Son of a Son of a Rabbi

Why Harry Nelson chose law over the family business; how it still infuses his practice

Published in 2024 Southern California Super Lawyers magazine

By Erik Lundegaard on January 9, 2024

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When Harry Nelson graduated from the University of Michigan Law School in 1994, the family joke was, “So when are you going to start rabbinical school?”

Nelson, a health care law practitioner at Nelson Hardiman, comes from a long line of not only rabbis, but rabbis who first studied law. “My grandfather graduated from the University of Chicago Law School in the 1920s,” Nelson says. “He only decided to go to rabbinical school after realizing the law wasn’t what he was called to do.”

Meanwhile, Nelson’s father lasted only two years at NYU law school before switching. “So the joke was law was just a stepping stone to rabbinics,” Nelson says.

Nelson and his father at an annual spring gathering of several hundred of the chasidim of Karlin-Stolin, a large Chasidic court, in Detroit.

While his grandfather built a religious community in Bridgeport, Connecticut, his father worked abroad in Rio de Janeiro, where Nelson was born, before moving the family, first, to Baltimore, and then taking a pulpit in Detroit. Even as a child, Nelson felt the weight and importance of what they did. “I grew up with people telling me what a tremendous impact my father and grandfather had at certain points in their lives,” he says.

So he struggled with whether to go into the family business. His decision not to, he says, boiled down to two reasons. He was more of a spiritual wanderer than his forebears; and after a childhood in one synagogue in one community, “I wanted to do a lot more exploration of what was out there,” he says. Then there’s the lack of boundaries. “If you go into that world, there is no time at which you’re off duty. I grew up in a house where we’d be on a family vacation and then someone would pass away or there would be some crisis, and we’d be home immediately. Because the community came first.”

The irony is that his chosen profession, particularly in the smartphone age, isn’t exactly 9-to-5. “I have terrible boundaries with my clients,” he admits. Thankfully, family vacations tend not to be cut short, since client crises are not quite like the existential crises his father dealt with. “It’s easier dealing with people’s problems around their money, and businesses and health care licenses, rather than counseling people through the grief of whatever struggles they’re dealing with,” he says.

Yet what he learned as his father’s son still infuses his practice. “When people call me, it starts off with some very practical problem,” he says. “They want to create something, or they have a new business or health care venture, or they already have one and it’s having problems—whether it’s with a government agency or insurance company. But I end up playing therapist quite a bit—and using a lot of the same sort of counseling that I watched my father do: getting people through the pain, the stress, the anger, all of the difficult emotions that get in the way of actually solving the underlying problem.”

His epiphany moment came 15 years ago, he says, when a client with a great legal team kept calling him, and Nelson finally wondered aloud what he could add. “And this person said, ‘Listen, I know I have a great team. … The big difference is that when I talk to you, I feel like you’re in this with me completely.’

“I realized there is a certain skill set of just being inside the problem with someone, in a foxhole kind of way, that I was doing naturally because that’s how I learned to interact with people. That’s actually my secret weapon.”

Nelson still finds time for the Jewish community. “I go to four synagogues,” he says. “I actually started a little synagogue [Kahal Chasidim, in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood of LA]. My wife jokes that some people’s midlife crisis is a sports car, for some people it’s an affair. For me it was a Chasidic rebbe.”

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