Nov. 25, 1920 – May 18, 2018
Prominent Buffalo attorney Richard Lipsitz Sr. was more than a legal heavyweight in the labor field. He also was an early supporter of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and a staunch opponent of the Vietnam War.
Through his support, his son says, Mr. Lipsitz helped spawn an entire generation of activists who were fighting for full democratic rights for all Americans. Though he was respected for his quick and brilliant mind as an attorney, he was equally well-known for his dedication to human decency.
Mr. Lipsitz died Friday in Brookdale Senior Living after a short illness at age 97, having continued to practice law into his 90s. During his long career, he made union-side labor relations law his specialty and was also a renowned civil liberties attorney. He defended many who were persecuted because of alleged ties to the Communist Party during the McCarthy era of American politics. Much of his nonlabor legal work was done on a pro bono basis for clients who had very little money.
His most famous case ended up in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967. It involved a requirement that professors at the University at Buffalo take a loyalty oath to maintain employment. He won the landmark decision, which struck down the Feinberg Law, and protected the freedom of association and academic freedom under the First Amendment.
"He was a brilliant person, a brilliant, brilliant man. He could take complicated issues and boil them down into a simple proposition faster than anybody I've ever known," said his son, Richard Lipsitz Jr., president of the Western New York Area Labor Federation.
Lipsitz's friends and family speak often of his brilliant mind. He graduated from Lafayette High School at the age of 15 and entered the University at Buffalo when he was 16. He received his degree at age 18 and moved on to the UB Law School in 1939.
His father, Harry Lipsitz, also was a graduate of the University at Buffalo Law School – the second Jewish person to graduate there.
After receiving his law degree in 1942, Mr. Lipsitz was drafted into the U.S. Army. He served as a lieutenant under Gen. Douglas MacArthur during World War II and was responsible for the interrogation of Japanese civilians and labor leaders to ascertain their roles, if any, in the fascist Japanese government.
His interest in the labor movement continued to grow when he took a job at the National Labor Relations Board in 1946. He left Buffalo for a year when he was stationed with the San Juan, Puerto Rico, National Labor Relations Board.
When he returned to Western New York, he formed a law partnership with his brother-in-law, Carl Green, which eventually became Lipsitz, Green, Fahringer, Roll and James. This firm is currently known as Lipsitz Green Scime Cambria, et al.
Mr. Lipsitz also ran for mayor of Buffalo in 1953 on the Liberal Party line, and while he did not win, he ran a vigorous campaign.
His son John, born that same year, went on to become an attorney as well and worked in his father's firm before founding his own law firm Lipsitz and Ponterio.
"His sense of commitment to representing workers and furthering their rights was an inspiration to me and my law practice," said John Lipsitz.
James Scime, who joined the firm in 1980 and became a partner in 1986, called Mr. Lipsitz, "a legend in the field of labor law" and an extraordinarily brilliant lawyer.
"He was a fierce ally and a formidable opponent," said Scime of his partner, whom he said continued to practice law until recently. "He wasn't just filling an office. He was working part-time right up to the end."
Although Mr. Lipsitz officially retired in 1992, he maintained a number of clients for the next 19 years. His last arbitration occurred in 2011, when at the age of 90, he traveled to Rochester to hear a discharge case.
His daughter, Nan Haynes, who followed her father into the legal profession, said, "I was very proud that he was my father."
Haynes said her father was "a force to be reckoned with," but practiced law when it was a more genteel profession and fought his opponents with his keen intellect and knowledge of the law.
Lipsitz Jr. said that even though his father had many offers to practice law elsewhere, he loved Buffalo – his business and his associates and his friends here. He was an avid bridge player, and until very recently, he maintained a regular game at his home with many of his friends from his youth.
For 71 years he was married to the former Rita Green, who died three months ago on Feb. 16 at the age of 93.
Together they were strong supporters of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, the Metropolitan Opera and dozens of cultural and social organizations. They also traveled the world, visiting nearly every continent and nearly every state in the United States.
In addition to his son and daughter, he is survived by his other son, John; five grandchildren and two great-granddaughters.
A service will be held at a date to be announced. Internment will be private.