On the afternoon of Oct. 18, 2011, a Muskingum County resident released dozens of exotic animals from their cages on his self-described animal sanctuary, then committed suicide. Police officers were forced to shoot nearly 50 of the creatures, mostly lions and tigers, just to protect residents and livestock.
The tragedy, which unfolded in live news broadcasts and made newspaper headlines around the country, generated immediate calls for stricter laws regarding exotic-animal ownership, particularly in Ohio. Animal-rights activists criticized the state for having some of the most lenient regulations in the nation. Days later, Ohio Gov. John Kasich signed an executive order strengthening enforcement of existing laws and vowed to push for tighter regulations through legislation.
At the other end of the state, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and its traveling menagerie was at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. Feld Entertainment, the Vienna, Va.-based concern that has owned the circus since 1967, turned to Robert Zimmerman to represent its interests in the statehouse.
“Naturally, the circus was concerned that any legislation could conceivably affect it,” explains Zimmerman, a partner at Benesch Friedlander Coplan & Aronoff, who chairs the firm’s public-law department. “We’ve been working with the governor’s administration and members of the general assembly to assure that there is an appropriate exemption for circuses from the new laws . . . more strongly regulating the possession of wild animals.”
It’s exactly the sort of thing one might expect a lobbyist to do. And Zimmerman is literally a card-carrying lobbyist registered with Ohio’s Joint Legislative Ethics Commission. He describes himself as “the connective tissue” between clients and state and local governments, muscle built by relationships with prominent politicians that date back to his college days. Zimmerman himself is an elected member of Shaker Heights City Council as well as the executive and central committees of the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party.
But call him a lobbyist, and he argues that not all lobbyists are lawyers, let alone lawyers with an active trial practice like he has. He points out that hours before he drove to Columbus to be with a circus representative testifying in front of the state senate’s agriculture committee, he was defending the chief executive officer of a publicly traded company in a deposition for a court case. Yet call him a lawyer, and he argues that the word doesn’t begin to convey everything he does.
So just what do you call Robert Zimmerman?
“I’m an advocate,” he replies.
Robert Zimmerman never remembers contemplating his decision to become a lawyer. As the son of a trial lawyer, “it just sort of happened,” the 46-year-old Beachwood native explains. His Democratic political views were also developed at home. By the time he enrolled as a political science major at The Ohio State University in 1984, those beliefs were strong enough to make him feel like “an outcast” in a year when President Ronald Reagan was re-elected by a landslide. He reacted by working on Ohio Gov. Richard Celeste’s 1986 re-election campaign so diligently that he was named OSU campus coordinator. Former Ohio Rep. Jim Trakas — who at the time was OSU campus campaign coordinator for the Republican challenger, former Ohio Gov. James Rhodes — remembers Zimmerman as “a very intense competitor, a very effective advocate for his cause.
“He always tried to find common ground to talk to people,” says the current Ohio State Board of Cosmetology executive director of his friend. “He was a very, very smart guy, highly intellectual — but he didn’t come across as a highly intellectual individual. He made a point of being a person people wanted to like.”
Zimmerman’s volunteer gig led to positions as a legal intern in the governor’s office, then a law clerk in the state attorney general’s office. During that time he got to know then-State Sen. Lee Fisher and worked on his 1990 campaign for Ohio attorney general. Fisher won the election; Zimmerman’s first job out of law school was as an assistant attorney general on the chief counsel’s staff. The post provided opportunities to work on high-profile cases on gun control and abortion.
“I’m thinking to myself, I’m a year out of law school, and I’m advising state court of appeals judges. What’s wrong with this picture?” Zimmerman remembers with some amusement.
But when Fisher lost his bid for re-election, Zimmerman left the job. “My loyalties were to Lee Fisher,” he says simply. After a yearlong stint as an associate at the now-defunct law firm Arter & Hadden, he found himself managing Cuyahoga County Auditor Tim McCormack’s 1996 campaign for county commissioner. The experience was a good one, and Zimmerman considered working for his just-elected boss as a policy analyst. Instead, he took a position as an associate at Kahn Kleinman, a 35-person firm where Zimmerman was later named partner.
“I was hesitant about leaving behind the law career,” he explains.
Zimmerman remained content to build a traditional private practice for several years, satisfying his taste for politics by developing Cuyahoga County as a client and staging a successful 2005 run for Shaker Heights City Council. He didn’t begin rethinking his career path until Election Day 2006, when a number of candidates he knew and raised funds for — particularly Lee Fisher, who was on the Democratic gubernatorial ticket with Ted Strickland — won prominent positions in state government.
“This was an opportunity to represent clients who had interests before state government,” he says.
At the time, however, Zimmerman and his colleagues were focused on Kahn Kleinman’s upcoming merger with the Taft Stettinius & Hollister law firm. Jim Friedman, a partner at Benesch and longtime mentor of Zimmerman’s, talked to him about the opportunity to use his political relationships to expand his law practice. The conversation led to Zimmerman joining Benesch in 2009. The two men had become friends during McCormack’s campaign for county commissioner and subsequently worked on fundraising efforts together. Friedman appreciated Zimmerman’s passion for and commitment to building such a public law practice — not to mention his impressive network of political relationships.
“He really understands the several levels of government and all the people who are involved in them,” Friedman says. “I’ve been very impressed.”
Zimmerman’s first clients included a Northeast Ohio company looking for state dollars and local tax breaks to grow its business and a nursing-home owner who needed a state legislative amendment to increase
patient capacity at one southern Ohio facility and decrease it at another. He also works with the Cleveland-based Sisters of Charity Health System, whose ministries include St. Vincent Charity Medical Center. More recently, he helped the organization address a state-funding shortfall by working to secure additional monies from Cuyahoga County’s Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services Board for Rosary Hall, which provides services for those with drug and alcohol problems.
Zimmerman admits that establishing his dual practice has had its challenges. In the beginning, he suffered an identity crisis of sorts. “All I had done was try cases, and then here was this different thing that I was doing, the public-law work,” he explains. “I had a hard time in my mind transitioning. I thought, ’OK, am I still a lawyer, or am I not a lawyer?’” He concluded that he is a lawyer who advocates in the courthouse and in the statehouse.
Many of his Democratic contacts lost their statehouse seats in the 2010 elections, a development that in some cases has him working through Republican colleagues in Benesch’s Columbus office to better represent client interests, including the circus.
“It was the opposite a few years ago, when the Democrats were in control,” he says. “But that’s the beauty of a bipartisan practice.”
And some of the cases Zimmerman takes on can be controversial. He’s currently representing Duck Creek Energy, a Brecksville oil- and gas-exploration company, in the defamation lawsuit it filed against two anti-fracking activists who persist in calling its brine road deicer a toxic byproduct of fracking. Zimmerman says he researches such issues and makes his own judgments before taking them on.
“I wouldn’t take on a client or a cause that I thought was indefensible,” he says. “Everyone is entitled to legal representation. But not everyone is entitled to legal representation by me.”