David Gitlin is a partner with Royer Cooper Cohen Braunfeld, a business law firm with an entrepreneurial spirit in Pennsylvania, and a member of the International Lawyers Network. In this episode, Lindsay and David discuss the importance of relationship-building for lawyers and how this can bring a great deal of fulfillment, why lawyers may want to be more cautious about AI (but not for the obvious reasons) and David’s surprising number of passions, given his 24/7 dedication to the law. For a look at a couple of the things that he mentions during the podcast, tune into his YouTube chats on classical music with his Swiss friend and former client at Pro&Fan and a look at Icelandic horses and their incredible gaits here.
You can listen to the podcast here, or we’ve provided a transcript of the highlights below.
Lindsay: Hello and welcome to the Law Firm Intelligence Podcast. I’m your host, Lindsay Griffith, Executive Director of the International Lawyers Network, and our guest this week is a returning guest, David Gitlin, from Royer Cooper Cohen and Braunfeld in Philadelphia, one of their several offices.
David, we are really happy to have you back with us. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself, and the firm, and your practice?
David: Great. Well, David Gitlin. Nice to meet you all through the air. I’m a corporate M&A lawyer. Been practicing for 42 years. I do mostly M&A and venture capital work, so it’s mostly transactional work. I’m a deal guy. I do a lot of cross-border work, and I spent the bulk of my career in very big law firms.
So maybe I’ll talk about it later, but I started my career at a firm called WolfBlock, who at the time was probably one of the, if not the most, prominent firm in Philadelphia, and I spent 28 years, and we were ILN members. In fact, we were the largest firm in the ILN at the time. Then unfortunately, the firm broke up, and I moved to bigger firms, who were too big for ILN, and six years ago, I decided I had enough been in giant law firms, and I joined RCCB.
RCCB started five years before I joined, by people who left big firms and wanted to work in a different environment, more client-friendly, more entrepreneurial, more flexible, and I decided to join them as the fifth equity partner. I was lawyer number 27. We are now six years hence, and we are sixty-five lawyers.
Corporate is still the predominant practice of our firm. About half the lawyers in the firm are corporate lawyers. I chair the Corporate Department and we do very sophisticated work for our size.
We are Chambers-rated, both personally for many, many years, but the Corporate Department is Chambers-rated, which is really terrific, because we are one-tenth the size of the second-smallest rated firm, so it’s all the big boys and us,
Lindsay: And that really has a lot to do with the level of sophistication of both the work that you do, and the lawyers that you bring to the table, right?
David: Yes. We consider ourselves at par with a big law firm in terms of the level of sophistication of our work, and the kinds of lawyers we have, except in a small package.
Lindsay: Yes, absolutely. So, what would you say is the biggest challenge that you’re facing at the moment, and how are you working to overcome it? And that can be personally you as a lawyer, or the firm as a whole.
David: Yes, so maybe I’ll touch upon both.
So personally, as a lawyer, I think my biggest challenge in the past several years was to find the right work life balance. I love to travel. I have many, many interests. On the other hand, I grew up with the mindset of being a 24/7 lawyer. I’m very hands-on. If you put the negative spin on that, I’m a control freak. And so it’s been hard to let go and find the right balance, but I think I’m at a point in time where I feel that I’m there or almost there, where I’m able to pursue a lot of different things, while at the same time have a very robust practice, and really not decrease my productivity at all, so it’s a nice place to be in terms of balance.
Lindsay: Do you think that came with experience? Did the pandemic show you that there was maybe more to life than being so hands-on? Was that just where you were in your career?
David: I think it’s a combination, right? It’s where I was. I’m at a point in my career where I could retire if I wanted to, but having said that, I’m still working hard. But there is that mindset of let’s find the right balance. I don’t have to do everything.
The pandemic was a game changer. I never imagined that I would, for example, work from home, and now we’re back in the office part-time. I go to the office twice a week. Some people go more than I. I love working from home. Not sure my wife loves it, but I love it, and it’s been a real game changer.
Also, for some reason, even though we were really, really busy during the pandemic, we had the best two years in the firm’s history financially, which is overwhelming. I was doing all kinds of things that I never had time to do. I was taking Italian lessons, I was studying art, I was doing all kinds of stuff. So it was obviously difficult from one respect, you’re being cooped up at home and not seeing friends and family, and worrying about people’s health, but on the other hand, it was a game changer.
In terms of the firm’s challenge, it’s an interesting process. So, we are in the process of converting from a small firm to a mid-size firm and putting in place the right support around us to help us achieve that, while at the same time trying to preserve our culture. We do not want to be the kind of place where we left. We like the fact that we are very collegial, friendly, entrepreneurial, and flexible, and everybody has a say. So, we’re trying to find, okay, how do we grow up? How do we become more business-like and more successful without losing that identity? And that’s an interesting challenge that we’re grappling with.
