The Life and Career of Nina Kaufman: Law, Laughter, and Legal Advice for Small Businesses
by Regan Morris
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Small business attorney Nina Kaufman started performing stand-up comedy as a hobby after doing some humorous speeches in her Toastmasters group and taking on more public speaking engagements. Today, she uses comedy not only as a tool to explain complex legal issues to clients, but as a way to unwind after a hectic week.
A 1991 graduate of Boston University School of Law, Ms. Kaufman is a founding partner of Paltrowitz & Kaufman. She is also a founder of Wise Counsel Press, which offers legal advice for small businesses and entrepreneurs.
Q: What did you envision doing with your J.D. while you were in law school?
A: I thought I was going to make partner at a huge firm within eight years and earn huge scads of money [laughs].
Q: What did you do after law school, and how did your career goals change?
A: While I was in law school, it was about two or three years after Black Monday, the stock market crash of '87. It was the first time that lawyers, especially partners at firms, were starting to get pink slips. Law was no longer seen as a secure cradle-to-grave career path. Not only did it become a lot more competitive, but the billable hour took on more importance, as did the need to bring in clients.
My first job out of law school—I was working with a firm that had a revolving door of attorneys and support staff. Employee morale was low. The partners were often verbally abusive; they yelled a lot. My first experience was one where I realized I was going to have to fend for myself and that I couldn't really rely on all the old assumptions that I had gone through much of law school with. It's one of the reasons I became much more entrepreneurial in the way that I handled my practice and the clients I chose and what I've done with my J.D. since then.
Q: Who are your clients?
A: Most of our clients are service-based businesses in the New York metropolitan area. I affectionately refer to them as "not-coms" because they're not going public and they're not in the high-tech sector. They are people for whom the business is an extension of themselves in that they're not involved in a business to make a profit and turn around and sell it. They have a personal investment.
Q: What's your advice for law students who want to pursue something entrepreneurial?
A: Speak to attorneys who may be part of a small business or solo practitioner committees as part of their local bar association. Those are the people who would be working with small businesses or are small businesses themselves. As a small business owner, I have many of the same issues as my clients: How do I get clients? How do I manage my expectations? How do I maintain my clients?
Q: How did you find your niche working with small businesses, and how can people zone in on their specialties and strengths?
A: Find things that they really love to do. Either they really enjoy the people they're working with, or they enjoy the legal issues they're working with. In any job, there are days that you just want to tear your hair out and go on permanent vacation. But what keeps you in it for the long haul is ultimately a passion for what you do and a vision for what you can do. There has to be something in it that you really love other than "This is going to make me a lot of money."
Q: How does stand-up comedy play a role in your work?
A: I make clients laugh, especially when they get the bill. I've been performing stand-up comedy on an occasional basis for about five years. The way it came up was not to give up my day job and become the next Jerry Seinfeld. I was giving humorous speeches in my Toastmasters group while doing more and more public speaking on small business legal issues. Small business legal issues can be dreadfully dull and, for the non-lawyer, really overwhelming. What I wanted to do was learn to integrate humor techniques into what I was talking about and to learn to become a better storyteller, so that not only do the issues come alive, but people can enjoy the learning process.
Q: Why is it important for attorneys to have outside interests and hobbies?
A: It's hugely important to have an outlet, just to have someplace else to go. Anytime I have a truly bad day, there's always a way to turn that into a silver lining by saying, "Okay. How do I skewer this person in a comedy routine?" So whether it's a bombastic adversary or a difficult client or a fight that I had with a business partner, there's always something to be made out of it. That helps me see a lighter side.
It's also great to have outside interests because in developing a client base or just in being good at what you do, there's a certain degree of people skills that are involved. And you never know when something you learn is going to be useful and is going to resonate with someone you're talking with. Particularly for attorneys, a lot of what they do is speak and write and talk to people, try to resolve disputes and advise them in a certain way. You have to talk to people like human beings. Having outside interests keeps you well rounded.
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