"It’s been fun; it adds another dimension to what I do," says Carolyn Nussbaum of her role as managing partner of Nixon Peabody LLP’s Rochester office after some 16 months on the job.
Asked what exactly she enjoys about administrative chores, Nussbaum answers with an expression that reveals how much pleasure she takes in managerial responsibilities: not a lot.
Not that Nussbaum disdains administrative chores. The managing partner job follows stints on the firm’s compensation, policy, personnel, pro bono and advisory committees and as head of its recruiting committee.
The fun of being managing partner is in "one-on-one listening when I’m brainstorming with partners to come up with ideas on how to grow the business," says Nussbaum, 58, a fiercely competitive litigator who also co-chairs Nixon Peabody’s securities and corporate litigation team.
When she agreed to be managing partner, Nussbaum resolved not to let the job cut too deeply into her practice. It is a vow she has kept, she says, devoting no more than 20 percent of her work time to management.
A fair amount of her work is in out-of-town and out-of-state courts.
"It ebbs and flows," she says.
As a litigator, Nussbaum is virtually unsurpassed, says Edward Hourihan Jr., managing partner of the Syracuse-based Bond, Schoeneck & King PLLC’s Rochester-area office.
In litigation, Hourihan says, Nussbaum leaves few stones unturned, marshalling an impressive array of facts that opponents can find intimidating.
Like many litigators, Nussbaum says, she is not particularly eager to go to court.
"Clients don’t really like litigation," she says. "They wonder why it costs so much."
Still, Hourihan says, a quality that makes Nussbaum a fearsome opponent is her willingness to do whatever is needed when a legal battle lands in court.
There, he says, Nussbaum seldom gets details wrong and is ready to file whatever motions and seek whatever court dates are needed. Definite and firm in her opinions, Hourihan adds, Nussbaum does not hold back when she disagrees with opponents-or, for that matter, with colleagues.
"She is one of the most capable litigators around; she gets the most complex cases-they find their way to her desk," says Hourihan, who has worked with and gone against Nussbaum in cases. As an opponent, he says, Nussbaum is "an unflappable advocate for her client, which as a litigator is the highest objective."
The traits he names are qualities some see as abrasive, Hourihan notes.
"I sometimes wonder if people don’t feel that way only because she’s a woman," he speculates.
Nussbaum sometimes gets cases on referral from out-of-town firms whose clients have legal matters in this area. And like most area commercial litigators, she sometimes pulls duty as local counsel for an out-of-town firm. In either type of case, Nussbaum always insists on pursuing whatever line she thinks best.
"I’m not going to be anybody’s mail drop," Nussbaum says. "Ethics don’t permit it anyway."
In an interview some 16 months ago when she was only weeks into the managing partner job, Nussbaum admitted she had concerns over how some in the Rochester office would view her appointment.
"I am a litigator, and as a litigator I tend to be direct," she said at the time. "Because I tend to make my expectations very clear, I wasn’t sure how people would react."
Hourihan thinks Nussbaum has calmed what were somewhat troubled waters in Nixon Peabody’s Rochester office. Over several years just prior to Nussbaum’s 2011 appointment, he says, a stream of lawyers left Nixon Peabody to jump to other firms. A dozen departed to start a local office of a Virginia law firm, and Hourihan helped recruit two others to Bond, Schoeneck.
"Now," he says, "they’ve dried up as a recruiting source for us."
As managing partner, Nussbaum says, she likes coming up with "fun ideas" as much as brainstorming. For her, the fun idea category usually involves community-oriented events or programs.
A firm with roughly 700 lawyers, Nixon Peabody has 17 offices-in U.S. cities including New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., and in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Paris and London.
The present-day Nixon Peabody traces to the 1999 merger of two midsize regional firms, Rochester-based Nixon, Hargrave, Devans & Doyle LLP and the Boston-based Peabody & Brown. The newly merged firms initially were headed by co-managing partners Harry Trueheart III and Nestor Nicholas, who had respectively led Nixon, Hargrave and Peabody & Brown. The current companywide leader is a Boston-based attorney, CEO Andrew Glincher.
This sometimes leads reporters to call Boston the firm’s headquarters, an identification Nussbaum says is a misimpression. Neither the firm’s leadership nor its functions are centralized. Glincher’s closest lieutenants are department chairs spread among various offices including the San Francisco and Rhode Island branches as well as his home base in Boston. The firm’s operations manager, Brian Flanagan, a real estate lawyer, is based in Rochester.
