3 states, 5 offices, 9 lawyers: How the Rothenberg Family became a personal injury empire
photo: Meir Haltovsky
ccording to the old saw if you put two Jews in a room you get five arguments. But what if you put ten Jews in a room and nine of them are lawyers — and all of them are immediate family?
Welcome to the Rothenberg family: Allen and Barbara Rothenberg are the proud parents of eight children of which seven are lawyers and six work for the family firm known as The Rothenberg Law Firm LLP. “We used to have debates around the dinner table ” says Beth Halperin the second oldest Rothenberg daughter. “My father would organize us into teams.”
People often ask Allen Rothenberg if he gave his children any choice about going to law school. “I gave them plenty of choice about it” he says expansively. Then he adds with a twinkle: “I told them they could go to any law school they chose.”
But it’s not quite as simple as all that. Each Rothenberg child has found his own way into the legal profession and they aren’t all cookie-cutter versions of each other. Even within the firm which deals exclusively in personal injury suits they’ve veered into individual specialties and different populations. Harry Marc Ross and Scott have developed specialized expertise in the complex litigation of automobile malfunction construction and commercial vehicle injuries traumatic brain injury and wrongful death cases. And while most of the family deals with all manner of people Beth’s Lakewood-based branch of the family firm deals with a mostly Jewish clientele.
It’s not every day you encounter a family who as Allen Rothenberg puts it “probably holds the Guinness Record for the most members of an immediate family to belong to the New YorkStatebar.” But this month Mishpacha was privileged to meet seven of the nine lawyers who gathered together at theirManhattan office onSeventh Avenue across from Macy’s.
Allen and Barbara were born and raised in Philadelphia, where the law firm first opened. Barbara’s family was American-born, but Allen’s father came from Rovno, a little town between Chernobyl and Kiev. “My father never wanted to go back,” he says. “He hated it. I think the most patriotic people are those who come from oppressive countries and truly appreciate what America has to offer.”
Mr. Rothenberg, whose powerful baritone recently belted out the Star Spangled Banner and Hatikvah for senators and congressmen at a luncheon in the US Capitol honoring the Rothenberg lawyers in conjunction with Jewish Heritage Month last May, put himself through law school as a band leader and singer in the Catskills.
“In the early years of my practice, I was making more money from the band than from my law practice,” Allen says. In those days, it wasn’t so easy to break into law as a Jewish lawyer, let alone a shomer Shabbos one. “The gentile firms for the most part refused to hire Jews,” he says. As for the Jewish firms in Philadelphia, “Everybody expected you to work at least half a day on Saturdays, and going home early on Fridays and taking off for all Yamim Tovim was unheard of.” In his father’s days , if someone refused to work on Shabbos, he was told not to come in on Monday. Allen decided that it made the most sense to open his own practice, which he did in 1969.
Barbara, who joined us briefly from Philadelphia by phone, came on board to help her husband in the office after having run a medical lab. “She’d always wanted to become a doctor, but knew it would demand too much clinical time,” says daughter Melissa Rothenberg-Kapustin, who works at the Hackensack branch of the firm. “But after working with my father so long, it became clear she knew everything a lawyer would know — she just didn’t have the degree. So she decided to go to law school, in between her fifth and sixth child.”
Barbara graduated in 1978, and, as her husband likes to say, “The Rothenberg Law Firm is really Barbara Rothenberg.” She was, and continues to be, an inspiration to her daughters, who describe her as a powerhouse. “She’s a superwoman,” Beth says. “She’d get up early, get us all out the door, go off to work. I was six when she went to law school. I’m still learning from her; she’s brilliant and very perceptive.”
But Melissa, who confesses to staying up the better part of every Thursday night to cook for Shabbos, isn’t much different. She took one of her law school finals while in labor with her third child (they put her in a separate room so she wouldn’t disturb anybody) and Beth also finished law school while expecting baby number three.
The Rothenberg children grew up in Philadelphia and attended day schools there, but are now scattered throughout the tristate area. The sons are in Passaic (where Harry’s wife is the general studies principal at the Bais Yaakov) and Teaneck; Melissa lives in West Orange, (where her husband is a rabbi at Congregation Etz Chaim synagogue and a dean at the Heschel High School in Manhattan); Beth lives in Lakewood; Randi in Monsey; and Rachel in Baltimore.
