Agnieszka Fryszman: Championing Victims Against Powerful Corporations
Agnieszka Fryszman (L’96), a partner at Cohen, Milstein, Sellers & Toll, is one of the world’s leading human rights lawyers against corporate abuse.
As founder and chair of the firm’s Human Rights practice group, Agnieszka champions the rights of victims of injustice and abuse against corporate giants and foreign powers. Throughout her legal career, she has brought civil suits on behalf of victims of torture, human trafficking, extrajudicial killings, and forced labor.
As an evening student at Georgetown Law, Agnieszka connected with lawyers at Cohen Milstein who were litigating cases against corporations that had benefitted from forced and slave labor during the Holocaust. Intrigued by the ability to use legal skills to remedy some of the injustices that occurred during Nazi-era Germany, Agnieszka joined the firm after graduation and worked on the legal team that successfully held German and Austrian companies to account for profiting from such forced and slave labor, eventually reaching a settlement worth 10 billion Deutsche Marks for 1.5 million survivors around the world.
Following this historic win, Agnieszka was determined to continue the campaign against corporate impunity for human rights abuse, and she successfully persuaded Cohen Milstein to start a practice group dedicated to human rights — a group that is now consistently recognized as one of the best private international human rights practices in the world.
For over twenty-five years, Agnieszka has worked on and won some of the most complex human rights strategic litigation claims in U.S. federal courts. In her current work involving the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, Agnieszka represents Cambodians who sought employment at a Thai factory but who ended up being trafficked into forced labor. She also recently brought suit on behalf of men from Nepal who had agreed to work for a luxury hotel in Jordan but who, upon arrival, were divested of their passports, locked in a compound, forced to work at U.S. military bases, and, for many, eventually killed by insurgents. Agnieszka has also been involved in landmark cases regarding fishing boat slavery, comfort women, the victims of 9/11, and Guantánamo Bay detainees.
Recently, Agnieszka and her team worked on a historic case involving Indonesian villagers and their families against ExxonMobil. The villagers alleged that the soldiers of the Indonesian military retained by ExxonMobil to protect its facilities in Aceh had tortured, raped, or killed the villagers’ relatives. After more than two decades of fighting on behalf of her clients and just one week before the trial, Agnieszka and her team secured a historic settlement from ExxonMobil, empowering the Indonesian villagers to receive the recompense and recognition that they had sought for years.
The Risks and Rewards of Fighting for Justice
Agnieszka says that the most rewarding part of her job is the ability to help people claim their rights and find vindication, particularly in a world with an “enormous amount of unfairness and injustice.” With her legal acumen and commitment to justice for the underserved, she is able to “help people who were wronged recognize that they have rights that can be enforced” and assist them in challenging big corporations despite the obstacles put in their path. Her recent success helping Indonesian villagers triumph over ExxonMobil is a prime example of this achievement. Agnieszka finds it especially uplifting to see how her legal success stories have helped her clients and their communities improve their lives in the aftermath of horrendous acts of violence and injustice. One woman in a trafficking case in Nepal, Agnieszka says, was initially homeless and penniless. But with the settlement that Agnieszka was able to secure, she now lives in a three-story house and her children go to an American school and are fluent in English. Because of the settlement, “the whole trajectory of their lives has been changed,” says Agnieszka.
However, being at the forefront of human rights law and having to use new and innovative strategies also comes with a cost. “You inevitably make mistakes, and you’re not the person that bears the cost of them,” says Agnieszka. Agnieszka was involved in the first case of its kind against a corporation for alleged human rights violations overseas, and she believes she would take a different tack if litigating it again. Though their strategy was not wrong, she clarifies, the law developed in another direction, and the case might have been successful if it had been the fifth case of its kind, with better-developed law. Cases like these, she says, “carry the weight of people’s hopes and expectations.” If you lose because you were first and the law needed to be amended or the breadth of case law expanded, you are not the one paying the price of the learning process; the people who were harmed do, Agnieszka explains. “I always want to win, and I always want to win big for my clients. But you can’t always win. It’s frustrating.”
Learning to Love the Journey and Take Opportunities
Agnieszka advises students that their careers may be “long and winding” and may take them to “unexpected places,” but students “should try to do what they love, no matter where they end up working.” Even at a large firm, they can expand their horizons by doing pro bono work or volunteering to do projects with human rights groups. “You never really know where these opportunities might take you. Your first job isn’t your last job. You may end up at Human Rights Watch; you may end up at Covington & Burling. Your career can take zigs and zags. Always make time to do good,” she says. Overall, students should be “open to new ideas and different paths” and avoid getting “locked in and stressed out by the straight and narrow.” Many students feel bound to the internship to clerkship to firm pathway, but, Agnieszka advises, “you don’t have to do any of those things. You could do something completely different and have a wonderful, fantastic, rewarding career (where you’re also self-supporting. Make your parents happy).”
Finding Joy Outside of the Office
Outside of work, Agnieszka loves to travel. “One of the great things about my job is that I’ve gotten to travel. I’ve met people all over in the course of my work, and it is a cool way to go see places through somebody else’s eyes and get a window on other cultures, other societies, and other world views.” She also plays soccer and lacrosse, runs, sails, and kayaks.