Lindsay: Yeah, I can imagine that must be … as you say, you don’t want to get larger and lose the things that make you special.
Lindsay: Absolutely. And so, in terms of the current marketplace, what does that mean for you and your clients? You’ve talked about what the firm looks like for you and your colleagues, but what does the current marketplace look like for you and your clients?
David: So, looking from the prism of my practice, and my colleagues’ practice, in the Corporate M&A area, we’ve been waiting for the recession to happen, and fortunately, it really hasn’t. We … and I don’t want to jinx anything … but we are really, really busy.
We do the middle market deals. We don’t do the giant deals, where there has been a slowdown, but in the middle market area, we happen to be very busy. And I don’t know whether that’s really appealing to everybody, or whether we’re benefiting from the fact that we have lower rates … equal quality, lower rates. It’s appealing in a time like this … but we’re across the board very busy. I am handling seven M&A deals right now, which is a lot. Fortunately, they’re not all moving at the same speed, but it’s enough to keep you really busy.
Lindsay: Yes, that’s a lot of deals at one time.
David: That’s a lot of deals, yes.
Lindsay: But that’s good. As you say, it keeps you busy. From what I’ve heard from other firms, it’s not dissimilar. I know at least in the US, inflation has come down, but still some areas the prices are still going up, and that can be attributed to the ongoing supply chain crisis and the war in Ukraine, so neither of those things are going to change anytime soon, so we just have to adapt.
Lindsay: Yes. So, switching gears a little bit, tell us something interesting about yourself that most people don’t know. You’ve told us that you took Italian lessons during the pandemic. We already know that you love art, and that’s something a lot of people know about you, but what is something that we don’t know about you?
David: Yeah, I don’t know that … people who know me probably know most of what I’m going to tell you. So, I’ll throw out a few things and you can elaborate if you want. So, I was born in Mexico, and I grew up in Israel, so I am a Mexican Israeli American, not that many of us.
Lindsay: That’s true.
David: Right. Well, you know, I have a YouTube channel where we post … a friend of mine who’s a classical musician in Zurich whom I met on an M&A deal, interestingly, which is a great story. He and I have a YouTube channel where we post video chats about classical music.
Lindsay: I love that.
David: So, if anybody’s interested, go to YouTube and search for Pro&Fan, P-R-O ampersand F-A-N, one word, and you’ll see our videos there.
Staying on the classical music scene, I collect handwritten letters from classical composers.
Lindsay: That I did know.
David: You did know … oh, wow. Okay.
I collect art, as you know.
I designed my house.
David: For many years I own and rode an Icelandic horse.
David: You didn’t know that?
Lindsay: I did not know that. That’s really interesting. Now, what’s different about an Icelandic horse to other types of horses?
David: They’re very different. First of all, they are the purest bred in the world, because there is a law in Iceland from the year 1000, that prohibits the importation of horses into Iceland, and if an Icelandic horse gets taken out of Iceland, they cannot come back.
Lindsay: Oh, wow.
David: So, it’s a purebred. It’s a small stocky breed, but it’s very, very strong and hardy and fast. And really, they were bred to carry big Viking people across rough terrain, over long distances, and they’re very special horses. They have five gaits or four gaits rather than three gates, and you can ride them at a pretty fast pace without posting. You know what posting is?
Lindsay: I don’t.
David: When you go up and down the saddle-
David: … when you trot, right? So, I could go 20, 25 miles an hour trotting, sitting down, no posting. They’re super-comfortable. In Iceland, they have these races. You can watch them on the internet. It’s unbelievable. They race the horses on frozen lakes, and the riders carry a big beer mug in their hands, and not only do you have to finish first, if you lose a certain quantity of beer from the mug, you’re disqualified.
Lindsay: So, the idea is that the horse’s gait is so smooth that you don’t lose any of your beer?
David: That you don’t spill the beer.
Lindsay: That’s incredible.
Lindsay: Wow. They must be amazing. I’m definitely going to look that up. We’ll put it in the show notes too, along with your music chats. That’s incredible.
David: That’s good.
Lindsay: They must be amazing.
David: And I’m going to Iceland tomorrow, so-
Lindsay: Oh, I didn’t realize that’s where your trip was. Oh, that’ll be amazing. It must be a beautiful time of year to be there, hopefully less humid than it is here in the Northeast.
David: Yes, well, it depends, right? Because it rains a lot, but-
David: But the temperatures really don’t vary there very much, because there’s light 24 hours, so the temperatures vary from the low forties to the upper fifties.
Lindsay: Wow, that sounds delightful right now, since it is 83 degrees here.
David: I know. If it doesn’t rain, it’ll be great.
Lindsay: Right. Yes, of course. Yes, that would be much better.
Okay, so who has been your biggest mentor over your career?
