From small-town East Ridge, Tennessee, to the elite environs of the Eastern Ivy league, Robert Barnes walks among the humble and the haughty. Traveling from the everyday to the esteemed, representing clients fighting for their civil rights and celebrities taking on the IRS, Barnes heeds the advice of his newspaper-throwing father, Walter, who was fond of reminding, “Never judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes”.
As a young man, this exposure to widely varying walks of life gave Barnes a unique ability to empathize with and advocate for others no matter their background. Today, he uses this same empathy to serve his clients, persuade his juries, and win over the judges who preside over his trials.
“You have to understand life from each other perspective that’s out there before you can put a moral judgment on it, or before you can persuade them to do what you need them to do,” Barnes says, “If they happen to be the judge, they happen to be the juror, they happen to be an arbitrator, they happen to be a mediator, they happen to be a prosecutor, they happen to be opposing lawyer, they happen to be a potential witness, or they happen to be a potential expert; if they’re any of those things, you have to understand life through their perspective so that you can communicate to them.”
Adding to Barnes’ young empathetic training: his family was devastated by personal tragedy.
“I knew what it meant to have difficult odds from a young age” says Barnes, “My father passed away when I was 12, so what we were living off of was social security payments for widows and orphans. I went to work in the summers by the time I was 12, and started working full time when I was 15.”
Though his own roots were financially humble and distinctly Southern, his family tradition is steeped in the New England patriots’ commitment to liberty and justice. His Rhode Island great-grandfathers historically refused a new American government without the Bill of Rights guaranteeing individual liberties.
Eventually, Barnes overcame his family’s financial challenges by winning a scholarship to the elite McCallie School in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He went on to attend Yale University, also on scholarship, where he made quite a name for himself as a defender of the underdog and an outsider unafraid to challenge insiders in powerful positions.
After Yale University announced intentions to exclude students in the admissions process based solely on their lack of income or familial ties to the university, Barnes left the school in protest to draw attention to the issue, but not before publishing a scathing and widely read op-ed challenging Yale’s position. Yale subsequently reversed its policies and kept a “need-blind” admissions policy to this day. Barnes then received a fellowship to attend law school at the University of Wisconsin, where he graduated with honors and myriad awards for academic excellence, including the Mathys Award for oral argument and effective advocacy.
Barnes attributes his bulldog-ish boldness to the scrappy survival training he underwent as a child of the rural, poor South.
“It was the confidence to do that was born of growing up in East Ridge and going through family tragedy, and working at a very young age,” Barnes says, “I wouldn’t have had the confidence to stand up to all those people, to show them what they were doing or planning was wrong, that it would have this bad social impact, that it would reflect badly on them, it would reflect badly on the university to exclude the few poor students who made it to Yale.”
Today, Barnes continues to stand up to systems, to bullies, to Big Banks, to the IRS, and to those who would take away those guaranteed freedoms his grandfathers helped establish: free speech and civil rights.
And, he continues to win, for the underdogs, and for those who, like Barnes, face seemingly impossible odds.