Practicing law was never an obligation for Indianapolis attorney Mary Jane Frisby but a chance for her to say, “Wow, look what we get to do.”
That mentality is what friends and colleagues say kept her going as an intellectual property lawyer, practicing at Barnes & Thornburgh since law school graduation a decade ago. And, she was preparing for a new chapter in her life and legal career.
“MJ embraced life and lived to the fullest in every sense of the phrase,” said Deb Agard, an Indianapolis family law attorney and a longtime friend since law school. “The thing that MJ brought to our legal community is practicing law for the sake of itself, being so happy to help someone understand what their intellectual property was and working to protect that.”
But now, the legal community is reeling from the news of Frisby’s death. Police found the 44-year-old dead in her Brownsburg home Aug. 26, hours after her 58-year-old husband, David, climbed atop a downtown Indianapolis parking garage across from Barnes & Thornburg, fired shots at the law firm where his wife had worked, and then turned the gun on himself and fell several stories to the street below.
Hundreds of spectators watched from the street and nearby offices. Some employees in the state court offices located on South Meridian Street heard and witnessed what happened, and businesses in the immediate area – including Barnes & Thornburg – were temporarily locked down until police could fully determine what was happening. There were reports that bullets lodged in the law firm’s walls, and attorneys inside were instructed to move away from external walls as police tried to get the situation under control outside. Police found a note and recording in David Frisby’s car alerting them that his wife’s body would be found inside their home. It appeared she’d been strangled, possibly early that morning, police said.
The two had been married for 22 years, though Mary Jane Frisby had filed for divorce in Hendricks County Aug. 18. Agard was representing her friend in the divorce, and she said she’d last spoken to Mary Jane the day before she was killed.
On his Facebook page in the hours before his suicide, David Frisby posted a message condemning the Indianapolis law firm where his wife had worked.
Despite those events, though, what stands out for those who knew and practiced with Frisby is how she lived her life and practiced law with one of the city’s largest law firms.
“She was such a kind soul, I don’t know how else to say it,” Agard said. “A lover of music and art, one of the most well-read people I’d ever met. This is a time to celebrate MJ for being authentically herself.”
A first-generation American of British parents, Frisby graduated summa cum laude from Indiana University School of Law – Indianapolis in 2000. She’d done her undergraduate work at the same school and received a B.A. with highest distinction, majoring in philosophy with a minor in French.
Agard said she and Frisby were “connected at the hip” in law school and kept in touch regularly in the decade since graduating. They had a standing “date” once a month, something that had not happened only twice in 10 years and neither missed unless one was traveling.
“MJ was one of those people who was so screaming brilliant but was one of the most humble individuals you’d ever meet,” Agard said. “She was third in our class, but that didn’t mean anything to her. What was important was doing her best.”
Frisby began her law practice at Barnes & Thornburg in 2000. She’d worked her way up the ranks at the firm and became a partner in January 2008. Her practice included all areas of IP – trademark, copyright, patent, unfair competition, advertising, privacy, publicity, and general commercial law. She also assisted clients with non-litigation IP enforcement, including domain name arbitration proceedings, take-down notifications, Internet-based keyword advertising enforcement worldwide, and in proceedings before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board.
Agard recalled visiting Frisby at her law firm office and seeing three shelves in her office full of rubber ducks that were part of a trademark or copyright matter she was handling for a client.
“She was so thrilled to be able to study rubber ducks, and so glad that her clients were named Inc. and Co. rather than Mr. And Mrs.,” said Agard. “Trial was the last place she ever wanted to be, and her practice was never to quote when, but to reach the right result. That was something I always respected and tried to emulate in my career.”
That love for IP law expressed itself not only in her practice, but also in her teaching those kinds of courses at her alma mater. Agard said her friend loved being a part of the law school experience that they had enjoyed so much.
“We were weird and loved law school,” Agard said. “The opportunity to be in that atmosphere, seeing the look of wonder in her students’ eyes and being a part of mental gymnastics as she liked to call it, is what she loved.”
Aside from the IP courses, Frisby also taught continuing legal education courses to her colleagues.
“She was a consummate professional, who knew the issues so well to advocate for her clients but never stopped treating opposing counsel with respect,” said IP attorney Jim Dimos with Frost Brown Todd, who’d worked with Frisby on copyright cases during the past decade. “What was so refreshing about Mary Jane was that she was very knowledgeable and was willing to share that knowledge through CLE or informally between colleagues. You could always call her up and bounce ideas or issues off of her.”
Generally, friends and colleagues in the legal community were stunned to hear the news of her death.
U.S. District Court Senior Judge Larry McKinney couldn’t believe the news about the woman who’d interned for him a semester in 1998, while she was still in law school.
“She was just excellent, so bright,” he said. “Really, Mary Jane was a scholar and excellent researcher who was really intrigued by the law and you could just tell loved it so much. This is just incomprehensible.”
Though she loved being at Barnes & Thornburg, Frisby had decided to take an IP-focused general counsel post at Cummins in order to spend more time with family and take her career to the next level, Agard said. That position has been in the works for about a year, and she’d turned down one offer in the past, her friend said.
But the law firm’s long hours took their toll through the years. Something changed, and David had almost become a different person, Agard said. The two had gone through counseling and struggled to conquer his alcoholism. Death and suicide threats had surfaced more than a year ago, but no one – including Mary Jane – ever thought it would be carried out.
The two were truly happy for many years, and Agard described David as a good person and a brilliant man who was historically very kind and loving. They’d decided at the start of Mary Jane’s legal career that she would focus on the career while David would stay home to care for their two children – a son who’s now 21 and in college and a daughter who is 19 with Down syndrome. The concern was always for the kids, Agard said.
“Even as brilliant as these two were, they weren’t immune to what happened here,” Agard said. “I think MJ truly believed that given their intelligence and mutual respect for one another, that because of their truly good marriage for a number of years and because of their children, that this couldn’t happen. Whatever problems they had, they tried to work through them. But David couldn’t accept that the marriage was over. They weren’t immune.”
Reflecting on what happened, Dimos at Frost Brown Todd said he’s proud to have been able to know and work with Mary Jane and that what happened contains a lesson: “This reminds all of us how life is truly so fragile.”•