The brainstorming sessions Nussbaum enjoys include electronically linked chats with other local-office managing partners and with partners in other cities as well as locally based partners, non-partner counsel and associates. Members of the litigation team she co-chairs are spread among the firm’s Boston, New York City, Washington, D.C., Rochester and Long Island offices.
Ranked second on the Rochester Business Journal’s most recent list of local law firms with 91 lawyers, Nixon Peabody’s Rochester office employs 303 people in all. In addition to some 20 paralegals, the roughly 190 support workers employed in Rochester include members of the firm’s Global Shared Services Center, which houses the entire firm’s finance, information technology, word processing, information services, purchasing and travel, and human resources operations.
Nussbaum joined Nixon, Hargrave in 1981, fresh out of the George Washington University Law School. The law firm was Rochester’s largest, the go-to outside counsel for Eastman Kodak Co. and other locally based corporations that dominated Rochester’s economy. And at just over 100, it was one of the region’s oldest and most prestigious law firms.
While it remains a local force, Nixon Peabody’s Rochester office now is one among several of the firm’s mid-market offices. As such, Nussbaum says, Rochester in some ways is more in synch with the firm’s Providence, R.I., and Manchester, N.H., offices than it is with the New York City, Los Angeles and Boston offices. But that is not necessarily a bad thing. In some respects, she says, it is an advantage.
One of Nussbaum’s favorite fun-idea innovations is Cultural Treasures, a program in which Nixon Peabody hosts quarterly presentations by area arts and cultural organizations. After a successful first year that brought in the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, the Strong, the Rochester Museum & Science Center and WXXI Public Broadcasting Council, Nussbaum says, other local cultural organizations are knocking at Nixon Peabody’s door.
"People in places like New York and L.A. are amazed when I tell them about this," Nussbaum says. "Their reaction is: ‘You could get them?’"
Such arts organizations in the top metropolitan markets-New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art or Los Angeles’ Getty Museum, for example-are apparently less inclined to devote a few hours putting on a road show for their cities’ Nixon Peabody partners than RMSC or the RPO was to present to the law firm’s Rochester staff, she explains.
Nussbaum thinks the Cultural Treasures program benefits invitees who might see presentations as a chance to expand their donor base and perhaps interest a few community members in volunteering. At the same time, it benefits the firm’s lawyers and workers for exactly the same reason.
"A lot of them didn’t grow up in this community, and people may not be that familiar with the institutions we have here," she says.
Another of her favorite ideas is a variation on casual Fridays with a characteristically Nussbaum twist.
She is not much excited by the idea of a dress-down day solely as an employee morale booster, Nussbaum says. In the Nixon Peabody jeans Friday, lawyers have to "buy" the right to sport Levis or Wranglers to work by contributing to a designated charity. The buy-in for recent jeans Fridays has included contributions to a relief fund for victims of Superstorm Sandy and to charities benefiting breast cancer research.
Community involvement matters a lot to Nussbaum. In one of the programs she started as managing partner, associates are encouraged to come up with ideas for and plan their own events. A recent networking event arranged by associates at the Buffalo Bills training camp was a great success, she says.
"It’s something nobody ever did before," Nussbaum says. "Seeing people get excited by an idea, it really was a fun process."
In the community
Nussbaum herself maintains an impressive slate of community and professional activities.
She has done stints as a Monroe County Bar Association officer and currently serves on state and national Bar Association committees and on local legal organizations including the Greater Rochester Association of Women Attorneys.
"I don’t know when she sleeps," marvels Lawrence Fine, executive director of the Jewish Community Federation of Greater Rochester, which Nussbaum currently leads as president.
Nussbaum has held a series of leadership positions on the boards of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Rochester and her synagogue, Temple Beth El. She served alternating terms as vice president, on financial oversight and other board committees, for both institutions through much of the current decade. She is on the Cancer Wellness Connections board and has been on the board of Compeer Inc.
Jewish Community Federation presidents typically have been actively involved in federation affairs, as opposed to taking primarily an oversight role, Fine says. Nussbaum, who most days is on the phone, exchanging emails and texting him multiple times, is "probably more involved than most."
Handling the federation presidency and the Nixon Peabody managing partner job at the same time has been a challenge, Nussbaum says. She had not foreseen that she would be offered the managing partner slot when she agreed to take the federation presidency. She realized that juggling both would be a challenge but was loath to pass on the managing partner job. Nussbaum says she is devoting much her energies in the six months left to serve in the two-year federation presidential term to finding a successor.
