Monday, October 7, 2013

Member Spotlight: Meet Robert F. Finkelstein

An interview by Anthony Brincat

Rob Finkelstein is an attorney here in New York, practicing commercial litigation, construction law, employment law, and general business law, among other things. He is partner at Finkelstein Platt LLP, which he and his business partner, Chris Platt, recently founded in July 2013. The firm, which is 100% gay owned, is certified by NGLCC as an LGBTE and is a Silver Business Member of NGLCCNY.

Rob’s diverse professional background makes him well-equipped to handle a variety of legal matters, whether in litigation, contract negotiations, regulatory issues, employment related matters (employment agreements, non-competes, non-disclosure agreements, employee manuals, etc.), trademark registrations, asset or stock sales/purchases, or construction related matters.

A graduate of Fordham University School of Law in 2000, he was a member of the Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal and received The Archibald R. Murray Public Service Award. He is admitted to the bars in the State of New York and various local federal courts.

Active in NGLCCNY since he first became and individual member in Spring of 2009, Rob has served as a volunteer on the Media Communications Committee since early 2012 and regularly writes articles for the monthly newsletter that highlight the Chamber’s corporate and not-for-profit partners, including supplier diversity initiatives, NGLCCNY involvement, and contributions to the LGBT community.

Anthony:  As you know, it is not uncommon for lawyers to go in-house to a client. On one hand, it is terrific in that often times it helps to build a better work relationship with the client, on the other hand, firms struggle to retain their talent, which leads me to my first question – what was the driver for you to make the decision to start your own practice?

Rob:  Actually, starting my own practice was something I never remotely considered doing until the last couple of years.  Prior to law school, I was a paralegal at a large New York City law firm.  While I enjoyed the work enough to compel me to go to law school, I decided early on that I did not want to pursue a career at such a large firm.  I therefore only sought out small firms upon graduation and ended up at one where I gained a tremendous amount of experience in a very diverse practice.  The skills I acquired there, without realizing it at the time, laid the foundation for me to have the confidence necessary to go out on my own.  Over the past couple of years, particularly with so many colleagues out of work as a result of the poor economy, I decided that I needed to be proactive to ensure my professional future.  I have always had a desire to own a business (although, I always thought it would be a bakery rather than a law firm!).  I got far enough along in my career to realize that I would prefer to rely on my own skills to build a business rather than be dependent on someone else’s.  It was around the same time as I made these realizations that I met my business partner, Chris Platt, who was having similar thoughts about his professional future.  Chris and I worked tremendously well together on a number of different matters, so we decided to combine our energies into building a law firm that that provides quality legal service in a diverse range of practice areas at cost-effective prices.

Anthony:  Having spent my entire professional career in the legal industry, I think I know a thing or two about lawyers.  In my view there is a clear distinction between a good lawyer and a great lawyer.  A great lawyer seeks out opportunities whenever and wherever possible.  He or she may actively work across practice groups to develop broader based knowledge and is continuously involved and becomes a member of various committees throughout their career.  What were some of the opportunities you sought out as you began your career that has helped you today as a partner in your own firm?

Rob:  As I mentioned, the best opportunity for me was working at a small law firm out of law school where I was heavily engaged in a diverse range of matters with constant client contact.  Actually, it was not just that I chose to work at a small firm, but that I chose to work at a firm where I had a great “gut feeling” about the partners of the firm -- that they were personable, intelligent, and would be good mentors for me.  That combination was very important for me as I sought out my first job as a lawyer.  Having focused for the first many years on developing my skills and gaining experience, I spent the last few years seeking out other opportunities.  The Chamber, of course, has been one of the most important opportunities for me, having developed substantial business and having gained long-lasting friendships through it.
Anthony:  Have you been able to create efficiencies through the use of new technologies that allowed you to provide real-time context to the advice you provide to your clients?

Rob:  Some clients are under the misconception that lawyers should know anything and everything off the top of our heads.  While we tend to pride ourselves on knowing the answers to many legal issues, that is an unrealistic view of lawyers.  One of the greatest skills, I believe, that we take away from law school is the ability to conduct efficient and thorough research.  Modern technology has made it possible for us to research an issue much more efficiently.  It was not that long ago that we had to hit the books in a law library, which would take a tremendous amount of time.  Now, within a few clicks (or a few taps on a smartphone or iPad), we are able to conduct legal research and provide more efficient service to clients.  For example, over the summer, I took an extra-long weekend away as part of a family event when I received an email from a client inquiring whether the statute of limitations had run on the time to file a lawsuit.  Because the facts were complicated, I needed to research the issue before responding.  I was able to use the WestlawNext app on my iPad to do that research and provide a real-time response to the client, all while sitting in a car traveling to Pennsylvania.  The client was, of course, appreciative of the quick turn-around, and the ability to conduct the research quickly enabled me to enjoy the rest of my time away since my research revealed that we still had a few weeks to file a complaint.
Anthony:  What do you think makes a client choose to work with you rather than a large one-stop shopping law firm?

