Lawyer Limelight: Lee Weinberg

Success in the law typically follows when a chosen practice aligns seamlessly with a lawyer’s personality and interests. Such is the case with Lee Weinberg, whose entrepreneurial spirit and experiences have led him to develop a client base that often shares his own traits as a professional. The name partner of Los Angeles-based Weinberg Gonser does a little bit of everything for businesses and individuals throughout different phases of building their companies and dreams. Weinberg says that his approach to the law is matched by a firm culture that eschews formal rules in favor of lawyers choosing their own path, from office hours to dress code – as long as the client always comes first.

“I still wear a suit to the office daily, but at this point I am a real outlier,” Weinberg says.

Lawdragon: How would you summarize your practice?

Lee Weinberg: Most of my clients are entrepreneur-led and emerging-growth private companies and the people who own and invest in them. As a result, clients ask for my assistance with a wide variety of business issues, from corporate structuring, financings and liquidity events to business development matters, licensing and litigation. I also assist high-net-worth individual clients with their business investments, and senior executives on both ends of their moves: when they “exit” one position and when they begin another. The businesses themselves cut across many verticals, though the majority involve consumer brands, from tech to cannabis.

LD: What do you like about your type of practice?

LW: Every day is different. I left regular law practice for a couple of years and operated an interesting business. Upon my return to law, in a boutique practice, I focused in on angel investing. And I learned a lot from both operating and investing, including how to better assist entrepreneurs with the challenges they face and to provide more of what they really care about –and to minimize what they don’t care about. I also learned how rewarding it is to represent individual clients and closely-held businesses with respect to a wide variety of matters in different stages of their business lives.

Many clients are like-minded people I met here in Los Angeles, and referrals and organic growth followed. It is great to help clients succeed – the relationships are a large part of why this practice is successful.

LD: Out of all the work you’ve done in your career, what would you say is the most interesting matter you’ve handled?

LW: There are too many to pick one, but I will do it anyway: Handling the restructuring and wind-down of a company that still had a certain amount of cash, some assets, foreign subsidiaries, a long-list of creditors, and an equally long list of stockholders, both foreign and domestic. The whole thing took well over a year and involved a series of carefully considered and ordered actions. Interesting and challenging.

LD: What is it like running your firm?

LW: Running Weinberg Gonser LLP for the past 10 years has been rewarding. We have an approach that is unusual, in that we attempt to have as few rules and requirements as possible. Lawyers have no hours or “face time" requirements, and are really responsible only for work on client matters they choose to undertake.

LD: Can you describe any trends you are seeing in your practice?

LW: One area that has been active of late is what I call “business divorces.” While not exclusive to any one group or category, aging baby-boomer business owners especially are in situations where the controlling parties have divergent goals. One owner wants to sell the business and retire, and the other wants to keep going or pass the business on to the next generation. Another owner wants to slow down and do less, but still reap all the same economic rewards of the business, to the ire of the other owners. Simply put, for one reason or another, the owners need to separate. Sometimes we can suggest solutions or transactions that allow all of the owners to achieve most or all of their respective goals. Other times we end up with an ongoing dispute and the solution comes out of what some might call a “squeeze out.” I’ve represented both the “squeezer” and the “squeezee.” In the worst cases, cooler heads do not prevail, and litigation ensues.

LD: Can you describe a recent matter that you’ve handled?

LW: I represent an overseas-based high-net-worth individual and group with respect to multiple investments in the U.S. First steps with this client involved setting up a U.S. corporate structure in coordination with overseas and domestic experts. Today I am assisting this client with a preferred stock investment for a significant stake in a growing company. We work on the investment transactions, and also meet the post-investment needs of target companies, including licensing, executive HR matters, leases, supplier contracts, establishing banking relationships and the like.

LD: What’s challenging about doing this well?

LW: Communications. In addition to a bit of a language barrier over the phone, the client is constantly on the move, and mostly out of the U.S., so setting up calls and meetings can be difficult. This means that the timing, the topics and the scope of the unscheduled communications can also provide a challenge. So, to move matters along I often have to take meetings and the lead in negotiations without definitive input from the client. With respect to core deal points, however, I see my job as one of providing options, and we need some focused communications so I can be sure the client understands and accepts the relevant risks and rewards of those options. An additional challenge: Markets differ, so we sometimes need to educate the client as to the range of industry “market” positions for a particular situation – and which points to push for and which to let go.

I like to think we add a lot of value beyond simply documenting transactions. We will provide actual advice, recommendations and informal opinions, as opposed to the “on the one hand, and, yet, on the other hand” sort of non-advice. As a result, I have become the “point-man” for this client on most all matters.

LD: Is there a specific lesson from this work or is there anything from it you find especially memorable?

LW: To represent this sort of international client successfully, it is a big plus to have a solid in-person relationship that will help overcome any communication frustrations that may arise on the phone or by email, text, chat and the like. It is also advantageous to include CPAs and other professionals – that one introduces or that pre-exist the relationship – who can assist the client and therefore legal counsel on many matters.

LD: Why did you pursue a career in the law in the first place?

LW: I thought I wanted to be a judge, or a professor and then a judge. I discovered otherwise in law school, even though those pathways are more than interesting.

LD: Is there a specific reason why you chose your law school over another law school?

LW: Yes – Yale was the only law school I visited where the students I met were happy all the way around, both personally and academically. Students I met from other schools (which shall remain unnamed) tended to portray law school as something you “get through.” I don’t mean to say that these students were miserable, but they were not super-happy. Maybe the Yalies I met had just drunk the Kool-Ade? The other and more career-minded reason to choose Yale: I could think of no better school if my goal was to be a judge or professor.

