San Jose’s new city attorney fought for women to have a voice
Nora Frimann, San Jose city attorney, has been a trailblazer in the legal profession. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

When Nora Frimann walked into a courtroom early in her career in the 1980s, she said people assumed she was a court reporter.

She went on to become a managing partner at Hoge Fenton, a leading San Jose law firm, in 1990, a time when few women practiced law, especially litigation. And now Frimann has been named San Jose city attorney, the second woman to hold the position.

Frimann said she was confident in her chosen profession as she came of age at the height of the women’s movement. Her mother, Anne Frimann, was fearless and encouraging.

“As a child, I remember her always telling me if I was afraid of a big dog or spider, ‘It is more afraid of you than you are of it.’ I came to understand that could apply to other situations, too,” said Frimann, 66. “She encouraged independence and she definitely believed that being female should not limit one’s choices in life.”

Shella Deen, litigation chair for Hoge Fenton, said Frimann taught her that nothing could stop a woman from pursuing her goals.

Although Frimann said it was agonizing to leave Hoge Fenton, she feels fortunate to be serving in the public sector.

Being heard

Frimann joined the San Jose City Attorney’s Office in 2001 as assistant city attorney, responsible for litigation. At that time, she said, most of the senior litigators were men. Frimann said she wanted to ensure women in the room had a voice — even if they weren’t senior lawyers —asking their opinions on liability or for a recitation of the case facts. She didn’t think the men realized “how much they dominated discussions.”

“There was a lot of bravado among trial lawyers,” Frimann said, “and there has traditionally been some difficulty for some women (and some men), even though talented, to be successful and respected in that environment.”

Frimann said she follows Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s philosophy to “fight for the things that you care about but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”

She was named Interim City Attorney in August following former City Attorney Rick Doyle’s retirement. Doyle, one of Frimann’s mentors, died within weeks of retiring.

City leaders say she’s the perfect woman for the job.

“It’s really important for the lead attorney to model how to disagree without being disagreeable,” Liccardo told San José Spotlight. “Nora, by nature, is a very congenial person but she also knows how to fight. It’s important to know when to turn off and turn on that instinct because in addition to being a litigator, she’s also a leader and a negotiator. Nora understands when to negotiate and when to push to court.”

Liccardo said Frimann understood litigation strategies and ensured outside counsel represented the city well in lawsuits against the Trump Administration regarding the census and immigration.

“Whenever anyone is suing the city, it presents issues of great consequence…or it may cost the taxpayers a lot of money. You want to have a pro at the helm. That’s what Nora brings. Somebody who really understands litigation and has handled litigation at a very high level,” Liccardo said.

Frimann said winning those cases was gratifying because they “mean something to San Jose and to the people who live here,” affecting the city’s representation and federal dollars.

“It’s exciting to be able to be a part of that,” Frimann said. “That’s the part of being in a public office you might not get to do working in a private firm.”

Frimann said the cardroom negotiations in 2008 and 2009 also tested her skills as they involved lengthy litigation challenging the city’s changes to its gaming ordinance.

In pursuit of education

Born in Chicago, Frimann moved with her family to San Jose after completing elementary school. Frimann said her mother, the daughter of immigrants raised in the Great Depression, was determined her children would attend college and moved to California for its “excellent and affordable” higher education system.

Frimann was a child advocate — a cause that’s close to her heart.

“Foster care can be tough on children and teens,” she said. “I don’t think we do enough as a society to help those who age out of the system.”

Outside of work, Frimann enjoys reading, hiking, biking and exercising outdoors. She loves to cook, especially dinners for friends, and to bake. She has a number of recipes for holiday cookies that her grandmother taught her.

“Each year, I pull them out and it’s a flood of wonderful memories to see the recipes in her handwriting,” Frimann said.

Frimann attended the University of California, Berkeley, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology. She received a Juris Doctor degree from Santa Clara University School of Law.

She is a recipient of the Santa Clara County Bar Association’s Professional Attorney of the Year award and participates in teaching and judging mock trials at Santa Clara University and Stanford Law Schools.

Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]

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