By Alexa Lofaro | Staff Writer
I met with Jonathan Lupkin, a founder of the firm Rakower Lupkin PLLC, to learn about his involvement in the Commercial Division and his work in commercial litigation.
Mr. Lupkin grew up with litigation in his blood. His father, Stanley, was a prosecutor and defense lawyer as well as the Commissioner of the New York City Department of Investigation under Mayor Edward I. Koch. Mr. Lupkin learned (and continues to learn) from his father, who remains his most influential mentor. Among the many lessons acquired under his father’s tutelage, Mr. Lupkin identified the three most important: First, “law is a profession,” even though now, it is often treated no differently from any other business. Second, in running a practice, treating one’s colleagues and employees like family members fosters an environment in which most people do their best work. As Mr. Lupkin explained, “you are spending so many hours a day together. Fostering an intimate collegial environment creates a culture in which everyone feels part of the same team and exudes enthusiasm for the practice of law.” Finally, integrity and credibility are the most critical attributes a lawyer can bring to bear on behalf of his clients. “My dad always told me that it takes a lifetime to build a reputation for credibility and integrity, but only a split second to lose it,” Mr. Lupkin explained.
After graduating from Columbia Law School, Mr. Lupkin served as a law clerk to the Honorable Edward R. Korman in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York. Mr. Lupkin chose a district court clerkship because he knew he wanted to be involved in trials and wanted to gain exposure to different types of proceedings in the process. Judge Korman was the quintessential teacher, often taking time in the middle of court proceedings to call the clerks up to the bench and create teachable moments. One of the most memorable lessons Mr. Lupkin learned from Judge Korman was “if you are winning an argument, fight the urge to say more, since your added ‘insights’ will likely do you more harm than good. Just keep your mouth shut.”
Following his clerkship, Mr. Lupkin worked for Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel, focusing on mainly white-collar criminal defense work. Not only did he have the opportunity to work with and learn directly from legal legends like Gary P. Naftalis and the late Judge Marvin E. Frankel, but it was here, under the guidance of veteran litigator Arthur Aufses, II, that Mr. Lupkin tried his first case. When he was assigned to the matter, Mr. Lupkin was both nervous and thrilled. He had watched trials in the past, but it was nothing like actually doing one, describing it as an “absolute rush.” The lessons learned during the trial were invaluable, and had a strong influence on Mr. Lupkin’s developing legal habits.
After three years at Kramer Levin, Mr. Lupkin decided he wanted to work in a more intimate setting and began as an associate at Solomon, Zauderer, Ellenhorn, Frischer & Sharp, one of the earliest premier litigation boutiques in the City. At Solomon Zauderer, Mr. Lupkin focused mainly on commercial litigation, while keeping his hand in the white-collar criminal defense arena. It was at Solomon Zauderer where his passion for commercial litigation began to take shape. During his seven years there, Mr. Lupkin benefitted from another key mentor, senior partner and renowned commercial litigator Mark Zauderer.
Unfortunately, Solomon Zauderer dissolved about six months after Mr. Lupkin was elevated to the partnership. After a brief stint at what is now DLA Piper, Mr. Lupkin returned with Mr. Zauderer to the commercial boutique setting of Fleming, Zulack, Williamson, Zauderer LLP, where he was partner for eight years.
In 2012, after 19 years of practice, Mr. Lupkin decided it was time to open his own firm. He reached out to a long-time friend from the New York State Bar Association, Michael C. Rakower, and the day after Hurricane Sandy, Rakower Lupkin PLLC opened its doors.
Mr. Lupkin spent some time discussing the importance of bar association activity to the development of his practice. In 2010, Mr. Lupkin became the chair of the New York State Bar Association’s Commercial and Federal Litigation Section, one of the largest sections of the state bar with approximately 2,300 members. The Section is often credited with being the prime mover behind the creation of the Commercial Division in New York State, which began as a pilot program in New York County and has since spread to counties across the state, fundamentally altering how commercial litigation is practiced in New York state courts. The section maintains strong ties with the Commercial Division and participates in an on-going dialogue with court administrators and the Commercial Division justices about ways to improve practice in the division.
Having benefited greatly from the mentoring experience, Mr. Lupkin made mentoring the next generation of commercial litigators the cornerstone of his tenure as chair. Mr. Lupkin started the Commercial Litigation Academy, a now annual, 2-day CLE program designed to take newer litigators through the anatomy of a commercial case, from matter intake through trial and appeals. Since its inception, the program has benefitted richly from participation by both judges and leading practitioners in the commercial litigation arena. Mr. Lupkin’s mentoring goals also took the form of a formal one-on-one mentoring program run under the section’s auspices. The program began with great fanfare at Lincoln Center with praise from former Chief Judge Judith Kaye and continues today. In addition to creating the mentoring program, Mr. Lupkin himself took on a number of mentees and has maintained regular contact with them today. Mr. Lupkin also views the associates with whom he works as mentees. It is not unusual for Mr. Lupkin to have a younger colleague draft a brief and, after filing, to then sit down and go over the evolution of the brief from initial draft to final product. “It’s only through this interactive give-and-take that one can learn the art of written legal advocacy,” Lupkin explained.
In 2013, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman asked Mr. Lupkin to serve on his Commercial Division Advisory Council, which is chaired by prominent commercial litigator Robert L. Haig. The council is charged with conceiving of, and proposing changes to, the rules of practice to enhance the benefits attendant to litigating in the Commercial Division. Since its formation in 2013, the council proposed (and Chief Administrative Judge Gail Prudenti has implemented) a number of key changes to the Statewide Rules of Practice in the Commercial Division, from enhanced expert disclosure and presumptive limits on the number and duration of depositions, to streamlined privilege log practice and greater precision in responding to document requests. Mr. Lupkin served as a principal drafter of many of these rules.
For Mr. Lupkin, there is also life beyond the world of the law. His family is the most important part of his life. Celebrating his 25th wedding anniversary later this year, Mr. Lupkin and his wife, Michelle, who recently received her PhD in Psychology, have four daughters, Shira (23), Arielle (20), Leora (17) and Ilana (17). He loves the opera, a passion he shares with his youngest daughter. Mr. Lupkin tries to spend one-on-one time with each of his daughters, with activities ranging from camping, breakfasts at the local diner or a Mets game. Mr. Lupkin is also an avid road cyclist. In October of 2014, he went to Israel to take part in a 200-mile bike ride through the Negev Desert to raise money for a pediatric rehabilitation center in Jerusalem. This was his third such ride, the first two having taken him through the Golan Heights. Additionally, Mr. Lupkin practices two forms of martial arts, something from which he took a hiatus when he was starting Rakower Lupkin but with which he looks to reconnect. The martial arts forms are Kendo, which is Japanese fencing in the style of the Samurai, and Iaido, another sword-based martial art that involves the rapid drawing, cutting with, and re-sheathing the katana, the traditional sword of the Samurai. Iaido requires a high degree of mindfulness, and Mr. Lupkin is proud to have earned his first-degree black belt in this art form.
Mr. Lupkin’s advice for young lawyers is to make your own path and be aggressive about getting the type of experiences you believe are necessary for your own professional development. Because, “no one will care about your professional development more than you, so do not wait around; sit at people’s doors until they give you the work you need.” He also stresses the importance of involvement in bar associations, as they will provide both connections and career-long friendships.
Although I am not one of his official mentees, during our interview Mr. Lupkin gave me advice and shared stories of some of the more interesting cases he handled. He helped me realize how to combine aggressiveness and professionalism in order to influence my career, and how a legal career can open doors to a variety of experiences.