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| 17 minutes read

CMO Series EP91 - Beyond Borders: An alternative approach to legal BD with David Kaufman of Nixon Peabody

Steeped in tradition, many successful law firms have been built on a name and an individual’s connections. In a global market, extending those networks at scale, whilst retaining a personal approach, can be key to the success of a modern-day firm.

On this episode of the CMO Series podcast, Eugene McCormick is lucky to be joined by David Kaufman, Director of Global Strategies at Nixon Peabody, who, although may appear unconventional, successfully crosses borders and time zones to build relationships and win business.

David joins the series to discuss his alternative approach and why embracing globalisation has benefited his career.

Eugene and David explore: 

  • David’s career journey to his role at Nixon Peabody
  • Developing a unique approach to business development and when David recognised the opportunities that globalisation presented to law firms
  • The critical success factors of doing business internationally and how to nurture connections regardless of geography
  • How marketing and BD professionals can replicate this career path or take the next step
  • The importance of personal branding and authenticity in this role 
  • Advice for professionals looking to take a more alternative approach to business development


Eugene: Hello folks and welcome to another edition of the Passle CMO Series podcast. I'm delighted today to be joined by David Kaufman, Director of Global Strategies at Nixon Peabody.

Now, law firms are typically steeped in tradition, and successful brands have been built on a name and an individual's connections alone, but extending those networks on a global scale whilst retaining a personal approach can be a key to success, especially when it comes to capitalising on opportunities in today's market.

Now, I'm delighted to say we are joined by David Kaufman, Director of Global Strategies at Nixon Peabody to discuss his alternative approach to business development and why embracing globalisation has been advantageous in his career. David, thank you very much for joining us today on the Passle CMO Series podcast.

David: It's great to be here. 

Eugene: Our pleasure. So David, can you tell us a bit about your career journey, your role now at Nixon Peabody, and where did you start off? How did you get into legal and how did you get into business development?

David: I'd say that a lot of people think I have a non-traditional path. But a lot of what I've done at the firm and with firms has been very traditional in my development. So, this is my third career. My first two had almost nothing to do with legal other than the fact that I was in the retail and the apparel businesses, both very litigious businesses. I hired a lot of lawyers so I kind of understand from the client's perspective. So that was very helpful when I started working in law and then big law in a business development sales function. I took the experience of being a client with me and that's really helped me to look at it from the client's perspective. 

But I've done a lot of traditional jobs, I’m currently at Nixon Peabody, I started off being the regional marketing person for our West Coast offices and then ran our local business development globally for about a decade. I'd say my current role was a joint collaboration between myself and our former manager partner, Andrew Glier, who recognized the fact that I was not well suited to do a lot of the administrative work that would come from being a more traditional marketing function. Therefore, he said, “Why don't you focus on this international piece and this business development piece which you seem to excel at”. That's how we came across my current role where I run our international practice and it's extensively client-facing. I spend about 80% of my time working directly with clients and helping clients do business all over the world and helping folks from all over the world do business in the US. So I spent most of my time working with folks that need to set up businesses here, get into legal disputes, have regulatory concerns, things like that. So connecting them to the right lawyers at our firm or helping them vice versa by helping them work with lawyers from around the world with parts of the Nixon Peabody Network, my connections and things like that.

Eugene: Yeah. Can I ask David, you mentioned that sort of 80% of your time is spent connecting and you do a huge amount of that at a global scale. When did you realise all of those, did this sort of just happen organically or did you sort of realise that those opportunities linked with globalisation and how that could really benefit you and Nixon Peabody? And indeed, how did you develop that approach, that very global first approach?

David: Well, I mean, I think I was fortunate that about three decades ago I went to China and I really started to develop my understanding of doing business in Asia and globally. So, I think my first two careers helped me kind of understand the world of global business. And that really just continued at both my predecessor firm and then this firm by working with our China practice essentially and opening our Asia offices. So that kind of opened my eyes to that and then it just kind of snowballed into the same things that I was doing in Asia, as all those things can work in Europe and in Israel and in the UK and, understanding that people are people and that no matter what trying to understand what motivates them, what drives them and what connects with them is kind of basic. 