The family exudes a certain out-of-town wholesomeness and simplicity; as a group, the Rothenberg progeny look clean-cut, attractive and fit, like the perfect poster children for some frum Lawyers of America association. The Manhattan office is comfortable but not ostentatious, although the firm is in the process of preparing a move upstairs to larger, more elegant quarters on the 44th floor. As Mr. Rothenberg quips, “I have four sons in the office, so I needed a space with four corner offices.” The simple conference room where we meet doubles as a local minyan room. And Mr. Rothenberg proudly mentions that the designated minyan room in the Philadelphia office has an aron kodesh housing a Sefer Torah as well as a wall painted to resemble the Kosel.
The four Rothenberg sons all seem to have happily followed their parents into the legal business. For the four daughters, the decision took somewhat longer. Beth started off as a teacher and rebbetzin (her husband, Rabbi Dov Halperin, writes seforim and served for years as a kiruv rav in Pennsylvania). Melissa earned a Master’s degree in Jewish studies and also teaches classes at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School. But the financial realities of frum life convinced both of them they could best help their families with a law degree. Once in law school, both of them found they loved it. “It was basically already in our blood,” Melissa admits.
Another sister, Randi, is the only lawyer sibling who hasn’t joined the family firm (so far, anyway). She worked as an assistant district attorney in New York and as a federal prosecutor under Attorneys General Janet Reno and John Ashcroft. In typical Rothenberg overachieving style, Randi is the mother of six children, including quadruplets. Rachel, the fourth sister, humorously referred to as the “black sheep” of the family, chose instead to become a certified registered pediatric nurse practitioner and an adjunct professor of nursing.
Doing Well by Doing Good
The public generally holds a rather jaundiced view of personal injury lawyers; they’re stereotyped as “ambulance chasers” out to bilk insurance companies of every dime they’ve got. But the reality of personal injury law is very different, the Rothenbergs argue. It’s not about chasing after accidents, it’s about seeking redress for people who have been harmed through no fault of their own. Scott points out that you can’t simply sue because you were injured. “You have to prove that there’s liability,” he says. “You have to show that somebody was responsible for another’s safety and failed to act properly.”
In most cases, personal injury suits are brought against insurance companies or large manufacturers. For that reason, the issue of a Jew suing another Jew rarely comes up. “The heter is that everybody has to have insurance, so you’re suing a company instead of a person,” the Rothenbergs explain. This doesn’t mean such issues never arise; for example, sometimes a gap in coverage between one insurance policy terminating and another one starting might create a scenario where a client would have to sue an individual rather than a corporation. When halachic questions do arise, the family takes them to a posek, or to the client’s own rav.
Nor are victims asked to lay money out of their own pockets. Personal injury law works according to contingency fees, Barbara explains. The firm does not charge by the hour, but takes a percentage of the settlement.
“Many people in my area don’t understand that,” Beth chimes in. “I’m always trying to tell people that seeking our services doesn’t involve any money up front. A lot of people don’t realize that if they’ve suffered damages and pain due to someone else’s negligence they deserve compensation.”
Because the firm doesn’t make money unless a suit is successful, its attorneys carefully consider the merits of each case before taking it on, aiming for quality rather than quantity. So-called “frivolous” lawsuits simply aren’t worth their investment because they don’t justify the expenses involved in conducting the necessary investigations and procuring expert witnesses.
However, the Rothenbergs agree, most lawsuits are far from frivolous. “Ask anyone who’s been disabled because of an accident,” Harry says. “Every last one of them will say they’d happily exchange all the money they received to have their health back.” He once recovered over $6 million for a man whose badly injured leg required 23 surgeries. The doctor testifying for the defense argued that the client’s pain and suffering came from a “stubborn refusal to consent to amputation.” “This is a guy whose youngest child was three years old,” Harry says. “He felt that it would be better for his kids to have a daddy with one bad leg than no leg at all. Can you blame him?”
