Law Firm ILN-telligence Podcast | Joshua Upin, Royer Cooper Cohen Braunfeld

June 20th, 2024

Law Firm ILN-telligence Podcast | Joshua Upin, Royer Cooper Cohen Braunfeld

Law Firm ILN-telligence Podcast | Joshua Upin, Royer Cooper Cohen Braunfeld

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Joshua Upin is a partner with Royer Cooper Cohen Braunfeld, the ILN’s Pennsylvania member firm. In this episode, he and Lindsay discuss the hot topic on everyone’s mind, generative AI, the unrealistic expectations that television has created for the legal system, and his new favorite podcast, Magnificent Jerk

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 Griffiths, Executive Director of the International Lawyers Network. Our guest this week is Joshua Upin with Royer Cooper Cohen Braunfeld in Philadelphia. Joshua, we’re really happy to have you with us. Thanks so much for joining us. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself, your practice, and your law firm?

Joshua: Thank you, Lindsay. Happy to be here. So, as you mentioned, I’m a partner at Royer Cooper Cohen Braunfeld. It’s a Philadelphia-based law firm with offices in Conshohocken and New York City. Although we are sort of regionally located, we have a fairly large scope nationally and also do quite a lot of international work, especially given our relatively small size. We’re about 65 lawyers now across three different offices and have another 15 or 20 support staff and administrative professionals working here. The firm was founded 11 years ago by Royer, Cooper, Cohen, and Braunfeld, who were all sort of peel-offs from big law who wanted to continue doing sophisticated legal work, but in a more relaxed sort of social environment and at a price structure, which was more comfortable for some of the startup companies that they were advising.

Now, we consider ourselves full service. We’ve added a commercial litigation department, a tax group, bankruptcy and restructuring, family law, real estate, and private client services group, which does wealth planning and estate administration. So, I sit most principally in the litigation group, but I also straddle into real estate in certain arenas. Certainly, real estate-related litigation tends to come my way, but I have also done some land use and zoning work and some real estate finance and development work as well.

Lindsay: Very cool, very cool. All right, so let’s dive into our questions. What would you say is your biggest challenge at the moment and how are you working to overcome that?

Joshua: Okay, so as I’m sure you know and maybe some of your listeners as well, we are inundated with the explosion of generative AI and its impact on the legal practice. So, I am a member of our firm’s technology committee and am at the sort of forefront of trying to understand the implications of generative AI in our professional life. And so we’ve been spending a lot of time researching the theoretical space and understanding some of the actual nuts and bolts of the technology and the science behind it, and then also the practical implications, sort of software applications that are available and some of the new products that existing vendors such as Westlaw and Lexis are rolling out to try and incorporate these tools into our daily work life.

Obviously, there’s a lot of hesitation about the reliability of some of these tools. There’s a tremendous amount of concerns over privacy and data sharing and things of that nature. And of course, this landscape is changing extremely rapidly, so staying up to date is very hard because what you learn and understand today is sometimes obsolete within a couple of days or a couple of weeks. So, it’s exciting, but also a little bit anxiety provoking, especially lawyers are sort of risk averse by nature. And so that has been a real challenge for me over the last few months.

Lindsay: That’s really fascinating. I was just talking to somebody about this too, and we were looking at sort of the two sides of the coin, which is not only is it impacting the practice of law, but it’s also impacting your clients. And so you have to stay up to date from the perspective of how’s it going to impact your business and how are you going to be able to utilize it, but also what are your clients going to be doing with it and how might it impact them and not only in their daily business and how are they going to be changing, but what might be the legal implications of what they’re doing as clients and in their businesses?

Joshua: Yes, no, the issues are countless, and it has been really challenging to kind of stay on top of it all. The nice thing is, everyone is in the same boat to some extent because it’s new to all of us. And patting myself on the back a little bit, was at the legal tech conference in New York last month, and I felt just as well-educated as even some of partners at big law firms in New York because we’ve been devoting so much time to this. So, everyone is in this brave new world together and trying to figure their way through it. But yes, at some point the rubber does need to hit the road and you need to decide, am I using this piece of technology? Am I endorsing my client’s use of a particular piece of technology knowing whatever the risks may be associated with it? And so, it’s a balancing act and as things progress, we’ll just try and keep our feet on the ground as best we can.