I grew up in a small town in central Pennsylvania. I had no idea growing up that 50 years later I would be spending almost all my time thinking about what happens outside the US. But I think what it taught me was that you have to have respect for people. I'm a proud American and it's President's Day today so we're celebrating that. I do have a great respect for other people's cultures and other people's ways of doing business and so I think that people like the fact that, even though they know what they're getting when they talk to me, I'm an American, they understand that I'm going to be respecting their business interests and how they do business.

Eugene: You mentioned that connecting the dots is so important for what you do, and then as well, you mentioned doing business internationally. Then in the last sentence you just mentioned the word respect about three times, is that for you the key to doing business well at an international level? And then how do you nurture, that's obviously the basis and the foundation for those relationships, but then how do you nurture and build and emulate those relationships over time regardless of the geography?

David: Yeah. My philosophy has always been that you have to treat people as you'd like to be treated and understand that. I've never gone into something and said, “Well that looks like a low if someone asks for my help”. I never say, “Well I don't see how this is gonna pay off for me”. My job is like “Let me see how I can help you”. And so by always having that as your inclination and not really thinking about what's the over-under on whether this is gonna be a big project or a small project. The reality is that I do a lot of small projects for people. I do a lot of work for people that don't end up hiring our firm. Maybe they need help in some other way but, by going into it, the idea that I can be of service and I can be helping has paid off because when someone does need something big or something does develop into something much larger, or a much more important project, they come to you because they come to you for everything. 

I really want people to view me, especially folks that are operating outside the US, I like them to view me as their American desk. So if they have any kind of questions, concerns or anything that happens in the US that they need help with they’re going to reach out to me. I can do the research, I can connect you with the right people if it's a small project. I can really understand that and that's how I'd like to be treated. 

I had a situation where someone reached out from a more emerging country and they needed some type of assistance on an employment matter and we were conflicted out, we actually couldn't help them with it. I went to an attorney and I said, “Who should I recommend?”. And he replied “I can't imagine any of our firms would be interested in doing this pretty small matter’. And I replied, “Listen, I'm amazed that they found me so, I need to find them counsel somehow”. And I called a friend of mine up and I said, “this is probably gonna be a small matter, I'm not sure what's gonna happen, but can you represent them?” and they did and they did well. I heard from other people afterwards that the law firm was very appreciative that I went the extra mile for them and it's just kind of the idea that that's kind of what I do.

Eugene: That leads quite nicely to the next question. Obviously, I've had the pleasure of meeting you in person a couple of times around America, and on the surface of it, you have the dream job and the dream lifestyle and you get to do such interesting and diverse work and really add value to people's personal and professional lives. How can other marketing and business development professionals try and replicate your career path or even take that next step to do something similar.

David: I'd say it looks glamorous but it's not all that, there's a lot of hard work involved in it too. I get up really early in the morning. I start my day at 4 o’clock in the morning on most days and often it falls into the night. So, it's not as glamorous as it always looks. 

But I will say that to answer your question, I think that you have to figure out what inspires you, what makes it interesting and ask questions. When you start out at a law firm or any business that you join, be inquisitive and find out how we do that, why we do that and then volunteer. Reach out to say, “I'm interested in doing this” and put your hand up.  So I think very early on when I was at my firm they were talking about setting up a China office and I put my hand up, and that wasn't my role when I started, they didn't hire me to do international work. But I said, “I have a long history of doing business in China and I'd be happy to help you with whatever I can do”. I ended up spending a lot of my time doing that and that kind of led me in a roundabout way to where I am now. But if you're just going to sit back and wait for someone to pick you up and say “Eugene, I think you're gonna be good at this”. That almost never happens. You have to go for it and you're going to get rejections. 

One of the good things about me is that I have a sales background, so I'm totally prepared for rejection. When I started selling, if I went around to a group of stores and if I made one sale a day, I was happy. I had 10 or 11 people just slam the door in my face but I understand that's the business. It's the same thing with your career. If you say you want to be interested and you want to do this, they might not always say yes, it might not be the right time and it might not be the right job. But, if you don't ask for it, you won't get it. 