The federation is an umbrella organization that serves as a fundraising locus for other area Jewish organizations, including the JCC and the Jewish Home. As federation president, she also serves as a local representative to the Jewish Federations of North America and helps coordinate fundraising for Jewish causes worldwide and for Israel.
A longtime Israel supporter, Nussbaum, spent a year there studying at Hebrew University in Jerusalem before her 1976 graduation from Smith College in Northampton, Mass., with a B.A. in government.
She is married to Eric Brandt, a University of Rochester official whom she met through the Jewish Federation. The couple has a 23-year-old son and two daughters, ages 21 and 18.
In addition to frequent family ski trips in the winter, Saturday outings to the Rochester Public Market, Sunday forays to the Brighton Farmers Market and "chasing around the region for food finds and then cooking up the spoils," Nussbaum says, she and other family members have traveled to Israel with some frequency. Six years ago, they went as a group.
"Carolyn cares passionately about Jewish causes, and she cares passionately about Israel," Fine says.
Nussbaum has traveled to Israel four times in the past two years. Some of those trips were required by her national Jewish Federation duties. They were obligations she was happy to meet.
"I’m ready to go anytime," she gushes. "I love it there."
Some in the Jewish community as well as some non-Jewish backers in Congress see support for Israel as synonymous with the country’s religiously orthodox and settler-dominated right wing, a group that makes no secret of its desire to permanently annex the West Bank lands claimed by Palestinian Arabs as their homeland.
While she avoids criticizing such views, Nussbaum notes that others here and in Israel hold more nuanced positions. She recently helped bring liberal Israeli politician Tzipi Livni to Rochester as an opening speaker for the area’s United Jewish Appeal fundraising campaign.
An early member of Israel’s Kadima Party, Livni is a leader of a breakaway faction from her country’s right wing that views as inevitable the creation of a Palestinian state on some lands Israeli settlers currently claim.
Nussbaum recalls Livni’s visit in tones of uncharacteristically school-girlish awe.
"There we were, me on one side of her and Susan Robfogel on the other," she says.
Robfogel, also a Nixon Peabody partner, serves on the Jewish Home of Rochester’s board of governors.
Nussbaum traces her passion for Israel and commitment to Jewish causes to a "traditional but not overly religious" Jewish upbringing. The second-oldest among five siblings and the eldest daughter, she grew up in Connecticut, where her family owned a pair of seafood restaurants.
Founded by Nussbaum’s maternal grandparents, the restaurants were a family-run enterprise in which every family member was expected to toil.
"I started when I was 8 or 10, making up (takeout) boxes, and worked through college," Nussbaum says. "I worked on the line, I waitressed, I hostessed and I managed."
Restaurant work helped lay a valuable foundation for lawyering, Nussbaum says, imbuing her with skills-"a strong work ethic, dealing with all kinds of people"-that serve her well as a litigator.
She still enjoys cooking, Nussbaum says. But her culinary efforts now are mostly concentrated around the Jewish High Holy Days and Passover, when her family’s table is customarily set for no fewer than 20. Attendance is boosted by area college students who cannot be with their own families. The Nussbaums typically invite at least a dozen.
Day-to-day cooking is generally handled by her husband. "He enjoys doing it," Nussbaum says.
While she looks forward to winding down the Jewish Federation presidency, Nussbaum is setting no timeline on her managing partner term. Unlike the federation role, she notes, the managing partner position has no set term. Her immediate predecessor served five years. His predecessor served 10.
She plans to step down at some point but intends to keep the job for the foreseeable future, Nussbaum says. She is, after all, still having fun.
Title: Rochester managing partner, Nixon Peabody LLP
Education: Hebrew University, Jerusalem, one-year program, 1974-75; B.A. in government, Smith College, Northampton, Mass., 1976; J.D., George Washington University Law School, Washington, D.C., 1981
Family: Husband Eric Brandt, son Zachary, 23; daughters, Rachel, 21, and Shira, 18
Current community activities: President of the Jewish Community Federation of Greater Rochester, board member of Temple Beth El and Cancer Wellness Connections, Smith College class of 1976 class fund agent
Leisure activities: Family skiing excursions, Saturday shopping at the Rochester Public Market, Sunday shopping at the Brighton Farmers Market and "chasing around the region for food finds, and then cooking up the spoils."
Quote: "Clients don’t really like litigation. They wonder why it costs so much."
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