Lindsay: Absolutely, absolutely. So aside from AI, talk to us a little bit about the current state of the market and what that means for your clients

Joshua: In general, or as it relates to the use of AI-based technology?

Lindsay: Just in general.

Joshua: In general. Yeah, so we’re seeing a pretty strong workflow at the moment and a good pipeline of stuff six months out. There’s been a lot of speculation about recession and the state of the economy, which is then quickly followed by the stock market doing better than it ever has in history. And so whatever those macroeconomic factors are or are not, for our part, we seem to be going along at a pretty good clip right now, which is good. And that goes both for our transactional practice and our litigation practice. Real estate deal flow has slowed down a little bit, which sort of locks up with the increase in interest rates, the cost of money has gone up, and so developers are struggling to figure out creative ways to continue making those juicy margins that they were benefiting from when the prime rate was at 0.1 or whatever it was for so long.

So, kind of calibrating to a new normal has taken a little bit of time in that respect. But in general, things have been good, and we still continue to see a lot of international transactions as well of late. We do a lot of work with [inaudible 00:07:55] in the Middle East and in the emerging market space, South America. And again, the deal flow has been pretty consistent over the last six to 12 months.

Lindsay: That’s great. That’s very hopeful.

Joshua: Yes, fingers crossed. Hopefully, we didn’t just jinx that.

Lindsay: I know right. Knock on wood. What challenges would you say are facing the legal profession today? I mean, we’ve talked obviously about AI, and I think that’s a big one, but what besides that would you say is another challenge that you think is facing the profession?

Joshua: Well, the cost of legal services is always a difficult kind of thing to negotiate. We sit in an interesting spot between what I would consider the big law arena of very sophisticated clients with much bigger legal budgets, and then the more sort of mom-and-pop small family-owned company operators who maybe if we’re advising them on an M and A deal for example, it’s their first big transaction cycle or their first big piece of litigation. And so being able to provide quality counsel but within reasonable financial parameters is challenging. Our rates are continually driven up by inflationary pressures and also just the context of the market and the cost of providing legal services is also getting much more burdensome. We’re talking about again, AI, but as the technology advances, the cost for entry to use those technologies also gets much more expensive.

And in some part, that has to be passed off to the client in terms of how the rates are set. So that’s something that we are keenly aware of and sensitive to, and it really impacts how we sort of position ourselves in the marketplace. And sometimes it gives us a great advantage because we can compete just on price alone, but in other scenarios we have to be really mindful of how kind of deep we can get into a particular representation because the budget just might not be there to kind of go whole hog, as they say.

Lindsay: Of course, of course. Do you think there is a certain level of pressure for a firm of your size and sophistication given that you are competing with big firms to increase your prices because you are, you’re not a boutique firm, but you are more of a midsize firm operating in this niche where you do have this level of sophistication that is not present normally in a firm of your size. So do you think there is a pressure to increase your prices for certain clients or certain matters so that you are because you’re expected to compete at that level or not?

Joshua: Yes, so I mean, I guess I could answer that question from two perspectives internally and externally. So obviously internally as a partner and a sort of member of the ownership structure, we’re in the business of running a business and trying to make money as private practitioners. So obviously as expenses increase, as I mentioned before, it’s a natural segue that rates would increase so that we can continue to be profitable, and everyone can get paid and have a nice life. So, there is pressure internally to kind of make sure that we are not underpricing ourselves, but also not overpricing so that we lose business. Then externally, sometimes oddly, we have found that there is a certain sensitivity within the marketplace and amongst our clients to prices, not necessarily looking for a lower price, but if you’re not expensive enough, what does that say about the quality of the work that you’re going to provide?

So certainly, when we’re working with clients, let’s say in the New York metro area, on average, the cost of legal services in New York is much higher than it is in Philadelphia. And so, if you’re on a sophisticated transaction or you’re pitching for a piece of that kind of a business and your rates are so much drastically lower than what the client might otherwise expect to be seeing, they may draw some inference or conclusion about your quality based on that. So again, it’s another one of these kind of delicate dances of getting it right where it needs to be so that we are, again, we’re making money, we’re projecting an air of confidence and esteem to the client, but still coming in at a competitive benchmark so that we win the business.