When a family has suffered a major loss, like the death of a child in a car accident, no amount of money can heal the pain. “But sometimes it allows families to have a certain closure,” Barbara says. “For example, a Jewish family might use some of the settlement to fund a tzedakah l’illuy nishmas.”
Ross adds that in wrongful death cases, the family is often left with the pain of never having had a chance to say goodbye. Working through the case sometimes helps work through the loss. “Often in the process of investigating, we discover the real cause of the death,” Allen says, and that may also provide some small consolation for families desperate for answers.
In fact, the mere label “personal injury lawyer” does not reflect the wide range of skills involved, not the least of which are crisis counseling, grief therapy, and advanced hand-holding for people whose lives have been shattered. “We’re proud of the kind of individual attention we give to each case,” Harry says. “Often in cases where a person has been disabled or suffered a major loss, what the client needs most is a friend. He or she has been through tremendous psychological distress — imagine a working man in his 30s, the breadwinner of a family, who finds himself sitting home after 12 surgeries doing nothing. These people sometimes call us up just to talk. We have to be very sensitive to their situations.”
Because of the close relationship that evolves, many of their clients remain friends, and are staunchly loyal. Ross volunteers, “I recently won a verdict of nearly $7 million in New Jersey. In that state, the court has to approve the legal fee in any case with a recovery in excess of $2 million, and the client has to sign an affidavit in support of the firm’s fee request. I called the client to request that he sign, and he said ‘Absolutely!’ He then asked, ‘If the court doesn’t approve the amount, can I still give you the difference?’”
Watchdogs for the Little Guy
Personal injury law, as applied to people injured by products or medications, often lands its practitioners in the role of industry watchdogs. For instance, the firm once represented a group of 1,800 tire workers who worked with talc. It turned out that the talc mines had become contaminated by the asbestos mines located next to them and the workers developed asbestos-related diseases. “As a result of that case, one of the major manufacturers of baby powder removed talc from its ingredients and replaced it with corn starch.”
Certain medical procedures and treatments have been removed from the market as the result of lawsuits brought by the Rothenberg Law Firm. One form of dangerous early prenatal testing that caused fetuses to lose limbs had to be discontinued as a result of a lawsuit brought by the firm. Allen predicts that another, still-unnamable medication will soon be removed from drugstore shelves due to its deleterious effects. “The FDA generally does not do its own testing; instead it often relies on pharmaceutical manufacturers to test their own products,” he says. “Many times the manufacturers conceal adverse test results.”
Automobile manufacturers likewise must be held accountable for the safety of their vehicles. Marc explains that when an accident happens resulting in catastrophic injuries, it’s paramount that he gets hold of the vehicle to investigate potential defects. “We have to get there fast, and notify the insurance company to preserve the vehicle,” he says. “Then we send out engineers to make sure there were no failures in the equipment — the tires, roof structure, seat belts, seat backs, brakes, fuel tank, cruise control, glass, etc.” While it’s true that motorists are required to buy insurance, he points out that very often the amount of the insurance coverage falls far short of paying full compensation for the extensive injuries suffered.
“We’re the good guys,” Ross insists. “Without personal injury litigation, the drug companies and car manufacturers could ride roughshod over the consumer. People like to blame lawsuits for high insurance rates, but lawsuits aren’t what cause the problem.” In fact, Ross says that insurance rates have risen just as much in states that have placed caps on personal injury awards.
Some of the firm’s largest awards have come through suits against construction companies. Harry settled one recently for over $18 million dollars for three construction workers injured on the job. In another case last year, Marc obtained an $11.5 million award, the second highest reported settlement for an individual plaintiff in New York State, for a worker who fell off a scaffold and suffered traumatic brain injury.
Representing victims of traumatic brain injury can be very challenging, Harry says, because they’re suffering from cognitive deficits, so they’re difficult to schedule for appointments and sometimes don’t show up. They’re also prone to mood swings and unusual sensitivities. “Most people like to turn off lights when they leave a room, but I like to leave them on to show we’re open for business,” Allen Rothenberg says. “So one day I walked into the conference room and found all the lights off — but the room was full of attorneys and a videographer! Immediately, I asked, ‘Why aren’t the lights on?’ Then Harry explained that the client had developed photophobia, an extreme sensitivity to light because of an injury she’d had.”
