Robin Gerofsky Kaptzan, J.D. '85: Thinking Outside of the Box to Build an International Career in China

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Robin Kaptzan

Robin Gerofsky Kaptzan, B.B.A. '82, J.D. '85

Robin Gerofsky Kaptzan, B.B.A. '82, J.D. '85, says she didn't plan on becoming an international lawyer – it just happened. In 1997, she moved to Hong Kong with her husband, who wanted to pursue a new business opportunity. A planned two-year overseas adventure turned into a 23-year life-changing experience in China, making Kaptzan a trusted cross-border adviser to her international clientele.

“When I found myself in a new place, I rolled up my sleeves, and made life work,” said Kaptzan, a partner who leads the China practice for Zahn Law Group in New York City. “When opportunity knocks, you just have to answer.”

Through the years, Kaptzan moved from guiding simple corporate work to complex transactions, contracts, and compliance matters, all with a China connection. Her new firm has a strategic alliance with Kaptzan’s former firm, Duan & Duan Law Firm in Shanghai, where she served as a bridge for cross-border and multicultural legal matters with multinational companies and individuals from around the world.

"Being the only foreign lawyer in a Chinese law firm makes going to work exciting," said Kaptzan.

"When I asked the managing partner why he hired me, he said it was because I demonstrated an understanding and respect for the Chinese culture. I am glad I took the job – every day I learn something new, keeping my work interesting."

Advice for Students

With her knowledge of Chinese law and customs, Kaptzan has contributed chapters to two books, "Corporate Counsel's Guide to Doing Business in China" and "A Guide to be an International Lawyer," and has had many articles published as well.

Drawing on her professional experiences, Kaptzan advises Miami Law students interested in an international career to learn another language and be willing to travel. "Going to another country in the summer is a great way to learn about the cultural differences firsthand," she said. "Becoming sensitive to those differences will help you become a better lawyer and more culturally sensitive person, regardless of your practice or location."

As for working in China, Kaptzan says being patient and building trust are two critical attributes for success.

"In the U.S., we look at negotiations as a matter of checking the boxes on a list," she said. "But the Chinese look at the whole package – not just the individual terms but the overall relationship."

While earning trust is essential for all relationships, it is imperative in China. "Get to know the other people involved in a potential or current legal or business transaction by spending time together – perhaps sharing dinners at home, playing a round of golf, or singing at a karaoke bar," said Kaptzan. Genuinely helping people in a friendly appropriate way, such as providing an internship opportunity or making a quality consultancy referral, is another way to build a trusting friendship.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic halted those important face-to-face conversations and opportunities to lend a helping hand, but the principles still apply to remote communications, she said. "In either case, don't rush to start talking about a transaction or what synergy you may have, enjoy and become friends first."

Thriving at UM

Kaptzan grew up in the New York City area and started her college career at the University of Maryland. But after her freshman year, she transferred to the University of Miami. "I loved playing sports and being outdoors," she said. "I was also able to take classes in liberal arts, communications, business, and international marketing. I thrived at UM – it was the right place for me."

After earning a business degree, Kaptzan moved right into law school, where she continued to broaden her horizons. Since UM attracted many international students, especially from South America and the Middle East, she was ahead of the curve in being aware that the legal world was going global.

"I also appreciated Miami Law's practical workshops, bringing in top lawyers who gave balance and rich substance to what we were learning in the classroom," added Kaptzan. Her internships involved working at a boutique law firm where she was involved in a rezoning project on South Beach and being authorized by the City of Miami to act as an assistant district attorney with real courtroom time.

By her third year of school, Kaptzan had found her calling in litigation. Her undergraduate business law professor, who was a practicing attorney at the time, encouraged her to pursue a career as a litigator and guided her first steps.

After earning her juris doctor, Kaptzan went back to New York City.

She worked for nine years as a corporate litigator, handling tort, securities fraud, professional malpractice, and commercial transaction breaches. "Not being pigeonholed was my savior, as variety was my ticket to transition to corporate law in China's international environment," she said.

A New Chapter

While working in New York, Kaptzan fell in love, married, and began thinking about starting a family. When her husband Jim had a business opportunity in Hong Kong, she left New York to start a new chapter in her life.

Kaptzan could not be employed as a practicing lawyer for a Hong Kong law firm as an American licensed attorney. However, she did land a job for an American public relations company involved in a significant Hong Kong railway project. She later launched a business servicing small companies that prepared compliance documents in English for Mainland Chinese publicly listed companies.

In 1997, the British government handed control of Hong Kong to China, and the Kaptzans moved to Shanghai, which became their home for more than two decades. "This was before there were skyscrapers and neon lights when the majority of people still rode bicycles, and there were no mobile phones," she said. "My husband tasked me with making heads or tails of the legal prerequisites about setting up a food product retail business in China, but we were amazed at how much was undefined."

Kaptzan immersed herself in China's culture, reading books and magazines, joining legal and community associations, and learning Chinese. She also became a mother raising their two children, who attended Shanghai Community International School with an American curriculum. Today, their daughter Mikayla is a junior in the UM School of Communications (Media Management), minoring in Chinese and Sport Administration, and son David is a digital account manager at OHO Interactive.

Returning to Law

After focusing on parenting and business ventures, Kaptzan was ready to return to law in 2004. She initially joined an Australian law practice, providing clients with guidance on market entry, acquisitions, structural options, cross-border contracts, and asset purchases. Her experience as a litigator helped in drafting contracts and managing risk in business transactions.

"By first considering the 'end game' of litigation, I feel I was able to be a better corporate lawyer," said Kaptzan.

Two years later, with encouragement from her husband, she joined a Chinese law firm that was one of the larger firms in Shanghai at the time. For the past six years, Kaptzan cooperated with Duan & Duan, one of the oldest and largest full-service Chinese law firms with 1,200 lawyers in 21 offices, where she embraced the challenges as an American attorney involved in global projects while based full time in Shanghai. In that role, she often oversaw and managed projects, like a general counsel to her clients, from a variety of sectors, helping them with investment strategies, structuring, and mergers and acquisitions. She also married these practice areas with employment, intellectual property, commercial and other cross-border issues.

In January 2020, the Kaptzans spent their Lunar New Year holiday on vacation in Europe. When COVID-19 hit, Kaptzan returned to New York City and began working remotely with her legal team in China, who were already in lockdown. "While the pandemic slowed U.S.-Chinese transactions, it didn't stop everything," she said, noting that her team completed the due diligence process for a major transaction, doing all the legal work remotely.

When not practicing law, Kaptzan loves staying fit, cooking, and traveling with her family. She also continues to cultivate her large circle of international friends, whether on video calls or at home in New York. "I consider myself as an ambassador for America, showing people from other cultures that we can all get along," she said.

Looking ahead, Kaptzan is considering teaching at some point in the future. "I have held a number of leadership positions with the American Bar Association and put together continuing legal education webinars, as well as many presentations about doing business in China," she said. "I also am very rewarded from coaching and mentoring junior lawyers, like one of my legal assistants who is now an in-house counsel at Siemens."

As for advising young lawyers considering international law, Kaptzan said, "Be open-minded and step outside your comfort zone. Opportunities are plentiful for those willing to think outside the box."

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