So, it’s a balancing act, and I think the nice thing about, again, being a firm of our size is we’re not so institutionally bound that we don’t have some flexibility to make those kinds of decisions, where at maybe a 2,000 or 3,000 lawyer firm, there isn’t as much wiggle room when it comes to rate setting. We also are sort of creative in that sometimes we might even take an completely alternative approach to the fee structure if the circumstances allow for it. So that also helps us remain competitive as well.

Lindsay: Your size allows you more flexibility and the ability to make those decisions.

Joshua: Yes.

Lindsay: Yes, which is great. Okay, so switching gears a little bit, can you tell us something interesting about yourself that most people don’t know?

Joshua: Well, sure. So, I have recently developed a real interest in woodworking as a hobby basis. A lot of my family are very good with their hands. My dad is a painter, he’s an artist. My grandfather was a mechanic in the war, and we have a lot of crafty genes amongst us. And so, as a way to relax from the kind of intellectual rigor of legal practice, I find it’s always nice to kind of yourself with some more manually focused projects. So, we recently moved to a house with a garage about a year ago, and I never had a garage before, because I lived in the city, and I took the space over, ended up a wood shop. And so, I’ve been tinkering away in there making little bookshelves and storage boxes and things like that, just trying to teach myself some techniques, and that’s been really cool.

Lindsay: That’s very cool. I love that.

Joshua: Yes, it’s been good. So maybe one day when I get good enough, I’ll send you something as a thank you for having me on the show.

Lindsay: I would love that. That would be great. Yes, we’re a network full of talented people, and I always love to hear what people are doing outside of their legal work. So that’s really, we don’t have any other woodworkers I don’t think so I really love that.

Joshua: Yeah, I’m kind of the odd one out of the family. Most of my sisters are both very creative. One of them went to art school, is a designer. Like I said, my dad is a painter, my uncle’s an artist and an art teacher. So, when I came home and was like, oh, I’m going to go to law school, everyone kind of looked at me like, what? But here I am.

Lindsay: Now you’ll get your creative side out and you can be more comfortable at Thanksgiving.

Joshua: Yes, yes, exactly. And it’s a good excuse to not field questions for free legal advice all the time if just present as a woodworker as opposed to as an attorney.

Lindsay: That’s right. Now you’ll just have to build people things instead.

Joshua: Yes, that’s true.

Lindsay: That’s the risk.

Joshua: Yes.

Lindsay: So, who has been your biggest mentor over your career?

Joshua: Well, I’ve had many. I would say two lawyers in particular jump out. One is Howard Scher who was the former managing partner of Buchanan Ingersoll’s Philadelphia office, and a really accomplished trial lawyer. And I’ve known Howard since I was a little kid. And when I came back to Philadelphia after going to law school in LA and I was gearing up to start my own practice, Howard was the first person that I called, and he was phenomenally generous with his time and his wisdom and his insights. And I’ll tell a funny story. I remember I had been working at Dewey and LeBoeuf in LA in the sort of ivory tower, these big deals and astronomical hourly rates and so on and so forth. And I came back to Philadelphia, and it was 2008, things were not good economically speaking. And so, I was kind of forced to start my own solo practice, and I called Howard and I said, Howard, what should my hourly rate be? And he said, oh, that’s easy, getting paid.

And at the time, I really didn’t know what he meant by that. But as I got further along, I realized your hourly rate really isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on if your clients can’t pay the bill or you can’t collect on the judgment or whatever, the sort of practical mode of getting to payment is doesn’t come to fruition. So that was just one of a number of nuggets of good advice that he gave me. And then the second individual that has been a great mentor to me was actually someone that Howard introduced me to, and his name is Michael LiPuma. And Mike is a commercial litigator in Philadelphia who I think many moons ago worked at WolfBlock and then started his own boutique litigation shop.

