By Linda Harris
Bob Fitzsimmons was fresh out of law school 36 years ago when he turned down an offer from a big name law firm in Baltimore, choosing instead to come home to West Virginia and go into business for himself.
It’s a decision he’s never regretted.
“I just didn’t feel like I was going to be able to accomplish what I wanted to,” said Fitzsimmons, now 61. “In those days, recent grads didn’t start their own business, they wanted to work for a firm and learn, but I decided to do it myself.”
Fitzsimmons opened his own law office in 1978, working out of his apartment.
“I actually borrowed $500 from the Bank of Warwood and drove to Martinsburg,” he said. “They had an outlet mall there and I bought some suits and a Smith Corona typewriter.
“I didn’t even have an office in a building and all I did was court-appointed criminal work. I think it was almost three or four years before I had a civil case.”
That first civil case was some title work that paid him just $300, but it was a start.
“Then I had a case, a medical malpractice case, that I decided to try to handle myself,” Fitzsimmons said. “There were multiple experts who said it really wasn’t a case — then I discovered that a doctor had actually changed the medical records, he had used whiteout all through the records in order to change the times of critical procedures, and I was successful in getting what was a very large settlement at that time.”
Born in Wheeling, his dad was a pipefitter, his mother a homemaker. He figures he got his work ethic from them.
“My dad was a saver and a very hard worker,” he said. “Probably his work ethic influenced me most.”
At age 6 he borrowed $25 from his parents and bought a paper route. He delivered all the way through high school, “and then I actually subcontracted with my brothers and sisters,” he recalled.
A few years later he started caddying, “hitchhiking to the country club every day in addition to delivering my papers.” In high school he also cut grass and shoveled snow, in addition to playing football, basketball and running track.
“I was one of five in my family, and the only one that went to college,” he said. “Back in those days everybody said you had to go to college if you wanted to make something of yourself; Initially, I wanted to go to one of the service academies — I applied to West Point, but, because of a medical issue I wasn’t accepted so I went to Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa.”
He graduated from Allegheny in 1974 with his bachelor’s in political science, juggling classes with athletics (football) as well as a busy work schedule: He logged about 15 hours a week punching tickets in the cafeteria and another 20-25 hours a week as a security guard, issuing parking tickets on campus, and he worked full-time at a tool company his junior year. After graduation he worked full time at an air conditioning and plumbing supply business in Cleveland for a year, saving every penny he could to pay for law school.
He was accepted into the University of Baltimore School of Law, squeezing three years of study into two. He graduated with highest honors, passed the bar and got his law license in April 1978, opening his practice shortly thereafter.
“I didn’t work at all while I was in law school, all I did was study,” he said. “I’m not sure I ever planned to have a law office, my own business or anything, I just wanted to do well.
“I figured if I just worked as hard as I could I’d accomplish my goals and good things would occur.”
He said the law has been everything he expected it to be and more.
“Every day is something new, something different,” he said. “I think the reward is being able to help people. There’s an unbelievable satisfaction you get when you help make somebody’s life better.
“I think that’s what drives most lawyers; you can really do some good things.”
These days a big part of his enjoyment comes from being able to work with his kids: His eldest son, Rocky, joined the firm in 2005. Another son, Clayton, came on board three years later.
His nephew, Justin Wiater, and family friend Brent Wear also joined the practice.
“I love working on cases with my lawyer friends and the legal profession has enabled me to meet some fantastic people who oftentimes are the attorneys I oppose,” Fitzsimmons said. “We have a wonderful and talented group of attorneys in West Virginia that I love working with.
“Probably now, one of the things I enjoy most is watching my sons, Brent and Justin help our clients. I love watching their satisfaction when they are successful, but I also still get a thrill out of helping our clients and being able to make someone’s life better. I still get a very big thrill out of doing that.”
He’s had his share of high-profile cases: It was Fitzsimmons who filed the landmark concussion lawsuit against the NFL brought by former Hall of Fame Pittsburgh Steeler center Mike Webster.
“We were the first to sue the NFL alleging that football-related activities caused brain injury back in 1997,” he said. “We won that case with the NFL disability board.”
He’s also represented multiple Division I coaches on contracts and players accused of NCAA violations, and successfully represented West Virginia University in its lawsuit against former football coach Rich Rodriguez, who left to become the head football coach at the University of Michigan.
More recently, he represented the teenage girl raped two years ago during an end-of-summer party in Steubenville, Ohio.
“The good thing about the Steubenville rape case is that it provided a forum for me to advocate on behalf of women, to say how wrong it is for men to take advantage of someone sexually,” he said. “It’s a good message for the entire country, but especially for young kids today who must learn that there are rules and boundaries they must adhere to.”
He co-founded the Brain Injury Research Institute to examine the effects of head trauma and concussions, particularly among former athletes and military veterans. The institute has autopsied the brains of more than 40 individuals, including former NFL players, WWE wrestlers, professional boxers, college and high school football players, and military veterans.
He’s also a director of a company, TauMark, which owns patent rights to the brain scanning isotope used to detect brain injury, “and as a result of that, I’ve actually participated in writing several scientific medical papers that advance that research,” he said.
“Clayton and I just finished a chapter in a sports medicine text we were asked as lawyers to write, one of the medical schools asked our doctors to put it together. It will be coming out this summer.”
Fitzsimmons and his wife, Sunni, also have a daughter, Kayleen, who oversees the family’s charitable foundation, real estate businesses and other ventures, including two radio stations. He said he feels fortunate to have had the opportunity to work closely with all three of his children.
“If somebody would someday say, ‘He was a good man,’ I think that would mean I was successful,” he said.