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Interview: David Kaufman: Litigator Turns Passion for Martial Arts Into a Niche Karate Legal Practice

Few attorneys have meshed their personal interests with their legal practice as thoroughly as litigator David Kaufman. A martial artist with over 40 years experience in various fighting disciplines, including black belts in Mu Duk Kwon Tang Soo Do, Kendo and Iaido, Kaufman was at a tournament when word got out that he was a lawyer. Within a few hours several martial arts athletes, school owners and promoters approached him for guidance on issues such as contract law for the promotion of tournaments and athletes, insurance and liability concerns, and the negotiation and drafting of releases. Kaufman has since parlayed that initial flood of interest into the country's only martial arts-based legal practice - http://www.karatelaw.com - which focuses on contractual issues and litigation matters confronting martial arts schools, tournaments and athletes.

Kaufman credits his martial arts background with making him a more effective litigator by endowing him with self-discipline, mental focus and a way to release stress. He notes that martial arts combat and litigation share common strategies: intensity of training and preparation, a focus on your opponent’s tactics, and an ability to see through feints and diversions in order to win.

Kaufman's advice to other attorneys? A unity of interest between your professional and personal life can yield great personal satisfaction and success.

Click below for our interview with Kaufman.

JD Bliss (JDB):  You combine a visible and successful solo practice as a commercial litigator with a unique practice niche that reflects your long-time interest in the martial arts.  Was it always your desire to be an attorney?

Kaufman:  The law was actually a career direction that I took later in life.  I originally studied economics, and after getting a doctorate in that field I worked as a government economist and as head of my own economic consulting firm.  However, I married into a family where the legal profession was a tradition that stretches back seven generations.  A first cousin of my wife was a federal judge, and strongly encouraged me to go to law school.  I joke today that I got tired of losing arguments to lawyers, but the fact is that I did find the law fascinating. I took a one-year sabbatical and enrolled in George Mason University School of Law, where I got my J.D. in 1991.  George Mason University School of Law emphasizes the law and economics, an analytical approach to the law that fit well with my economics background, and the transition to becoming an attorney was really seamless.  In fact, I’m an Adjunct Professor of Law at George Mason to this day.

JDB:  Did you have your own firm from the start?

Kaufman:  No, I practiced for eight years as a general business and commercial litigator with two different firms in the Washington, DC area.  But I soon realized that I was too independent for the law firm environment and wanted to have direct control over the cases that I handled.  Late in 1999 I founded my own firm, Kaufman Law, in Fairfax, Virginia.  From the start I provided the same high quality business and commercial litigation counsel that larger firms do, but at more flexible rates and with more personal service.  Virtually all my business has come to me on referral, either from other attorneys or from existing clients, on matters ranging from business torts and competition agreements to complex issues involving OSHA and zoning disputes.  I’ve had good successes at trial, and in one case earlier this year won a jury decision against a major firm that had brought its summer associates to court so they could see an expected easy win.  But just as often I’ve pursued negotiation or settlement talks if they stand to produce the best results for my clients.

JDB:  A successful litigation practice is impressive, but a market niche with “Karate Law” is particularly notable.  Could you describe your own interest in the martial arts?

Kaufman:  I have 40 years of martial arts experience, beginning as a 16-year old who wanted to learn how to defend himself.  In the decades since I’ve gone through a rigorous training process to secure a sixth-degree black belt in Mu Duk Kwon Tang Soo Do, and Fifth-degree black belts in Kendo and Iaido (which are two weapons-based martial arts).  I’ve also been trained in the Kodokan school of Judoka, or Judo, and operated my own martial arts school for 10 years.  I believe that there’s a direct relationship between the ritualized, carefully crafted combat of the martial arts and litigation.  They have the same intensity of training and preparation, the same focus on your opponent’s tactics, the same requirement to see through feints and diversions in order to win.  In addition to using martial arts for physical release from tension and stress, I’ve learned to be a more effective litigator from them.

JDB:  How did you move from a martial arts practitioner to a martial arts lawyer?

Kaufman:  It goes back to the spring of 2002.   I was visiting a martial arts tournament promoted by a friend who knew me only as a martial artist, and I mentioned that I was a lawyer.   Within a few hours several athletes, school owners and promoters approached me and asked for guidance on issues of interest to them - such as contract law for the promotion of tournaments and athletes, insurance and liability concerns, the negotiation and drafting of releases, and the law of self-defense. Within a few weeks, based on these inquiries, my firm had been consulted or retained by four martial arts schools, three martial arts promoters and several athletes to represent them in one legal matter or another.  It was clear to me that no other attorney or law firm in the country had my background of martial arts experience and legal training.

JDB:  How have you built on this initial interest from the martial arts community?

Kaufman:  A key step was to create within my firm a Martial Arts Law Center that has its own web site, www.karatelaw.com, complete with a general glossary of martial arts terms and links to martial arts related sites.  Because no one else is doing this type of work I built up a nationwide litigation practice involving issues such as defamation and intentional/negligent interference with contract claims, and insurance and liability coverage disputes over injuries to students or other participants in tournaments and classes.  I’ve also appeared as an expert witness in martial-arts-related cases and have given a number of presentations on contract law, legal liability, and other issues of interest to martial arts organizations, promoters, and the owners and operators of martial arts schools and trade associations. In 2003 the Martial Arts Law Center was profiled on ABANet, and that was another major boost to my visibility.

JDB:  How has the martial arts practice fit in with the rest of your litigation activity? 

Kaufman:  I should note that most of my karate law work is done pro bono. That includes a new challenge that I undertook a year ago:  serving as Chair of the Potomac Valley Chapter for Jujitsu of the U.S. Amateur Athletic Union, in order to build up what had become a dormant interest in the sport.  However, my regular business and commercial clients are fascinated by the idea of the karate law practice, and it has been a major marketing tool for me in that regard.

JDB:  Few attorneys are able to combine their personal and professional interests the way that you have with the karate law practice.  How would you describe the role that this combination has had in your own career satisfaction.

Kaufman:  The martial arts are central to who I am.  I’m no longer an active participant in tournaments, but I work out for several hours several times each week - often with my daughters, who are also interested in the sport.  My 40 years of martial arts are inseparable from my approach to the courtroom.  They’ve given me self-discipline, mental focus and a way to release stress.  I think my martial arts training has also contributed to my aggressive approach to resolving clients’ legal concerns and my ability to draw information from hostile witnesses.  I don’t compartmentalize my life:  martial arts and the law are inseparable from my personal goals and interests and shape my ability to succeed against opponents that often are much larger firms.  I’m letting the karate law practice evolve naturally, and at some point it may play a bigger role for me.  But for now the unity of interests that I have in my practice is a source of great satisfaction.

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