Bob Frederick decided last spring it was time for a career shift.
He is sticking with the legal profession, but retired from the position of Chief Judge in Kansas’ 25th Judicial District in southwest Kansas.
“I thoroughly enjoyed being a trial court judge, but the COVID ordeal has been such a stressor,” Frederick said. “I finally concluded that if I couldn’t go to work and enjoy what I was doing, it was time for me to get out.”
Frederick, 71, of Lakin, is not fading into solitude, however, or planning fill-in roles on the bench or in other capacities, as some retired judges elect.
He stored the black robe and returned to private law practice as a member of the Salina-based Kennedy Berkley firm.
Frederick assumed the “of counsel” title, signifying an “older or established attorney,” said Jim Angell, Kennedy Berkley’s managing partner.
“Bob’s got a great reputation. He’s a very well-respected, intelligent judge who writes thorough opinions,” Angell said. “He’s going to serve several different areas, one of the primary ones in mediation and arbitration.”
A mediator works with opposing parties to attempt to fashion a settlement that both sides can agree to and live with. In arbitration, parties who cannot reach a settlement can submit their dispute to an arbitrator, who then decides the case.
“It is atypical for a judge to retire from the bench and go into private practice,” Angell said. “That’s what makes this a great story. Bob is a really well-read, well-rounded guy.”
Frederick will be based in the firm’s Garden City office with Marc Kliewer. The firm also has offices in Dodge City and Hays.
“Bob will complement what Marc’s doing there and allow us to expand our services in southwest Kansas,” Angell said. “Marc is one of the top agribusiness attorneys in the state. He’s outstanding, one of the best kept secrets in Kansas.”
“A significant percentage of Kennedy Berkley’s business is in southwest Kansas,” Angell said. “Southwest Kansas is heavily reliant on agriculture, and it’s vital to have professional advisors who understand the unique needs of farmers and businesses that serve them.”
Kliewer welcomes the addition of Frederick.
“It’s really helpful to have another lawyer for the firm out here. Having somebody with Bob’s background who can meet with clients, either face-to-face or by video, is going to be a huge benefit,” Kliewer said.
He praised area attorneys for their abilities in mediating domestic disputes but added there is a growing need for mediators who can evaluate and work to resolve business disputes.
“Where Bob benefits the area is his background in business litigation, both as a lawyer and a judge,” Kliewer said. “That will be a huge help for all of the southwest Kansas bar and litigants.”
Moving forward, Frederick plans to “give back” as a seasoned lawyer. His goal harkens back to his foray into the legal field some 45 years ago, when the legal community in the state’s high plains embraced the young lawyer.
Kennedy Berkley was “looking for someone to do four things — arbitration, mediation, adding a fresh set of eyes to new and ongoing case evaluations, and mentoring some of the young lawyers,” Frederick said.
He can pull from his experience in private practice and more than 20 years on the bench. Frederick also sat with the Kansas Court of Appeals, assigned to 17 cases in 2018, which were argued and decided from October through December of that year.
While it was imposing on the full-time chief judge, he said, “I was really glad I did it. It was a wonderful, insightful experience with regard to how the Court of Appeals really functions.”
Prior to that he was assigned a civil case with the Kansas Supreme Court, when Chief Justice Marla J. Luckert recused herself.
“I would like to think that I have had an extensive and broad range of experiences, and if I use those experiences correctly, I will make a first rate mediator and arbitrator,” Frederick said.
He will be paying that forward while enjoying the fruits of legal practice.
Frederick was reared in Hugoton where his father was a medical doctor. That profession, with doctors on call around the clock “was not my cup of tea,” he said.
Instead, the youngster’s sights were trained on the law profession.
He graduated Hugoton High School in 1968 and completed a bachelors degree in education from the University of Kansas in 1972. Frederick moved directly into Washburn University Law School, graduating in August 1975.
Frederick’s wife, Debbie, now a retired registered nurse, grew up in the Overland Park area.
“I thought I was going to end up in the big city,” Frederick recalled. “Almost all of the interviewing was in the Wichita, Topeka, and metro Kansas City areas, and a couple of things looked pretty promising.”
The young couple was spending the holidays in 1975 with his parents in Hugoton, when out of the blue, then-Kearny County Attorney Greg Schaller called him.
“He wanted to know if I’d be interested in a small-town practice,” Frederick said. “I knew that if I went to a big city firm, I’d be low man on the totem pole, and I thought by being in Lakin, I could be my own boss and do for myself what I would be doing for some other firm.”
After spending “the better part of a day” in the Kearny County seat, “we decided ‘What the hell, we’ll try it,’ and moved to Lakin in March of 1976, not knowing whether we’d be there 15 minutes, or a lifetime.”
He was intrigued by the idea of becoming the county prosecutor and beginning a solo civil law practice.
“I was taking whatever came through the door,” Frederick said. “It was scary. I remember it like yesterday. I went in to be introduced to the county commissioners, and probably looked like I was in my teens. (Commissioner) Irwin Kuhlman said ‘Well, you look pretty young, but I guess you’ll be OK.’ ”
Among Frederick’s first clients was a prominent farmer, who hired him to handle an estate after a death in the family.
“It was truly frightening for the first five years. Everything I did was unlike anything I’d done before, like one brand new learning experience after another,” he said. “I didn’t have anybody in the next room telling me what to do or how to do it. I was probably working 60 to 70 hours a week.”
But the bar in the 1970s was supportive of other lawyers, he said, especially the rookies.
“Once I chased a given project down as far as I could chase it, other lawyers were open to me getting ahold of them,” Frederick said, “and if they were not otherwise involved, they would let me use them as a sounding board in regard to what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it.”
Two who “really stick out” are Mike Kimball, who practices in Ulysses, and the late E. Edward Brown, of Garden City.
“They both were great teachers, but for completely different reasons,” Frederick said. “Ed was very pragmatic in his approach, and Mike is, without a doubt, the best theoretician I’ve ever come in contact with.
“I knew I had a safety net, let me put it that way, but I always made it a point to call them last instead of first. In the long run, the approach I created for myself made me a better lawyer. It helped me not only know what I was doing, but why I was doing it.”
He felt blessed to be serving a vast, sparsely-populated area known for feeding and powering the nation and the world. Frederick handled cases in many areas — real estate, oil & gas, commercial, corporate, criminal, family law, estate planning and probate, and school law.
“I did a lot, which is kind of the nature of the beast when you’re practicing law in a small town,” he said.
From 1976 to 2001, Frederick represented individuals and entities from more than 40 states and several countries, thanks in large part to the Hugoton Natural Gas Field.
Debbie Frederick continued her professional life in public health care in Lakin.
“She made the adjustment better and faster than I did,” Bob Frederick said. “I was pretty sure when I left Hugoton, that I was never coming back to this part of the country, but my how times change your perspective. Debbie fell in love with the Lakin community almost immediately.”
The difference was falling into a circle of friends approximately her age, he said.
“Lakin is definitely home,” Frederick said. “It’s going to stay that way.”