After more than four decades in practice, Susan Robfogel still enjoys a challenge
Published in 2008 Upstate New York Super Lawyers magazine
on August 22, 2008
Updated on June 11, 2009
If you’ve been in the same profession for more than 40 years, you might get a little stuck in your ways. Not Susan Robfogel.
Robfogel, a partner at Nixon Peabody’s Rochester and New York City offices, has been focusing on labor, employment and health care law almost since she graduated from Cornell Law in 1967. While her specialties haven’t changed over the last four decades, the dynamics within those industries certainly have, and Robfogel has demonstrated a unique ability to not only move with shifting tides but to also actively master—and embrace—change.
“I love things that are in a point in transition and are moving to a new plateau,” Robfogel says. “I find it exciting. It’s the way my brain is wired. I don’t want to just watch things happen. I want to be part of making change happen. That’s what’s really exciting to me.”
“Lawyers by nature and training are conservative and careful in their judgments,” says Scott Turner, managing partner at Nixon Peabody’s Rochester office. “This personality trait doesn’t always work well with change. Sometimes that gets us lawyers in trouble. Susan isn’t like that at all. Her industries are full of change and she’s on top of it. You can’t be as successful as Susan if you are resistant to change.”
Currently, Robfogel is fascinated by major shifts that are happening in health care. One of the biggest issues facing providers and consumers is personalized medicine, the use of genomics to determine treatments and drugs that are customized for individual patients.
“Now that we have mapped the human genome and we are able to understand an individual’s genetic makeup, science will be able to determine what treatments may have the greatest impact on an individual person,” she says. “In coming years, this will have a major impact on hospitals, pharmaceutical companies and centers that perform tests. It’s going to have a tremendous impact on the medical profession and the attorneys that serve it.”
Instead of resisting or ignoring this change, Robfogel has decided to build on the opportunities it provides.
“We’ve familiarized ourselves with the legal issues related to personalized medicine, and I have put together a team of people who are ready to work with clients,” she says. “It’s incredibly exciting.”
Perhaps Robfogel embraces change because, from the very beginning of her career, she was part of a revolution that was taking place in her very own profession.
In 1967, when Robfogel moved to Rochester after graduation, every large firm in the city closed its doors to women. Just a few years earlier, her husband had been offered a job right away.
“Today nobody would sit still for that,” Robfogel says. “But that’s how things worked back then.”
Being told she wasn’t welcome at Rochester law firms didn’t discourage Robfogel, who instead took a job with the city corporation counsel’s office. “I’ve always been the kind of person who can find opportunity in whatever I do,” she says. “I got to do a lot of things at the counsel’s office that young lawyers don’t get to do in firms. It was one of those serendipitous things. I would’ve liked to be like all of the other people I graduated with (she was one of just three women in her class) and gone on to a big firm, but in the end this ended up being a great opportunity for me.”
By 1970, barriers to women attorneys were starting to crumble, and Robfogel was the first female lawyer hired by Harris, Beach & Wilcox, where she was named partner in 1975.
At Harris, Beach & Wilcox, Robfogel represented many health care institutions caught up in unionization drives. This represented a major challenge for the region’s health care industry.
“A law was passed that said for the first time unions had the right to organize in not-for-profit hospitals,” Robfogel recalls. “I served in an advisory capacity to my clients, helping to guide them through unionization efforts.”
The experience she gained working on those cases led Robfogel, still a bit wet behind the ears, to pull together a team representing the health care industry. “It was a multidisciplinary practice group within the firm that was prepared to offer varied services to health care clients,” she says. “I always looked at health care as an industry that needed lawyers that could bring a multidisciplinary approach to it.”
Robfogel’s bosses were impressed by this young attorney and her bold ideas. “I was a baby lawyer when I suggested developing the practice group,” she recalls, “but the partners in the firm gave me the go-ahead anyway.”
Soon, Robfogel earned a reputation in the Rochester business community as a resourceful attorney skilled in non-adversarial labor relations. She was soon lured away by Nixon Peabody, and joined the firm as a partner in 1985. She’s been with the firm ever since.
Today, Turner says, many young associates at Nixon Peabody turn to Robfogel for inspiration, not just because she was a trailblazer, but also because “she is one is the hardest workers in our law firm. Her co-workers are all awed by her productivity. She’s a real inspiration for everyone here, a true role model.”
From an early age, Robfogel was blessed with a singular focus. She’s fond of telling people that she knew she wanted to be a lawyer since before she was in kindergarten. “As soon as I stopped wanting to be a ballet dancer,” she says, “I wanted to be a lawyer.”
In post-war America, women weren’t usually encouraged to consider legal careers, but the job made perfect sense to Robfogel, whose parents, Victor and Janet Salitan, worked as attorneys in private practice.
“Being a lawyer seemed like the natural thing to do,” Robfogel explains. “I wanted to do it all my life. I said it so many times that it never occurred to me that there might be something else I wanted to do. It was the natural order of things: I was impressed with the way lawyers approached problems and the important role they play in the community. Plus I loved my parents and wanted to be just like them.”
Robfogel believes that her ability to focus on what’s important, while tuning out all distractions, has helped her navigate a busy life filled with a demanding full-time job, a family (she and her husband have raised two boys) and an impressive list of outside commitments.
Beyond managing an extensive national practice at Nixon Peabody, Robfogel also maintains a number of voluntary and professional affiliations. In 1981, she was appointed by President Ronald Reagan to the Federal Service Impasses Panel, the agency responsible for resolving collective bargaining disputes in the federal sector. She served for three terms. Today she serves as chair of the board for the Congressional Office of Compliance, an independent agency established to administer the application of various civil rights, labor and workplace laws to congressional employees. The board meets monthly on Capitol Hill.
Robfogel also serves as chair of the board for the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography. She is the first woman to be awarded the position in the Rochester-based organization’s 60-year history.
“It is one of the greatest cultural institutions in the world,” Robfogel says of Eastman House. “It is a great thing for the city of Rochester. It really is on anybody’s list one of the finest collections of still photography and motion pictures anywhere in the world.”
Anthony Bannon, Eastman House executive director, says that he’s impressed with Robfogel’s fearless way of approaching life.
“A lot of people go through life trying to fulfill their expectations,” he says. “They live in the comfort of previous experience. Susan lives fully in the present. That’s the mark of her robust character, and that’s the way she’s led such an accomplished life.”