And Howard had worked across from Mike on a case many years ago, and he introduced us, and Mike really knew the pain and the joy of running a solo practice, so his advice was particularly useful for me. And Mike has a huge heart and always did a lot of pro bono work, and he got me involved in helping with some of his pro bono cases. And he recently hung up his spurs and closed his practice and moved in-house at a nonprofit that does homeless advocacy work here in Philadelphia, which is something that he’s been wanting to do for a very long time. So really proud of him and the relationship that we have and all that he’s taught me over the years.

Lindsay: That’s really incredible and very important work to do.

Joshua: Yes, yes. No, he’s a saint.

Lindsay: Yes, that’s amazing. That’s amazing. So, along those lines, and maybe this has come from working with them, but what’s the most important lesson that you’ve learned over your career?

Joshua: Wow. I think patience and empathy and the ability to really put yourself in the shoes of the other people and entities involved in what is oftentimes a contentious set of circumstances. When I was younger, I was like a hammer, and everything was a nail. And I don’t know if this was a product of my personality or my training or some combination of the two, but it was like, I need to be the loudest, strongest, fastest kind of person in the arena in order to win. And then as time went on, I realized that really achieving beneficial outcomes for myself, my clients and the firm come when you’re able to see the problem from the other side and meaningfully so, and once you’ve understood the other side’s fears, objectives, concerns, et cetera, you can more intelligently work to a compromise which is feasible for everyone. And so, I think that’s been a real key to my kind of professional and intellectual development since I started doing this.

Lindsay: And that’s just good life advice too. Not only do I think in matters of litigation, but also when you’re dealing with human beings.

Joshua: Yes, 100%. And I feel like this is more anecdotal than data, but it seems to me, especially after COVID, everyone is just so trigger-happy. Well, literally, but I meant more figuratively. People are quick to be angry and judgmental, and I’ve been guilty of that myself sometimes in everyday context waiting in line for the cashier at the supermarket or whatever it is. And you just don’t know what’s going on in another person’s life or what kind of day they’ve had, and maybe something really tragic happened and there’s a reason that they’re short-tempered and not being particularly nice. Maybe there isn’t, but at least allowing yourself the space to think that way, to kind of bring down the temperature a little bit and ease past what could otherwise be a more tense moment or unpleasant experience, I think is, as you said, it’s just good life advice, good life practice.

Lindsay: Absolutely. Very, very important. So, what is something you think most people misunderstand about your field of work?

Joshua: I don’t know if the podcast is long enough for that one. Not to sell myself and my profession short, but people often have certain unrealistic expectations about the power that we wield as lawyers. That’s a myth that’s perpetuated on television and in movies and popular culture. But even sophisticated business clients come in and like, we’re going to sue them. We’re going to bring them down to their knees, and we’re going to walk away from this thing victoriously in 10 minutes. And the reality is it just doesn’t work like that. It takes a lot of time. The court system moves excruciatingly slowly. For as many great arguments and facts as you think you have, the other side has just as many, and it’s just not this sort of instant gratification with a kind of clear victory at the end of it all the time.

And so sometimes people think that just by having a lawyer involved, it’s going to sort of tilt the universe in their favor in a really imbalanced but advantageous way. And unfortunately, that’s not often the case. Certainly, having us involved will help increase the likelihood that you’ll get to where you want to go, because we do understand the rules of whatever game it is you may be playing. But that is something that is really sort of misunderstood or people are shocked to kind of find out, what do you mean you didn’t get that all fixed up already? It’s like, well, sorry, but it’s been sitting on the judge’s desk for eight months and I don’t have any control over that.

Lindsay: So, do you think that’s something that TV has created in people, that they’ve watched so many one-hour dramas that show this neatly wrapped bow at the end of it?

Joshua: Yes, for sure. I mean, listen, I love Law and Order as much as the next person, but this idea that crimes from arrest to charge to conviction or exoneration happen in like 48 hours compressed down to a half hour, one hour TV episode is crazy. I mean, most of the cases I have right now, which I would consider sort of active in my row, have been going on for well over a year, sometimes two or three even. Again, that’s civil, not criminal, but the same kind of logic applies. So yes, movies sensationalize and increase the speed with which lawyering happens in a very unrealistic way.

Lindsay: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. Is there a client that you would say has changed your practice?