As the children grew up and joined the firm, Rothenberg LLC developed regional clout. The firm now employs about 75 people, and maintains offices in Philadelphia, New York, Hackensack, Lakewood, and Cherry Hill. The firm gets referrals from all over the country via its outstanding reputation, its Web site, and by having offices in multiple states. This allows them to bring in a larger pool of elite experts. “We’re willing to pay top dollar for experts — medical, engineering, construction experts,” Allen says. “The insurance companies know us as lawyers who always come in well-prepared and ready, willing and able to go to trial, so quite often they’re willing to settle out of court rather than risk a verdict.”
People Expect Emes
While law has always been something of a Jewish profession, it hasn’t always been a hospitable environment for religious Jews. “I believe there’s no substitute for a well-prepared case, yarmulke or not,” Allen says. “The defense attorneys and the insurance companies all know us. Maybe they don’t love us, but they respect us. We show that it’s possible to be successful, to contribute to secular society, while remaining true to our religion.”
Allen is adamant that all of his professional success has been achieved not despite his observance but because of it. “But being obviously religious carries a concomitant responsibility. People know to expect emes from me, and in return I generally get it from them.”
A frequent attendee and speaker at legal conferences, he has no qualms about ordering kosher meals and enduring the constant “bageling” of Jewish colleagues who approach him to comment, “Gee, you can really get those meals here?”
“My father and I have lectured at prestigious conferences with yarmulkes on, and they have always invited us back,’” Harry says. “So clearly it wasn’t a handicap.” On the other hand, people have sometimes questioned Harry about whether a person who’s religious can show the aggressiveness necessary to win lawsuits. “I reassure them that zealous, aggressive advocacy and piety are not mutually exclusive,” he says.
Allen Rothenberg has long been the president of the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs. The organization works in cooperation with the Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel on a pro bono basis to advocate for Jewish causes in areas ranging from Shabbos and kashrus observance to land use, public health, and education. “The Civil Rights Act of 1972 established the requirement to allow ‘reasonable accommodation’ for First Amendment freedom of religion,” he says. “Those laws are there to make it easier for religious people to live in a secular society.”
While Allen Rothenberg advocates on behalf of freedom of religion, his children are involved in community work. Several of them are members of the boards of local charities and schools, including Marc on the board of Project Ezra in Teaneck and Scott on the board of The Passaic-Clifton Community Kollel. Sports lovers all, Scott serves as the commissioner for Passaic’s Yiddle League baseball and Ross was a hockey and baseball coach for the Torah Academy of Bergen County in Teaneck. Meanwhile, Melissa coaches a girls’ soccer league and Marc coaches baseball and basketball teams. “All my kids play ball,” says Allen, who himself still enjoys playing in competitive softball leagues.
On the principle that one must donate time as well as money, the Rothenbergs often dispense free counsel to Jewish schools and camps about maintaining proper safety standards and buying the best insurance coverage possible; after all, trying to run an institution in a fly-by-night fashion only sets the stage for potential disasters and chillul Hashem. “You have to protect people,” Barbara emphasizes.
Harry has become heavily involved in kiruv work, creating a weekly parshah clip for Partners in Torah.
“Our professional standing gives us a platform to do kiruv,” he continues. “Many of the same skills we use in front of a jury to argue, inspire, and create empathy, are equally valuable in reaching out to nonobservant Jews. My siblings and I are also able to show nonobservant Jews an additional image of what a religious Jew is like. They see you can be successful in the secular world without compromising your religious beliefs. And you can still play sports.”
In addition to his frequent lectures in the New York metro area, Harry has recently lectured in Boston, Chicago, London, and South Africa. “I always daven for the special siyata d’Shmaya necessary to inspire people.”
But all of the Rothenberg children attribute their facility with public speaking and legal maneuvering less to their fancy diplomas than to growing up watching two lawyer parents in action.
“You just kind of absorb it,” Scott says.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 470)
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