Richard Rosenbaum is not what you might expect for a CEO of a law firm of around 1,800 lawyers.
The Greenberg Traurig chief is disarming with his upfront, down-to-earth, personable style.
Most people in his position come across as talented politicians who happen to be lawyers.
Rosenbaum comes across as a top-notch, detail-sensitive lawyer who happens to run one of the world’s largest firms, with 36 offices across the globe.
Though 1,600 of the firm’s lawyers are in the US, Greenberg Traurig is unique because it is the only major American firm with a full-service office based in Israel, including all of its lawyers passing the recently instituted foreign-lawyers exam.
Rosenbaum said that this unique situation stems from the firm’s unusual history, starting in Miami in 1967 as the first major Jewish firm in the area, which shortly after also hired a significant number of lawyers of Cuban and Latin American descent.
Why has Greenberg established such a major presence in Israel, or as Rosenbaum noted, “the only firm that puts Israel on its letterhead?” Rosenbaum said that, mostly, the firm has selectively chosen locations outside of the US, moving cautiously and following clients’ interests.
The firm established a presence in London for client work on mergers and acquisitions and capital markets; in Amsterdam for tax, real estate and corporate work; and in Mexico, Shanghai, South Korea and Poland for other specific client needs.
But Israel was different.
Though recently the firm’s Israel office has grown to five Israel-based lawyers (plus another seven lawyers seated elsewhere who focus at least partially on its Israel practice) and a full office space, it started in Israel with only one lawyer, Gary Epstein, 12 years ago.
Epstein is also the firm’s worldwide head of corporate practice.
When Epstein came to Israel, it was as a “gesture of support for Israel, not as a business-centered initiative,” said Rosenbaum But over time, that has changed, with the firm viewing its Israel office as highly profitable and viewing Israel as potentially on the verge of moving from being a “start-up nation to the next phase of maturity, when Israel creates more major companies that are based here.”
He encouraged more Israeli companies to hold off the urge to sell their ideas to foreign companies so that they could instead follow the Silicon Valley model, in which some companies who refused to sell their ideas revolutionized whole areas of the market and became true giants.
The Israel office itself is full service, but its largest practice areas are probably mergers and acquisitions, capital markets, intellectual property, litigation and defense-industry lobbying in the US, in that order.
The firm is also unique in that it has grown without a single merger, in contrast to so many of the megafirms or vereins (some more than twice Greenberg’s size) which have grown through a dizzying series of mergers.
Rosenbaum rejects the way of firms that strategize to expand the number of lawyers, calling it a “big mistake” that “causes you to hire the wrong people,” while saying he is always “open to natural growth” using “discipline and patience.”
He slammed large global firms that are “very big and mediocre in 50 countries, not adding a lot of value.” If four other firms are mediocre in the same places, then “what is unique?” How can they compete, besides “bloody price-cutting wars?” In contrast, Greenberg, he said, “focuses on high quality and efficiency in places where it will be meaningful to our clients,” adding “we won’t be everywhere, but we will be high quality and efficient.”
That said, if Rosenbaum were to note places where the firm could still have a stronger presence, he put Milan on the top of his list due to long-term common clients, while noting that the firm had decided against locations in Germany, Hong Kong and enlarging its presence in mainland China or Latin America.
Pressed that it seemed that some vereins have profited from capitalizing on size and expansion to more completely capture multinational clients’ work, he said “a relatively small number of elite firms in certain cities might survive changes in the market and focus only on high end work, but it hasn’t worked for any of them yet.”
He said that Greenberg was also being innovative in creating value for clients by exploring alternative ways of billing, like fixed fees, and employing multiple new categories of lawyers who are not on partner tracks and can be billed at lower rates, while receiving more training.
On whether a 1,800-lawyer firm can maintain a unified culture – which Rosenbaum says is the key to the firm’s success – Rosenbaum said that it has strategic plans and compensation for collaboration, and “every kind of technology you can have” to connect lawyers in different offices.
He also said that the firm respects and empowers individuals and runs as a meritocracy.
He also pointed out that because of the absence of mergers, every member of the firm chose individually to join.
Discussing some specific deals the firm’s Israel office has been involved in, partner Joey Shabot mentioned the Delek group deal, in which he and others assisted the conglomerate with divesting of some business lines, selling aspects of its insurance business.
"We did everything, from debt financing down to insurance regulatory issues," on a deal that will need approvals in several different US states, with firm experts assisting in Tel Aviv, Texas, Chicago and elsewhere, Shabot said.
He also mentioned a $500 million Special Purpose Acquisition Company deal assisting the firm’s London office with a New York-Miami client to make a private equity acquisition in Israel.
Asked if he thought that having an Israel office had hampered his firm’s expansion in other parts of the Middle East where other firms have expanded (and Greenberg has no offices), Rosenbaum said that his firm had considered a few office locations in the Gulf nations and that its Israel presence had not been an issue.
He did interject afterward that “there might be some people who might consider it a problem, but we’ve made a commitment here,” making it clear that the firm would not compromise on its Israel office to gain business elsewhere.