Robert Stok is a pillar in Florida’s legal community. His firm, Stok Kon + Braverman, is a big name with a stellar reputation in business litigation – and Stok himself is the go-to guy. From modest “pale-blue” collar beginnings, Stok has built his small but thriving practice into a full-service firm that has secured stunning results for a wide variety of clients. Stok has perfected the balance of offering the personal touches unique to a boutique firm along with the strategic expertise that a Big Law firm can provide.
Stok brings a crucial understanding to business litigation from his prior career in investment banking. His time on Wall Street gave him an acute understanding of the practical implications of litigation, and he’s always able to frame cases with the client’s bottom line in mind. He entered law school in his mid-30s, so as a new lawyer, he was able to stand out from his competitors in the Florida market right from the jump.
“I offered people something extra – they were getting the experience of a seasoned businessman and a very bright, aggressive lawyer. But they weren't paying anything like the fees of a big firm,“ Stok says. “I developed a lot of client loyalty that way.“
He has since built a successful firm building on that ethos. From commercial litigation, family law, business law, real estate, immigration, probate and guardianship, and intellectual property – the attorneys at Stok Kon + Braverman have a knack for tackling challenging matters and serving clients in additive and creative ways. Stok’s comprehensive ability to balance the legal with a deep understanding of business objectives brings value to clients that can be hard to find.
“I really think that the earmark of a good lawyer is a person that can stand in their client's shoes and have intelligent, informed empathy for the client.” Stok says, “From that space you can give them the right direction. “
Stok is also passionate about giving back to his community and is currently helping develop a first-of-its-kind Jewish Law Initiative in the U.S., where business owners can resolve disputes in a beis din, the traditional Jewish court system. There is a large contingency of Jewish Orthodox partners at Stok Kon + Braverman and three of the partners are fully ordained rabbis. Stok says there’s no doubt that this endeavor has tapped into something powerful.
“It's cultivated a lot of business interests and also added a wonderful dimension to our practice,” says Stok. “There are a lot of people in the Jewish community that want to order their business affairs to comply with both secular law and Jewish law. It's a good way of harnessing the expertise that we have and utilizing it in a strategic way.”
Lawdragon: Tell us about life before you came into the law.
Robert Stok: I grew up basically in a working-class home, I’d call it pale blue – it wasn't exactly blue collar and it wasn't really white collar. I didn't grow up with any access to business. I didn't even know what a lawyer did outside of what I saw on “Perry Mason.” Then when I graduated college, I got involved in the import-export business of frozen seafood which exposed me to the world of international trade and commodities trading. That was when I first started to understand the utility of the law. I love transactionally oriented deals, but I always gravitated towards the legal aspect of commerce. Law is something that I really enjoy. I started to wish I had gone to law school. So when I came down to South Florida to work for a bank and it didn't work out, I decided to go to law school.
LD: Back then, did you think that your legal career would be what it's become?
RS: Actually, yes. When I started as an investment banker, I saw myself as a friend to the businesses that I dealt with. I always saw myself as an advocate – seeking different ways that I could support the business, giving advice, analyzing ways to structure transactions. I really think that the earmark of a good lawyer is a person who can stand in their client's shoes and have intelligent, informed empathy for the client. From that space you can give them the right direction. That's the difference between a passionate attorney that's really committed to what they do and someone who's disconnected from their work.
LD: Where did you go once you graduated law school?
RS: I went to work for a small, eight-lawyer firm. I really learned by doing. They were primarily a real estate firm, and they hired me to work in litigation. The partner that was supposed to be the head of litigation was out sick for the entire year that I worked there. The other lawyer in litigation there was focused on a very large divorce case that had gone on for well over 20 years and he didn't really want to be bothered. So they threw a lot of cases at me and I didn't have any mentors or anyone guiding me. It was very stressful, but I learned a tremendous amount in a very short period of time.
We created an educational initiative to learn how Jewish law intersects with secular law so that Jewish businessmen can resolve any dispute they may have, in the beis din.
LD: What made you decide to open your own firm?
RS: I’d brought in a very large case, and the firm didn't want to support me. They were worried that they were going to get sued because of my lack of experience. So I decided to leave the firm and open up my own office.
Almost all of the clients that I had previous dealings with sought me out. I didn't call one client to tell them I was leaving. They all somehow found me, and they continued to do business with me. So right from the get-go, I had a decent amount of business and started to make a decent amount of money. I had the pleasure of working with good clients, I had good cases, and I started to rack up a lot of significant victories.
I offered people something extra – they were getting the experience of a seasoned businessman and a very bright, aggressive lawyer. But they weren't paying anything like the fees of a big firm. I developed a lot of client loyalty that way. As I grew and started to hire associates, I've stayed active in all the cases. Even though we've gotten much bigger, nothing leaves my office that I don't review and put my stamp of approval on. I have a passion for the quality of work that we put out and I make sure that I'm satisfied with everything that goes out.
LD: And what is your mix of practice these days?
RS: We are now a full-service firm. We do commercial litigation extensively. We do probate, we have a bankruptcy department, a family law department, an immigration department. We have a very strong transactional department. We have a title company. We have some routine collections type cases and some routine foreclosure cases, but we get a number of really exciting opportunities and most of the cases that we have are challenging.
LD: You were admitted to the U.S. Supreme Court. What was the case that brought you there?
