Sharon Freytag was the kind of lawyer we all aspire to be – a powerful writer, a gifted oral advocate, a generous mentor and a respected leader in the bar. With her trademark fiery red hair, she epitomized style and grace. She loved to laugh and was famous for her Christmas parties where she led lawyers in singing around the piano. Sharon died last week at the age of 78. She will be sorely missed by her many friends and colleagues.
Born and raised in Larned, Kansas, Sharon obtained a Master’s degree in English from the University of Michigan, and taught high school English for four years. In 1970, she moved to Dallas with her husband, Tom Freytag, where they had two children who were the light of Sharon’s life: Kurt David Freytag and Hillary Lee Freytag Rose. In 1978, at the age of 35 and with two young children, Sharon made a bold decision: she applied to law school. Three years later, Sharon graduated from SMU Law School with honors, having served as Editor-in-Chief of the law review.
Sharon graduating from SMU Dedman School of Law
Upon graduation in 1981, she was offered a clerkship by then-District Judge Patrick E. Higginbotham.When Judge Higginbotham was appointed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals the following year, he asked Sharon to continue as his law clerk for his first term on the Fifth Circuit. Jeff Levinger, a fellow Higginbotham clerk during the 1982-83 term, remembers Sharon as “a great friend, a patient mentor and, at times when we needed it, a motherly figure who made sure we were behaving ourselves.”
In 1983, Sharon was hired by Haynes and Boone, where she would become a founding member of the firm’s appellate practice group and one of the top appellate lawyers in the state. Over her 29-year career, she was a critical member of numerous trial teams and handled many high-profile appeals in Texas state and federal courts, as well as the United States Court of Federal Claims and the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals.
In 2009, Sharon obtained rare en banc review in the Fifth Circuit (granted in less than one percent of cases). She persuaded the court to reverse an order vacating an arbitration award, setting the standard for vacatur in the Fifth Circuit. After her oral argument, the client told her on the courthouse steps that she was “like Jackie O. as a sniper – classy but deadly!” Ophelia Camina, a partner at Susman Godfrey, remembers that argument before all sixteen judges of the Fifth Circuit well. “Sharon commanded the stage. When she spoke, you could see every judge lean forward. It was a great privilege to watch her.” The client later wrote to his company, “Today we were not represented by a good lawyer; we were represented by a great lawyer, one that made me proud to be a member of the profession.”
Sharon played a role in founding, and served as president of, the ABA Council of Appellate Lawyers, the only national appellate bench bar organization, where she worked with federal and state judges from throughout the country. She also served on the board of directors and executive committee of the State Bar of Texas, and for almost a decade on the board of directors of the Center for Brain Health at the University of Texas at Dallas.
Sharon with U.S. Senator John Cornyn and Judge Mary Murphy
Sharon served as a mentor to countless lawyers, including the Honorable Jeremy Kernodle, a judge on the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas. Judge Kernodle described Sharon as “a kind and generous mentor who shared victories and opportunities with many lucky young lawyers, including me. I’m a better lawyer and person having known her.” Those sentiments were echoed by Ben Mesches, chair of Haynes Boone’s litigation department, who said, “Sharon was a brilliant lawyer, but what I will remember most is her fundamental goodness, unflinchingly positive attitude, and desire to help others. She opened the door to my first leadership opportunity in the law. The trust and confidence she placed in this young lawyer gave me just the boost I needed at just the time I needed it.”
In the decade before her retirement, Sharon’s office was crowded with pictures of her grandchildren – Caitlin, Elise, Claire and Bryce – whom she adored. She was particularly thrilled to take them on trips abroad and create special experiences with each of them, as only Sharon could do.
Nina Cortell, Sharon’s friend and colleague for more than 30 years, speaks for all of us who knew and loved Sharon: “When the history of the appellate bar is written, Sharon Freytag will occupy a special place. Through her unwavering commitment to excellence and her superior advocacy, as well as her inspirational leadership, she helped put appellate practice on the map as a recognized area of specialization. And she did it all with unparalleled grace and gravitas. She elevated the bar for us all, and we are all deeply indebted to her for the doors she opened, the paths she paved, and the life she led so gloriously.”