Don't Mess with the Bulldog

Jeff Lenkov’s clients love him, and it’s not just because of the pet rocks

Published in 2005 Southern California Rising Stars — September 2005

As a litigation specialist for Federated Department Stores, Rob Diesel receives all sorts of business cards, brochures and newsletters from lawyers who would like to get his business. But only one lawyer has ever sent him a bobble-head doll of himself: Jeffrey M. Lenkov, a partner at Manning & Marder.
 
“He’s a character,” Diesel says. “Initially, some people around here had reservations about him because of that, but I like the personal touch.”
 
What Diesel really likes is the results that Lenkov has gotten for the chain of department stores, which includes Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s. “He’s aggressive from the start and has gotten cases dropped that some people around here couldn’t believe were dropped without us having to pay anything,” Diesel says.
 
As a result, Lenkov now handles all of Federated’s business in California and Arizona. Having one lawyer cover that kind of territory “is almost unheard of for us,” Diesel says. “We don’t know what we would do without him.”
 
The 40-year-old Lenkov has developed one of the most impressive client lists in Los Angeles for a young attorney — Best Buy, Cheesecake Factory, JCPenney, Gap, Kohls, the Los Angeles Lakers, and on and on.
 
“Believe it or not, I got virtually every client through cold calling,” he says.
 
He develops clients with the same methodical approach that he uses to play the war game Risk, where he patiently conquers the world country by country. Mention any retailer or restaurant with a presence in Southern California — from Border’s to Starbucks — and he’ll spout out the name of a contact there and who the company employs as its lawyer. At least for now, he implies.
 
Lenkov is so Type A, you wish there was a higher letter in the alphabet to define him. His relentlessness takes a page from Donald Trump, who wrote in his latest book that his routine didn’t vary even after he became a billionaire.
 
“Too many law firms become complacent,” Lenkov notes. “I’ll become complacent after I’m dead.”
 
The Montreal native seems to be running with the same hunger as when he first arrived in Los Angeles with only $500 and a law degree from a small Illinois school. “I had to compete against people from great schools who had every connection in the world,” he says.
 
He wakes up at 5 a.m. every morning and downs some juice for breakfast. By 6 a.m., he is returning phone calls and e-mail messages to the East Coast. His day remains a frenzied whirlwind. He walks around the office talking into his wireless headset while he attends to a dozen tasks at once — reviewing documents, writing articles for newsletters he sends to clients and preparing material for the sports law class he teaches as an adjunct professor at Southwestern University School of Law.
 
He gives his home number to clients and is available on vacations. He recalls one Saturday night when his wife was pregnant with their first daughter. She had a food craving, and he started to go out to get her a particular salad. He received a call from a client and spent the next three hours working on an important case, while his wife waited.
 
“I couldn’t do this if my wife and family weren’t so understanding,” he says, in an atypical moment of understatement.
 
He likes to tick off all sorts of role models: His dad, who left at dawn every morning to go to work. A law school classmate, who was a Navy fighter pilot, and returned every phone call within two minutes. The McDonald brothers (of hamburger fame) for refining the art of service and marketing, which he says can be a model for law firms too.
 
“You can differentiate yourself with your marketing,” he says. “If you’re just some schmuck from Montreal who nobody knows, you have to work harder than the thousands of other lawyers who want a client’s business.”
 
As someone who touts himself with bobble-head dolls, Lenkov’s middle initial might as well stand for “marketer.” He clips pertinent articles and sends them to clients’ attention. He constantly appears at seminars, does public speaking engagements and appears on television. “Clients like to know that their lawyer is prominent,” he says.
 
One of those clients calls him “The Bulldog,” because of “his remarkable ability to resolve claims quickly and cost-effectively.” Susan Wong, liability claims coordinator in the risk management department of Smart & Final, calls him a “legal star.” Like almost everyone else who talks about Lenkov’s legal style, she uses the words “aggressive” and “tenacious” to describe him.
 
When one client — someone he declines to name — was accused of sexual harassment, Lenkov relentlessly checked the background of the woman who made the claim. Lenkov found a former boyfriend of hers who said she had posed nude in magazines under a different name, which, if true, would have contradicted an important point of her claim. Lenkov had a library worth of pornographic magazines sent to his home. “My neighbors thought I was some sort of sexual deviant,” he says. “I went through each until I found her.”
 
As he says, his wife is a very understanding woman.
 
In another case, a department store was sued by a part-time soap opera actor, who claimed he was injured by a mechanical door. The actor sent a letter from a production company that said he was up for a starring role in a new show, which was the basis of the monetary compensation he asked for. Lenkov pored over the documents with his typical zeal and obsessed over the letterhead. Something struck him as wrong. He discovered the actor had forged the documents on his home computer. There was no TV offer. The case immediately dissolved.
 
Lenkov likes to win, of course, but he particularly likes to win with style. After he won a case for the Cheesecake Factory, he sent his clients a plastic heart with a note that read, “Not only did we win the case, we took their hearts out.” He sent another of his clients, Fry’s Electronics, a pet rock because he felt its office needed a pet. Federated’s Diesel says he has “a Jeffrey Lenkov drawer,” filled with attention-getting trinkets that his client has sent him in addition to the bobble-head doll.
 
“You can’t just be a fun guy and expect people to give you business,” Lenkov says. “But if you do the job, people prefer to have a lawyer who’s enjoyable to work with.”

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