David: So, I mentioned WolfBlock, and at the time, and we’re talking about early eighties, it was a very different time. It was before computers, before internet, before cell phones, before everything, and WolfBlock happened to be a very intellectually rigorous firm, and people had the time to train you. You would work on an agreement, you would send out the agreement by mail, and you would wait a week or two until you got comments. I send comments to anywhere in the world, by the time I wake up, I have a markup.
So, it was a different pace, and the Chair of the Corporate Department when I joined the firm was a well-known lawyer who was a former Marine and was very demanding. He notoriously had a box of tissues in his desk, because he made people cry.
Lindsay: He made them cry.
David: And for some reason, he took a liking to me, and really mentored me. He drove me crazy, but I got the most amazing training, the stuff that you couldn’t possibly do today, when every minute counts.
Lindsay: Right, right. Yes, no, it’s interesting to look at the type of training that happens today, and then I think what we will be expecting 10 years from now, when so much will be done with artificial intelligence.
David: And yes, we actually just had one of our associate give a presentation on AI for lawyers at our monthly corporate lunch yesterday.
David: Yes, it’s a scary thought, frankly. I’m still in the old-fashioned range.
Lindsay: I can see … it’s interesting, because I’ve had a lot of discussions with different people about it, and in some ways I can see the benefits of taking off some of the more repetitive tasks from lawyers and allowing them to do the things that make lawyers so valuable to clients and giving that advice. But the thing that I’m really curious about is, how are these junior lawyers going to get to that point where they get that experience that makes them so good? I know where you’re at already and how you got there, but then how are the junior lawyers, if they’re not going to get that rigorous training, how are they going to get to that point?
David: Yes, in many ways, they don’t get rigorous training even without AI, just because of the economics of the firm and the pace of things. And now they get even less, because a lot of them are working remotely, so they don’t have day-to-day contact. That’s a problem.
The problem with AI is that it’s garbage in garbage out, right?
David: So, you get something that looks to be credible and good, and it could be complete nonsense, and people are not going to be disciplined enough to spend their time checking, because they went to AI to save time in the first place, and that’s the real problem. Also, there’s a certain level of common sense that you need to use, to use the information, and a machine doesn’t have that, the judgment.
Lindsay: Right, right.
David: To me, it’s scary to rely on it.
Lindsay: Well … and we saw that with the case where that lawyer tried to submit the false cases … where most of us thought-
David: He didn’t try to submit-
Lindsay: He did.
David: …. He thought they were real.
Lindsay: Right, and most of us thought, “How stupid can you be that you didn’t even check?” But as you say, if you’re already cutting corners by trying to go to AI and do that, then you’re not going to do the due diligence of checking.
David: It looks credible. You have the citation, and it looks credible, like-
Lindsay: Right. And if you don’t have the training to even have the experience where you know what looks credible and what doesn’t, then using AI is not going to get you the experience to understand what looks right and what doesn’t look right.
Lindsay: Yes, so there is a lot I think left to be done. Those more experienced people understand where that level of nuance is, but the kids coming up just don’t, and that’s really concerning. We’re a long way, I think, from using it with any sort of reliability, and if we don’t, then we’re in real trouble.
David: Yes. Of all the things that I worry about, just on a macro level, AI destroying the world is not quite there yet in my list.
Lindsay: No, me neither.
David: Right. You have the geopolitical situation, you have the internal political situation, you have global warming, which is overwhelming if you think about it. I read an article from one of the big publications that said that in … It was ’20 … I don’t remember if it was 2035 or 2050, one of those, within that time range … sixty million people are going to have to relocate.
David: Sixty million people are going to live in areas that are going to be uninhabitable by human beings. Think about it.
Lindsay: And the question is, where will they go?
David: Exactly. Let alone the human suffering associated with that. Think about the implications of that movement. Where are they going to go? All the issues that that are going to create. I think we’re completely unprepared to deal with that.
Lindsay: I agree with you. Absolutely. Absolutely. And that’s not that long from now.
Lindsay: We’re talking about 25 years at the most, really. So yes, we’re absolutely unprepared to deal with that.
Lindsay: Wow, that’s depressing. So, on that, what would you say is the most important lesson you’ve learned over your career?
David: Well … so let me answer that a little indirectly. The most satisfying thing about my career has been the relationships that I have forged over the years. If you look at 80% of my close friends, they all started as clients. Even my Swiss partner, I met him randomly on an M&A deal, and then he contacted me because he saw my bio, and he saw that I liked classical music, and introduced himself. And now we’re obviously good friends, and we’ve been to Switzerland to meet them, and their family is lovely. But my closest friends are … most of them started as clients. You meet tons of interesting people. It has enriched my life far and above just pure practice of law, and so what does that teach you? It teaches you that you have to approach your job, really not as a job, but as a … it’s almost like a calling. You really need to care enough to put yourself in the client’s shoes, make their problems your problems, and feel like you are really contributing to somebody’s life.