Rob: I do not believe that any law firm is “one-stop shopping”.  Large law firms often offer a variety of practice areas, but I am unaware of any law firm that caters to every possible field of law.  This is one reason why lawyers are constantly referring matters to one another.  Clients have selected me for legal services because I provide the same -- if not better -- services as a lawyer at a large firm, at a fraction of the price, with more one-to-one customer service.  For example, An Assistant General Counsel for a Fortune 100 client of ours recently told Chris and me that he was thrilled to have found us because we handle complex litigation matters, with a higher level of individualized attention.  In addition, because we are much smaller, we have much less overhead and are able to provide more reasonable rates than those charged by large firms.

Anthony:  Having just started your own practice, I am certain there are many things you are still working out, however, when you think of Finkelstein Platt LLP in 2020, what is your firm doing? How big is it?  Have you taken on any additional Partners, etc.?

Rob: Well, we are now three months into this venture.  I have barely thought through the end of 2013!  I would hope that, by 2020, we have grown, that we are actively engaged in a diverse range of matters for both large and small clients, and that we have maintained the firm’s reputation for providing high-end legal services with top-notch customer service at cost-effective prices.

Anthony:  As a lawyer, did you contribute to or get involved in any way with all of the legal work that led up to the recent legislation around gay and lesbian marriage and have the new laws created opportunities for you or impacted your firm in any way?

Rob: I am so proud to be gay, particularly at this period of time in history.  I am even more proud and grateful for the work of all those who have fought so zealously and courageously for equal rights, including for our right to marry.  That being said, although I represent my clients and advocate for them as zealously as possible, my being a lawyer does not automatically make me a political or social activist.  It would seem odd to me if all gay attorneys were out there “fighting the fight”.  I feel that it is just as important for LGBT lawyers (or any profession, for that matter) to be out at work, do their work and do it well.  While it is, of course, unlikely that any change would have come without people taking the lead on seeking equality, I do not believe that change would have happened without LGBT professionals being out at their jobs and in their communities.  Most bigotry and hatred is brought upon by ignorance.  The more non-LGBT people associate with LGBT people, the more likely barriers can be broken down.  In terms of impact on my business, because my firm’s practice is generally commercial in nature (we tend to represent businesses, large and small, and individuals in connection with business related matters), the victory of marriage equality, although having tremendous impact on our personal lives, has not had much of an impact on our firm’s practice.

Anthony:  Other than maintaining your CLE credits, how do you ensure that you are staying on top of your own professional development and staying relevant?

Rob: CLEs, of course, are a great way to do that.  Apart from reading periodicals such as The New York Law Journal, I find that I tend to stay updated merely by maintaining constant communication with clients.  By knowing more about my clients’ businesses, I have a better sense of legal issues to research and keep an eye on.

Anthony:  When you think about your professional and/or personal “Masterpiece”, what is it?

Rob: Well, of course, at this point in my professional career, my professional masterpiece is the firm that we are now building.  On a personal level, my masterpieces are whatever I happen to bake in any given week.  (If I ever leave the practice of law, it will likely be to open a bakery.)  This week, it was a margarita chiffon cake.
Anthony:  Finally, if I gave you $1000 and told you that you had to spend it today, what would you buy?

Rob:  I would likely book a weekend getaway with my boyfriend.  First and foremost, he deserves it for being so incredibly supportive with my decision to start the law firm.  (Oh, and if I did not spend at least some of it on him, I would never hear the end of it!)   I also think it is important to relax and recharge every now and then in order to be more productive and efficient at work.  Since it is autumn, I would probably plan for a weekend away in the Hudson Valley -- I am particularly fond of Rhinebeck with all its great restaurants and especially its bakeries.  There would, of course, be a spa day involved too! 

Written by Anthony Brincat, NGLCCNY Member & Volunteer Correspondent, Media Communications Committee.  Anthony is a Senior HR Manager at  Allen & Overy LLP, a multi-national law firm.

Photography Credit: Vaughn Stewart, NGLCCNY Member & Volunteer Photographer, Media Communications Committee. Vaughn is Principal and Chief Photographer at Vaughn Stewart Photography.

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