RS: One of these Nigerian scams happened – this guy sent me an email saying that he's an attorney who represents a big Japanese trading company, and he wanted to hire my firm to do collections work. So I asked for an affidavit or a letter saying that you have authority to bind this trading company, and then a $10,000 retainer. The guy sent me a document that looked like a power of attorney and he was very clever, he sent a letter to my secretary with a check from a company in New York. He claimed the company owed them $240,000, and asked that we deposit the money, take out our $10,000 retainer and send them the balance. Citibank said the check was good – so my office manager wired all the money less $10,000 to Japan. Three days later, Citibank called me and said that it was a fraudulent check, and they were reversing the account.
I sued Citibank for negligence, and it went all the way. Right before the trial, Citibank filed a petition to remove the case to federal court. The judge, Patricia Seitz, dismissed the appeal. She felt that we had enough prejudice to show that the arbitration right was waived. Citibank appealed it to the 11th Circuit, and the 11th Circuit reversed, and they remanded it back to the district court claiming that there wasn't enough of a showing of prejudice and I had to provide more evidence.
So I did some research. In every Circuit in the United States there are different levels of prejudice that have to be shown, and I saw that in the 7th Circuit and in the D.C. Circuit, you don't have to show any prejudice. I brought these inconsistencies to the attention of the Supreme Court, and they accepted cert. When they did, Citibank didn't want to seem like they were being bullies, so they were very quick to settle. I can't reveal the amount of the settlement, but it was favorable.
The earmark of a good lawyer is a person who can stand in their client's shoes and have intelligent, informed empathy for the client.
LD: Interesting. That tenacity pays off!
What’s your approach to mentoring the younger generation of associates?
RS: I spend a great deal of time mentoring younger associates. Not only because it’s the right thing to do and I feel I owe it to young attorneys, but also it gives me some control over their development, their level of analysis and the way that they approach a particular legal problem. It's basically a function of enlightened self-interest. I feel that by creating an environment where people are encouraged to develop their intellectual analysis of the law, I get a much better product. It's worked out very well for me.
I've also learned a great deal from the lawyers I’ve mentored. I've gotten a lot of very intelligent feedback from them. I always encourage attorneys that work for me to speak up. It's made me aware of different viewpoints that I otherwise wouldn't have seen. Everyone that works on something has a unique perspective, and if you dismiss it, you're going to miss a lot of great ideas and unique observations. That's what I try to cultivate when I work with my associates.
LD: What would you say differentiates your firm in the Florida market?
RS: Several things. First of all, the level of analysis and perception and the opportunistic nature of our practice is very unique. Secondly, we don't just go through the motions and file papers. It’s never a mundane process because we always try to give our clients a special edge. We do everything with an idea of how we can solve the problem in the most expedient and cost-effective way. We give a lot of benefits to the clients. A lot of that comes from my business background.
LD: Can you tell us about the Jewish law initiative that the firm is doing?
RS: We have a joint venture with the North Miami Beach Kollel. It's an adult education school where the rabbis give lessons and learn with the congregants. We have a number of Orthodox Jewish attorneys at our firm, and actually three of our attorneys are ordained rabbis, so they have a very high level of education in Talmudic law. I wanted to harness that to give a special type of service to our clients.
So we created an educational initiative to learn how Jewish law intersects with secular law so that Jewish businessmen can resolve any dispute they may have, in the beis din. It's cultivated a lot of business interests and also added a wonderful dimension to our practice. Because there are a lot of people in the Jewish community that want to order their business affairs to comply with both secular law and Jewish law. It's a good way of harnessing the expertise that we have and to utilize it in a strategic way.
LD: Is this the first initiative of its kind in the U.S.?
RS: Yes, and we're hoping to bring in other lawyers and to open up that field to create a legal community where matters can be taken to the beis din. I'm Jewish, but I'm not observant – but those that are have much more trust in decisions made by a panel of rabbis than they would by a panel of strangers in an arbitration tribunal. There's a more highly developed body of precedent in the Talmudic writings as to how things should turn out. So there's much better predictability in front of the Jewish court than there would be in front of a panel of arbitrators where there are no published decisions at all.
Everyone that works on something has a unique perspective, and if you dismiss it, you're going to miss a lot of great ideas and unique observations.
LD: You're a founder of the South Florida Arts Center. How did your passion for the arts first develop?
RS: My mother was an artist, so I grew up surrounded by art. She started out doing landscapes and portraits and over the years she became more of an abstract artist. When I was in college, I started to collect art. Now I have a fairly substantial collection and a great appreciation for it. I've worked on some very significant art law cases. There was one case, for instance, where my client purchased a Picasso painting that was previously owned by the Tisch family, and they claimed that it was stolen. We claimed that we were innocent purchasers for value. It was a very interesting case and eventually we settled with the Tisch family. It was a very fair settlement. My client got fair value for the painting, and the Tisch family got the painting back. It worked out well for everyone.
LD: Can you tell us a bit about your other charitable work?
RS: I do a lot of charity work. I'm involved with the Alfalit Foundation, which teaches literacy to illiterate people all over the world. I'm involved with the Agape Foundation, a faith-based organization that serves primarily women who serve prison sentences and are looking for help in transitioning back into society. I also do a lot of pro bono work for religious organizations, which I'm very passionate about.
LD: What does the future of the firm look like?
RS: We have an extraordinarily bright group of younger partners. I'm in the senior time of my career, so my partners are all considerably younger than me, and they're brilliant. They're hardworking, and we share common values. It’s exciting because the firm has been expanding rapidly – thoughtfully, but rapidly – and I expect that to continue. We're on the threshold of expanding even further.