I’m glad I’m a corporate lawyer and not a litigator, because it’s hard to find winners in litigation, but most of my clients are happy to call me. That means they’re about to become very wealthy and sell their business, or they’re getting financing that they need, or they’re going to buy a new business. It’s all good stuff, and so just approaching this like, “Okay, I care enough about the people. I care enough about making a difference in their lives,” I think that’s the biggest lesson that comes from … if the most important thing you have achieved is the relationships you have, what do you do to create those relationships?
Lindsay: Absolutely, and I think it says so much about … you were talking earlier about how you spent so much of your life at work, and I think when you do that, and the most important piece of that is the relationships, then it shows how much you really enjoy your work, and because you’ve spent so much time there, you should really enjoy it.
David: Yes, and in my case, it’s people all over the world. So, I’ve been very fortunate of having significant part of my practice be cross-border work, and so it used to be more fun than it is now, in a sense that before you would travel, you had face-to-face meetings, and the cultural differences were much more palpable, and the relationships you make. Now, it’s so much more difficult. You don’t have the fun of doing that. You don’t have the hassle, but also it’s not the same.
But throughout my career, I’ve done M&A deals in eighteen countries, maybe twenty countries, and I have friends in all these places, which is great.
Lindsay: That’s very cool. So, speaking of international deals, what does be part of the ILN mean to you?
David: Well, there are two aspects of it. There’s the personal aspect, so coming back to the network and reconnecting with people with which you were friendly. Some of them, you continue to be friendly throughout the years, but reconnecting with so many people. The familiarity, I think that’s for me, is a cool aspect of it.
From a business point of view, on the positive side, I think from the first quarter since we joined, we’ve been one of the most active in terms of outgoing referrals. For a firm of our size, we have made a ton of referrals.
David: From the perspective of getting referrals, it’s getting better, but nowhere near what we would like.
There is another aspect though, which is, I think it’s important to be able to say to clients and actually do it, that we have people we can rely on all over the world. I think that’s an important aspect of it, particularly for a firm our size, who does so much international work, but we are limited in geographical scope.
So, for example, as you know, I have six colleagues in six different countries, three different continents, all lined up to help me on an M&A deal that’s developing. That’s a good thing, to have your team all over the world, ready to work with. So, I consider that a big benefit.
Lindsay: That’s great. That’s what I like to hear. So, one last question before we wrap up. This is the one I always like to ask is what is one thing outside of work that you’re really enjoying right now?
David: Oh, that’s a tough question-
Lindsay: I know.
David: … because for me, because I enjoy a lot of stuff. Obviously, the stuff I am interested in and collect, but I think I would say, if I had to pick one thing … well probably I have two answers, two different answers. One is I enjoy learning, so I feel like if I didn’t learn something, it was not a complete day. So even just anything that … sometimes you read something and say, “Wow, I didn’t know that.” It’s a great feeling. It’s just like, even trivia stuff.
Can I tell you a story?
Lindsay: Yes, of course.
David: So, one of my favorite movies of all time is Chariots of Fire, and for years I wondered why it is called Chariots of Fire? And then I was reading something, and I was reading something about this hymn called Jerusalem, which is almost like the informal national anthem of England, and it’s played in all kinds of occasions, and it’s a beautiful, beautiful piece of music. And I was looking at the lyrics of it, and the lyrics mentioned charts of fire. And that hymn was played at the end of the movie in the memorial service, and then I made the connection, and I was so excited.
Lindsay: That’s cool.
David: So, I went to my wife, and I said, “I figured out why it’s called Chariots of Fire.” She says to me, “If you were so interested, you could have just Googled it,” which of course is right, because you could Google it, but that kind of discovery, I get a kick out of that, and it ties with travel, which I would say is my favorite thing to do. But the point is, I enjoy planning travel as much as I enjoy the travel, which most people hate.
David: I love it, because I look at it as a learning experience. You learn so much by planning, and so I get a kick out of that.
Lindsay: That’s a great way to look at it. I should think of it that way myself, and maybe I would enjoy the planning part a little bit more.
David: Well, if you’re planning for a lot of people, which is different-
Lindsay: That’s true.
David: … that’s a job. That’s a hassle of a job. I’m planning for myself.
Lindsay: Yes, true. Right. So, it gets to be more about your own journey of discovery-
Lindsay: … and less trying to please ninety-five.
David: I don’t try to please anybody. I try to please myself.
Lindsay: Yes, yes. Which is a little different. Yes, true. Yes.
Well, this was great, David. I really appreciate it.
Lindsay: Thank you. For all of our listeners, we’ll be back next week with another guest, and in the meantime, please take a moment to rate, review, and subscribe on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts and thank you so much.