Eugene: Sort of related to that piece before about your attitude to business development and marketing, how can I help you? The acts of service, the “I want to be the connector”, “I want to be their American desk” There's a key element in that which is being approachable but also dependable and reliable and that's very much linked to this idea of personal branding.

You and I have talked before about this idea of “What is your brand?”. You're casual, you're fun-loving, you're very open to new experiences, you treat everyone the same, and you're very unconventional in a very conventional industry. Do you think that really is a string to your bow? Do you think that a nontraditional approach makes you brilliant at work? You still have very high standards for client service but, do you think that non-traditional element you have is very important and it impacts how people want to spend time with you, interact with you, and want to work with you as well.

David: Well, I like to say that I found authenticity early. I think a lot of people now are like, you have to be authentic at work. I think I've tried to be at least for the last 15 years, I've tried to be authentic at work and that sometimes rubs people up the wrong way, sometimes it annoys people. But I'd say for the most part it’s embraced by people. People like the fact that I am who I am and I present that way and that I have long hair and a beard, usually dressed casually or more interestingly. They like that, they appreciate that, they understand where I'm coming from and again, I swim in the San Francisco Bay and I do IronMan races and things like that, and I talk about that and I talk about my experiences. So I think the idea is that people can relate to that. I'm a person, I'm not just an email address or a profile on Linkedin or on a law firm website. I'm a real person and when they contact me they understand that I'll treat them like real people as well and try to understand how to help them and help them succeed and help them achieve success.

Eugene: That’s been absolutely fabulous and I sort of wanted to, we're going to do a little quick fire around next, but you're a real hive of great advice and practical advice. What is your one little nugget of advice for someone else who's probably a bit earlier on in their career and looking to take what I would describe as a more authentic and alternative approach and, arguably much more effective and memorable approach to business development? You mentioned your sales background and how that's built up resilience. What should someone else do to try to emulate what you've achieved?

David: I think the idea is to integrate it into your real life. I spend a lot of my time, around 80% of my time working, I spent a huge amount of time working. I used to do a presentation called “You can't turn business development on and off”. There are so many ways that you can find business, find new contacts, and find new connections. So I like to say integrate into your life, figure out what you like doing and how can that work with your business life. Don't try to, I think there's a lot of effort now today to call for work-life balance and I think that people spend a lot of time trying to throw up walls to protect their personal time. My thing is like, well how do you, how can you find a way to make it as easy for you to do the things you're interested in and also do your work? I think a good example is that we had breakfast a couple of weeks ago in San Francisco and I invited you to breakfast next to where I swim. So I got to get my swimming done in the bay and then we had breakfast together. I was able to kind of make that work so I think people should think about how they can construct their lives in a way that they can feel fulfilled personally and professionally and not worry so much about the notion of putting up hard barriers. Just make your work life and your personal life integrated.

Eugene: Yeah and make it sort of symbiotic rather than opposite of one another so that you can do it.

David: You always feel guilty that you're not spending more time at work or you're not spending more time with your family. If there are ways that you can kind of make it feel like you're achieving the same purposes together.

Eugene: Yeah.

David: Then I think you'll have a much happier existence.

Eugene: It really feeds into that whole idea of authenticity as well because that is who you are as a person rather than trying to juggle as much.

David: Yeah. I think the mistake is sometimes people say, “I went and joined this golf club or I joined this tennis club or I started doing this because I thought it would help me get business”. I really don't think that works. I think the idea is that if you do things that you love and you interact with really interesting people and if you are attractive and are attracted to interesting people, it probably will help your career. But, if you're going to do it with the idea that, “I'm going to do this because I'm going to get business out of it” then you probably won't get any business out of it. You probably will be unhappy and people will be able to smell that inauthentic activity.

Eugene: Yeah, 100%. That was a really nice note to finish on David and you will be delighted or dreading to hear that we do have a little quick fire round as well to wade through. So, if it's okay with you we'll jump straight in.

David: Wicked.

Eugene: So, David, what's your favourite business and non-business book?