LD: Do you have the type of practice you imagined yourself practicing while in law school?

LW: While in law school I was business-oriented for sure. My second-year summer was split between a top corporate firm in New York where I helped represent bulge-bracket investment banks, and a more entrepreneur-focused firm in Los Angeles with a company-side practice. I liked working with entrepreneurs who had big ideas, and I also enjoyed the New York practice. Either way, I was surrounded by some top minds. I ended up joining the Los Angeles office of the New York firm.

LD: Was there a course, professor or experience that was particularly memorable or important in what practice you chose?

LW: I had some great professors across the board with respect to the more typical law school coursework – Civil Procedure, et al. - and I definitely enjoyed my corporations and business courses. All of them stand out in my memory. One class focused in on corporations and fiduciary duties of stockholders in smaller entities, and one concentrated on corporate finance and M&A; there were several “guest stars” from New York who added to the lectures. And, finally, I took a corporate finance course at Yale’s business school that was taught by a dynamic New York investment banker. He was a trader, and that course was especially energizing.

LD: What advice do you have now for current law school students?

LW: Here are a couple of thoughts. First, being a lawyer is a fantastic career, but only if you can practice law the way you want to practice law. So, while you are in school (maybe even before law school), see if you can learn what it is really like to practice law via a law firm, business or government internship. Keep in mind that Summer programs and internships are not very likely to give you a full picture. You will have to be pro-active to figure out what it is truly like to be an associate at a law firm or to be a lawyer in-house.

Second, transitioning to a different career path is not always so easy as you may think. So many law students attend law school as part of a plan to achieve some other goal or position, but once you get your J.D. degree you will have to work especially hard to avoid being pigeon-holed, especially if you are good at lawyering! So, if you have a non-legal career goal in mind, you may wish to take a sabbatical now and go after that goal directly. Why spend years in law school when you may achieve your goal via a straight career path rather than relying on a law degree as a “way in”? You can achieve a lot in the three years you would have spent in law school.

LD: How has your practice changed since the early part of your career?

LW: Well, radically, since I was with larger firms on larger deals, and primarily on the institutional side with bankers and investors. In some ways, I knew fewer of the basics because I was not called upon to do such things as form an entity or review Blue Sky matters, as we associates were rarely called upon to do that. I did learn early on how to lead a deal. When I re-entered legal practice on my own, it was me, myself and I, and I had to do it all. I also had to learn a company-side practice. Now I have other lawyers who can do things for me, but I have the background to do them myself and to advise on the mechanics and practicalities of corporate practice. I still like to lead a deal.

LD: How would you describe your style as a lawyer?

LW: There is the style with other counsel when clients are not around, and there is the style with clients. Clients’ needs come first. Then, it is always good if the lawyer on the other side is like minded overall. I try hard to humanize the lawyer-to-lawyer contact and keep a sense of humor going. At the same time, my default is that I am direct. I prefer to communicate quickly to learn what my client wants, and to see right away if there is a way the parties can each get what they want. Let’s go right to the issues and the solutions if we can. If the players at the table are of like mind, this can work very well, and a lot can be accomplished in a short period of time. Of course, every client and every deal has its own rhythm and pace, and styles and cultures can differ widely. We lawyers have to figure out when to lead and when to follow, and there is almost always a human element, a hidden issue or goal, or a reason the timing is not perfect. So, regardless of my preference of getting right to the point, patience must often be exercised for best results. I get better at it every year.

LD: Can you share some strategic plans for your practice or firm in the coming months or years?

LW: We are looking to add partners who have a book of business or want to grow one as part of a different sort of firm: one that has few rules and that provides financial and professional recognition in step with success and without internal competition. Of course, personality counts. Since we have clients in other cities and overseas, we anticipate opening additional offices and establishing a presence in several additional cities rather than grow only in California. Some of our partners already make monthly and quarterly trips out-of-state to provide clients with an in-person experience and ongoing relationship.

LD: You touched on this earlier, but what do you try to “sell” about your firm to potential recruits?

LW: We designed Weinberg Gonser to put as few constraints on our lawyers as possible. We require conflicts checks and proper engagement letters, but that is really where it ends. Compensation for the partners is rules-based with unlimited upside and no surprises, so Weinberg Gonser is a great place to start and grow a practice and to be assured of being well-recognized professionally and financially for the same. At the same time, there are no hours or office-presence requirements: we recognize that lawyers’ work goals may vary over the course of time, and have designed the firm such that lawyers’ longer-term careers with the firm will be unaffected if they decide to work fewer hours for a while, or forever.

Weinberg Gonser offers lawyers the freedom and ability to design their own practices: Freedom to come into the office or work from home, and freedom to work as much or as little as you want, daily, monthly or yearly. It is up to each lawyer to decide. There is no dress code.

LD: What do you do for fun when you’re outside the office?

LW: A few things. International travel and family, usually rolled up into one. I have a 12-year old and a 9-year old, and they keep us busy. I also like having an occasional beverage or participating in a sports activity with a good friend. Also, over the years I have been a part of what I would call “salons” – one relating to media and technology and one that focuses in on authors and their latest works. I have had the privilege of meeting and engaging with some very bright and interesting people this way.

LD: Are you involved in any pro bono or public interest activities?

LW: Not as a lawyer, so maybe these do not count – I interview for Yale University, and I am on the March of Dimes’ Southern California Board, which does great work as we fight for premature babies’ and for mothers’ health (they go hand in hand).

LD: If you weren’t a lawyer, what would you be doing now?

LW: Traveling the world more often.