Rafey S. Balabanian is the managing partner and general counsel at Edelson PC. He graduated with distinction with a degree in history from the University of Colorado, Boulder and earned his J.D. from the DePaul University College of Law in Chicago. Rafey is a trial lawyer who handles class and mass actions, as well as complex commercial and business litigation.
Nicholas Gaffney (NG): What career path would you have pursued if you weren’t a lawyer?
Rafey S. Balabanian (RSB): If I wasn’t a lawyer, I think that I would have been a professional tennis player, ranked in the top 10 in the world. There are, however, a couple guys in my age range that likely would have given me some trouble (Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic, to name a few). Seriously, though, my dream as a kid was to play professional tennis, and while I didn’t get that far, I had a respectable career as a junior and went on to play in college. So, if I wasn’t a lawyer, I probably would have been a journeyman tennis player trying to grind out a living on the Challenger Tour.
NG: Name a person who has had a tremendous impact on you as a leader. Maybe someone who has been a mentor to you? Why and how did this person impact your life?
RSB: I’d have to say that Jay Edelson, who founded our firm, has had the most impact on me as a leader. He’s undoubtedly been a mentor to me, and the success that I’ve managed to achieve in my career so far is due, in large part, to Jay’s unwavering belief in my abilities. My parents have also had the greatest impact on who I am today and why I strive so hard to succeed. I’m a first-generation American, and my parents literally risked everything to come to this amazing country in hopes of providing a better life for me and my two sisters. They fled a war-torn country with little more than the clothes on their backs. They would stop at nothing to make sure that I and my sisters had the opportunities they never had, and they worked to the bone until that dream was realized. My parents taught me that there is absolutely no replacing hard work and that with it, dreams can come true.
NG: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
RSB: The best advice I’ve ever received is that I can’t do it all on my own and that I won’t be as successful—not even close—if I’m unable to trust those around me and delegate. A large part of that means investing in younger people to teach them the skills necessary so that they can grow as professionals. It takes a lot of work, but in doing so, it has also enabled me to grow as an attorney and a leader.
NG: What advice would you give a new managing partner?
RSB: Lawyers are trained to look to the past for guidance on what they should do in the future. The problem when it comes to law firm management is that most law firms are broken. The legal profession has, in many significant ways, failed to create environments where employees are happy, successful and doing their best work. As a result, the needs of clients quite often are not best served. My advice to a new managing partner would be to buy every book written about how to run a law firm and then on the first day, ceremonially burn them. I would then turn to how well-run start-ups have found ways to create positive workplaces where incentives are fully aligned with the needs of their clients.
NG: What are the most important/difficult decisions you make as a leader of your firm?
RSB: Along with technology, the law is moving forward at an exponential rate. In order to become a truly special firm in these times, the key is being able to predict the technological, political and legal landscape, over the course of the next two, five, 10, and 20 years. The most important decisions that I make are around what types of cases our firm is going to invest in based on our best predictions of how the future is going to unfold.
NG: What is one characteristic that you believe every leader should possess?
NG: What is the biggest challenge facing law firms today?
RSB: Different types of law firms face different types of challenges. I’m answering this question as the managing partner of a plaintiffs’ firm that specializes in class actions. Most people from my perspective would say that the biggest challenge is a conservative Supreme Court that has shown hostility to class actions, as well as the Chamber of Commerce and well-funded defendants that seem to have limitless money and with it political influence. But I actually don’t think any of those are significant challenges. The biggest challenge for us is other plaintiffs’ firms that don’t have a long-term commitment to the practice and are incentivized to litigate and settle cases for short term gains that frankly are not in the best interest of their clients. My belief is that if plaintiffs’ attorneys are not delivering results that put their clients first, there will be an appropriate backlash by the courts and huge swaths of cases will go away.
NG: What does the legal profession need to do to improve opportunities for diverse lawyers?
RSB: This is a problem throughout the legal profession, but it is particularly in the plaintiffs’ bar. One critical thing that I predict we will see over the next five years will be a shift in how the courts are thinking about how to appoint people to leadership positions in large class and mass action cases. I believe that courts will rightfully recognize that people of diverse backgrounds who have traditionally been shut out of these types of appointments can offer unique perspectives that can benefit the cases. When that happens, I think that it will be much easier to attract top diverse talent to plaintiffs’ law firms, as more and more candidates will recognize the opportunity.
NG: What’s the best book you’ve read this year?
RSB: American Kingpin: The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road, by Nick Bilton
NG: If you could have lunch with anyone who would it be?
RSB: Roger Federer.
About the Author
Nicholas Gaffney is the founder of Zumado Public Relations in San Francisco, CA and is a member of the Law Practice Today Editorial Board. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @nickgaffney.