French connection: why Rob MacDonald became a specialist cross-border lawyer

Rob MacDonald is a top New York lawyer whose experience and specialism is understanding the nuances of the legal and business cultures
of their clients in the UK and Europe – and how they often clash when they first arrive in the US.

His focus is on cross-border M&A and tax for overseas companies looking to set up in the US. Rob is well versed in their expectations – which is a huge help for many Europeans who often are innocent of the norms of doing business in the US. “We understand what they want to achieve, we’re alert to all that,” Rob says. “If it’s someone from a country that we deal with a lot, we know
exactly what’s going on. If it’s someone from a country that we haven’t dealt with before, we don’t necessarily know what their expectations are, but wedo know that they’re not necessarily the same as the expectations of a US client. We never take anything for granted.”

Understanding different business cultures
In Rob’s experience, most US law firms seldom have overseas clients and often fail to understand their needs and aspirations – and the culture differences between, say, the US and France, and even the UK. American clients tend to see things very differently from businesspeople in different jurisdictions. Rob gives a typical example of what he often comes across: “A European
client comes to the US, makes an acquisition or sets up a subsidiary and starts hiring people and gives the American employees employment contracts. We almost never use contracts for employment in the US. “Almost all employment here is ‘at-will’, meaning that as long as you want to go to work and the employer wants you to work, it continues for both parties. If you want to stop or the employer wants to get rid of you, it ends.”

“Employing someone ‘at-will’ means you can terminate him for no reason or any reason, except for an illegal reason such as discrimination. That is where foreign companies often get in trouble if they’re not sensitive to the discrimination law. For example, they’ll say ‘our product is aimed atyoung people, and that candidate is in his 50s, so he won’t do because he won’t understand the market’. That’s an age discrimination claim right there. It’s a huge surprise to a European company that thinks ‘I need young people because I’m selling to young people’. That doesn’t work in the US.”
Rob admits that these kind of differences make his legal practice “great fun – understanding the differences and learning about them. In Italy, for example, you have a lot of workers’ rights built into the law that you just don’t have here. I might be familiar with the French ones because I deal with French firms more often, but I never take anything for granted – and nor should the client. All this is a lot of fun, actually.”

Dunning Rievman merger

Dunning Rievman & MacDonald LLP is a recently merged law firm,established in June 2022, between the lawyers of Dunning Rievman LLP andmost of the lawyers of MacDonald Weiss PLLC. The idea behind the merger was to combine the dispute resolution expertise of Dunning Rievman with the corporate, transactional, and tax know-how of MacDonald Weiss.

In addition, Rob and his colleagues act as “outside general counsel” inthe US for a number foreign clients. As a result, it has international desks focused on several languages: French, Spanish and Turkish. “We’re based in one office in New York City and cover all major business law fields and thanks to the merger we have experienced litigators. We’ve got both sides of the equation, the business law, and the litigation side.” Rob admits the competition for top legal representation in the city is considerable, but that doesn’t faze him. “New York City, along with London,
is probably the most competitive legal space on earth,” he laughs. “You have to separate yourself. You have to find a way to differentiate what you have to offer versus what others have to offer. And that’s not easy when you’ve got thousands of lawyers walking around. “In our case, the senior partners in our firm all came from big international law firms. So we have the experience that you can find in those firms.

But since we’ve created the small firm, we have lower costs and we can charge a lot less. ‘You’re getting the same quality of work that you would get at the large international firms.”
Along with lower costs, Rob is keen to flag up the firm’s reputation of delivering a first class job for his clients. This is particularly true of non-US clients: “I think that’s our specialty. We have a good reputation with a lot of lawyers in European countries and their clients. They come to us when they arrive in the US because we match what they need.” “If something comes up, they call me. Maybe it’s something I can do, maybe it’s something my colleagues can do. It could be a real estate deal in California, for example. I find the lawyer in California and bring him to
the client, making sure everything works smoothly. I coordinate everything, helping to make sure the client gets taken care of.”

Connections in the IR Global Network

This transatlantic matchmaking also links to Rob’s long term relationship with the IR Global network. With the network’s connections with lawyers across the US and Europe, he believes it’s been very advantageous in helping to ensure DR&M (Dunning Rievman & MacDonald LLP) can offer the right legal advice for their clients. “With IR Global’s connections in Europe, it was a natural fit for us,” Rob says. “When I was contacted by them seven years ago I thought, ‘well, this looks like a really exciting network’. What I love most about IR Global is the
quality of the people in the organisation and across the network. “The IR Global team have the right spirit and that’s created the same spirit across the whole organization and it becomes sort of a self-replicating thing.” Rob admits that he’s been asked to join a lot of similar networks, but has not been impressed with many of them: “There are a lot of networks out there, but I find it hard to believe that there could be many that have succeeded as well with the quality and the spirit as IR Global. A huge slice of the credit goes to the IR Global staff.”

Tax: an intellectual challenge

When Rob first started out in law he primarily focused on tax. He still enjoys the intellectual challenge of tax – and it is still part of his practice – but he also wanted to be more involved in helping clients to drive their business day to day: “That’s why over the years I started doing the business law work on the same deals where I had been the tax lawyer initially. I would say in the last decade, the majority of my work has not involved tax, but I still do a fair amount. I like to keep my hand in.”

Rob originally intended to follow his father into medicine and become a doctor – and that was the expectation of his family: “I went to McGill University as a Pre-med. I had all these classes like physics and organic chemistry and so on. I also had a couple of electives where I took non science; geography, sociology, that kind of thing, and I quickly realized that I found them way more interesting. So instead of becoming a doctor, I became a lawyer. I went to law school and found that I really loved it.”

When Rob went for his first job as an intern for a large firm he was interviewed by a tax lawyer who told him it was an interesting and highly specialised practice: “I thought, ‘well, okay, I’ll give it a try’. I just sort of got into the spirit of the tax group. They were a really good group and they made me an offer. This fellow who interviewed me, George Howell, he became my mentor. I was a tax lawyer and enjoyed it. Then over the years I started working on the non-tax areas of the same transactions that we were doing and really enjoyed that as well.”

French connection

Later in his career Rob joined a big French firm, working out of their New York office. He learned the language and spent a lot of time in Paris: “They were so amazed that a middle-aged American guy would even bother to try to learn French.” That experience then contributed to Rob’s understanding of European business and legal culture, which contributes so much to DR&M’s transatlantic offering: “I think that’s a key moment for me and my career development.”

Going forward, Rob admits he wants to remain in the mid-market legal area: “I guess I swim against the tide because my goal is not to have a law firm of a certain size. It’s to have good relations with good clients who give us good work and pay our bills – and who appreciate what we’re doing. “To me, the 12 lawyers we have now is just fine. If it was 40, that’d be fine too. If it’s still 12 in five years, it doesn’t matter to me because the size doesn’t matter. It’s those elements that are important to me. It’s the pleasure of being a good professional in a good professional environment.”