David: Oh, it's hard to say. I mean from a business perspective I'm a traditionalist. So, David Master's ‘Trusted Advisor’ is fantastic. If you haven't read it, I think a lot of people in business development and marketing probably haven't read it because it's kind of old school but it's fantastic. But then innovation changes so ‘Smarter Collaboration’, the new book by Heidi Gartner, my friend, and Penn Classmate, is fantastic. Their approach is I think revolutionary for law firms and I know at Nixon Peabody we've tried to embrace her philosophy. As far as non-business, I read a lot of history. The book that I kind of fell in love with last year was a book by Neil Baskin called ‘Faster’, which is about car racing, which I know nothing about. I read the book totally with no understanding that I knew anything about car racing, but it's all about cars. You guys were in my car so you know what I'm thinking about cars but, it's a great book. It’s right in the run-up to World War Two and it's a Jewish car racer and it's really a fascinating story. So, ‘Faster’ by Neil Baskin,

Eugene: I'll check on it. What was your first job?

David: I've always been entrepreneurial whilst I was growing up so I'd say my first paying job was that I taught little kids basic computer language and I set it up so that I was in junior high school at the time. So the first parent would pick me up from school and then have to take me to the next parent and then to the next house. I ended up having 15 students each week and I was hoping to set up my own school until my parents realised that I was slowly remodelling our back room. When the desks arrived, that's when my parents were like, “You can't do this, you can't turn our house into a school”. So, that was the end of my computer training days.

Eugene: Well, my first job was working in a bar so yours is slightly more sophisticated than mine and I have to give it to you. We glazed, we sort of touched on this earlier but, what makes you happy at work?

David: I still think I have that salesman, that sales kind of idea. So, I love when things work out. There are a lot of things that can go between when someone reaches out for help and when we actually sign them on. So I love it when it all kind of works out and we've been able to do a good job for a client. I deal with a lot of things that never turn out to be anything but when something does work out I think it’s just great that we can actually be of some great service to people.

Eugene: Couldn't agree more. What are you listening to at the moment? Podcast, music, audiobooks, anything in between?

David: I have a lot of clients. I've had a lot of clients in the UK and I've kind of found the BBC's app and I try to listen to, believe it or not, I try to listen to the six o'clock news, the British six o'clock news every day, if I can, because I can listen to it any time. Sometimes I'll play it when I'm working out or I'm coming home on the boat or in my car and that's interesting because it gives me kind of a viewpoint on a part of the world that I don't get by listening to American news.

Eugene: It's interesting you say that. Before I moved here I did a big thing reading the American Press, the New York Times, the Washington Post and things like that for precisely the same reason. It's refreshing to get that different style of writing, different style of journalism, the underlying philosophy and it's a good idea.

David: And when I travel I'm a big NPR consumer so our National Public Radio and I belong to, I'm a member of the KQED here in San Francisco and also in my hometown, WPSU back in Pennsylvania. But when I travel I like to listen to the public radio station. I travel in America so if I'm down in LA I listen to KCRW, and if I'm in Boston as you are and Miami I try to listen to the local stations there. It gives you that local flavour. It’s the same basic news, the national news is the same, but then when they get to the local news stories you get to hear a what's going on in that area.

Eugene: David I'm going to send you across some local radio from where I'm from and it's going to obviously blow your mind. Local Belfast radio is going to be quite something for you. Where is your favourite place to visit and why?

Eugene: I like to tell people that I love San Francisco. I had an idyllic childhood in Central Pennsylvania but I'm really happy that I moved here and I tell people all the time. It’s the idea that a bad day in San Francisco is better than a good day pretty much anywhere else in the world. So, I love San Francisco. 

If I had to visit a place, my wife and I have had some great trips down to Carmel and we’ve stayed at the Michon Ranch which is Clint Eastwood's property down there. That's a fantastic place too but it's hard to beat San Francisco.

Eugene: Nice. David on that note we're gonna wrap up there. I just want to say thank you very much for taking the time to appear on the Passle CMO Series Podcast. It’s very much appreciated.

David: Thank you. Have a great day.


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