Joshua: I’m sure they all have, to be honest with you in some form fashion. I mean, honestly, every client interaction, especially the ones that are longer in time, if it’s a long deal cycle or a long piece of litigation, are a cause for reflection. I try, especially for cases that get very close to trial or the very few that actually go to trial, it’s always sort of a period of introspection at the conclusion whether you won or you lost or somewhere in between. What went well? What went wrong? Where do the client was really on board with the advice that we were giving? Where were we maybe misaligned to some extent? And also working with some of the younger associates in that capacity as well to really sort of use these as teachable moments and as learning exercises.

So, I’ve certainly picked up a lot of tricks, I shouldn’t say tricks that makes it sound nefarious, but strategies and tactics when it comes to just general business from talented CEOs and founders of companies, the kind of balancing of risk versus reward business people think a lot differently than lawyers. Lawyers. It’s like no risk. No risk, no risk. Business people are often like, no, no, some risk is okay, because if we get past the risk, then there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. So, kind of understanding that balance is something that I’ve learned from clients as well over the years.

Lindsay: That’s good. It’s good when you learn things from clients.

Joshua: Yes, I’ve also learned what not to do from clients, but I won’t spend too much time on that.

Lindsay: I think, yes, we’ve all learned those things where you think, well, that’s not the kind of person I want to be, and so we’ll just not do-

Joshua: Questionable decision-making on many, many occasions. Yes.

Lindsay: Yes, yes. Absolutely. Well, before we wrap up, there’s always one question I like to ask, and is there anything outside of work that you’re really enjoying right now maybe besides woodworking?

Joshua: I’ve actually been on a podcast kick myself. Until recently, had never really listened to any podcasts at all. And I did a search for best podcasts of 2023, and an article in the New Yorker came up and I just finished, it’s called The Magnificent Jerk, and it was rated by the New Yorker as one of the top 10 podcasts of last year. And it’s this crazy story about an Asian American woman who I think is a reporter for the Washington Post. And her uncle was, she didn’t know much about him growing up, but she’d come to realize that he was in a gang in Oakland in the ’50s and ’60s and was involved in some pretty gnarly criminal activity and was hooked on drugs. But then ultimately, as a way to kind of extricate himself from the criminal life, moved to LA and re-imagined himself as a screenwriter and actor.

And he wrote this movie called Crazy Six, which was ultimately produced and made into a feature film with Rob Lowe and Mario Van Peebles and Burt Reynolds. And it was very low budget, and it went straight to video and has now kind of become a bit of a cult classic. But it was just this incredible story about family and the immigrant experience and race relations in this country, and also the podcasters coming to grips with her own mother having passed. This was sort of born out of her mom died, and she was trying to come to peace with that and understand the generation before her better. And just by kind of silly luck, she found all of this stuff out about her uncle and made this podcast about it. Anyway, so that was a long answer to a simple question. So yes, I’m listening to podcasts now.

Lindsay: That’s very cool. And what a story.

Joshua: Yes, it was really, really something. And her uncle’s name was Galen Yuen, and he was actually in a Werner Herzog film as an actor, and they had a short interview clip on the podcast of Werner Herzog talking about Galen in this movie that he shot. And it was just kind of crazy to go from this drug addled convict to being in a Werner Herzog movie. It was really quite an odyssey.

Lindsay: Yeah, I mean, it’s so funny. You think sometimes you imagine that you’ll find out sort of deep, dark secrets about your family, but you never quite imagine that will be the thing you find out. So, she been sort of-

Joshua: No, it’s wild.

Lindsay: Wow.

Joshua: Anyone out there who’s looking for another good podcast to listen to, Magnificent Jerk, I highly recommend it.

Lindsay: Yes, yes, I’ll put it in the show notes and now everyone, they’ll be able to click the link and find it, so that’s fantastic. Well, great. Well, thank you so much for joining us this week. I really appreciate it.

Joshua: Thanks for having me.

Lindsay: And thanks to all of our listeners for joining us too. 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. When you rate us and review us, it really helps other listeners find good podcasts like us. So, we really appreciate it. And thank you so much.

Joshua: Thanks, Lindsay. Take care.

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