted several times ahead of his age group, so that he graduated high school at 15.


He enrolled at the University of Alabama but his college education was soon interrupted. After a year in undergraduate school, Karl, like many in his generation, volunteered to serve during World War II. “Fifteen of us in the Kappa Nu fraternity at Alabama went down to enlist. When I went up, I wasn’t tall enough, and I didn’t weigh enough to be eligible. I was furious because I was the only one who was that small. I asked when I could try again, and they said, “whenever you want to.”


So, I went back home to the fraternity.  I had a friend who had lifts in his shoes. I got his shoes. I ate eight bananas and drank two quarts of milk. I came back over to the recruiting office and they knew. They laughed – they didn’t weigh me or anything. They just let me in.


“For the Jews, the war was personal as much as it was a World War. We wanted to go. The pride that Jewish people had in being American was higher than anything else but G-d.”  Trained as P-47 Thunderbolt fighter pilot, the war began to wind down before Karl was deployed to England. In a defining moment of his life, Karl spent the last years of his service in the Judge Advocate General Corps and there became interested in the law. 


“My supervisor told me I should go meet the Dean of the University of Alabama Law School, with whom he’d gone to school. The dean had my grades from my one year of undergraduate, and my military records. He said, ‘I’m going to take a chance on you. So come on in.’”  For years, Karl famously told people “I’m the only lawyer that never had an education before he got to be a lawyer.”


An Attorney and a Natural Leader


Karl graduated from the University of Alabama Law School in 1948. It was one of the most notable classes in Alabama’s history.  “Karl was both the smallest and smartest member of his graduating class from law school,” Maury said. “And his class included people like Senator Howell Heflin, Governor George Wallace, Congressmen Tom Bevill and Armistead Selden, and Alabama Attorney General Richmond Flowers. People who, like Karl, shaped the history of Alabama.”


Karl quickly joined Morris Sirote, Jimmy Permutt and Edward Friend, Jr. in their newly formed law firm. Karl loved to joke that they made him managing partner before they made him a partner because no one else wanted to do the job. With his gift for people, he was a natural leader of the firm, even at such a young age. He saw the firm through moments today noted in history.


Karl Friedman was a superb lawyer for many reasons. His knowledge of the law was encyclopedic; his skill and eloquence as an advocate was unsurpassed. He perhaps will be most remembered among clients as a visionary counselor, tendering his advice with endless kindness, keen wisdom and solid pragmatism. Counseling was what he loved. And this was Karl Friedman at his best.


During his prime his workdays began no later than 6:00am so he could find the time to meet with those seeking his counsel. He could get right to the heart of a problem and somehow solve seemingly intractable dilemmas.


Stories abound about the lives he changed, failing businesses he saved, families in crisis he rescued. People hesitated to make important business and personal decisions without obtaining Uncle Bubba’s sage advice. He learned the internal operations of his clients’ businesses so he could help them make strategic decisions most effectively.


He Stood Up to be Counted


Few moments in history illustrate Karl’s strength and courage than his willingness to take on the hard work necessary to moving our community and our country forward during the volatile years of the Civil Rights era. 


As a leader in the Jewish community, Karl served as president of both Temple Beth-El and the Levite Jewish Community Center, among other organizations. As protests and marches rocked the city, Karl and other leaders of the Jewish community coordinated their support of the Civil Rights leaders. They raised money. They represented leaders of the movement, though always in the background. Not everyone agreed with his stance, and more than once his home was attacked. A bullet hole remains today in a window near the front door.


Karl was a mentor to generations of young attorneys in the firm. He taught them all that it wasn’t enough to know the law; you had to understand people, and you had to understand every detail of a client’s business. It was uncommon thinking in law.


He loved to say that you can be ruthless with time, but never with people. It didn’t matter if you were Chairperson of our largest client or the person tasked with cleaning our building, Karl recognized the humanity in everyone he met. He was a contemporary thinker. He always wanted to be relevant, so he consumed information about the world. He shared that wisdom with generations of young attorneys, young Jews and young activists on fire to change the world.


Karl was the kind of man who could call Bobby Kennedy in the 1960s to get a Federal charter for a black-owned bank in Birmingham. He could mix with the brightest, the richest and the most successful. But if you asked him, he would happily tell you that he enjoyed working for the Mom & Pop business owners more.


A Passion for People


Karl loved the strengths, weaknesses, even the rascalities of all who came his way. People were his passion. Even within our own firm, our lawyers and employees continually sought his opinion on our most important decisions – the house we wanted to buy, the investments we wish we had not made, and the child who was driving us absolutely nuts. He was our in-house Solomon.


Karl was the best judge of people one could find, an effective and intuitive lay-psychologist.  Among his counseling skills was the uncanny ability to affirm, to make those he touched feel better about themselves. His affinity for the underdog made his office a destination for those who considered themselves outcasts. He believed in redemption, could find worth and dignity in nearly everyone, and he didn’t judge people by the isolated bad decisions they made or even the worst chapters of their lives.


It was for these and for so many other reasons that his clients adored him, his law partners delighted in him, and we all rejoiced in this remarkable man who did so very much for so many.


Karl Friedman devoted his life to his family, his firm and his community. And we loved him in return. May we all live so well.


On behalf of the Shareholders of Sirote & Permutt, P.C.,

W. Todd Carlisle 


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