with Bob Ackerman
of Magna Legal Services
Co-Founder & Chairman of the Board
Magna Legal Services
Bob Ackerman: Postcard from Brooklyn
A postcard from Brooklyn doesn’t really make sense. It’s not exactly an idyllic seaside resort. Indeed, as Magna co-founder Bob Ackerman recounts, he ran on some mean streets growing up there in the 1950s and ‘60s. But those mean streets taught him plenty of life lessons that have helped him navigate the buttoned up legal world and some of the biggest court cases in the country.
Tell me about growing up in Brooklyn.
I was born in Brooklyn, and it was the greatest place to grow up.
But don’t get me wrong. Life was not simple. I grew up in a housing project and there was danger all around.
There was a schoolyard outside our house and there were hundreds of people of all ages in that schoolyard at all times. You could play stickball, basketball, punchball, kickball or any other game anyone can come up with or you make up.
Occasionally, you would be drafted into boxing matches on the handball courts. If you fought a guy and did well, you would then fight another guy. And so on. It taught you to be tough and it gave you confidence. But you always tried to stay out of trouble. You knew when to run.
How did you know when to run?
When someone said “cops,” you ran.
You say it was like living in the movie Goodfellas.
You learned to move on and stay out of trouble. It gave you chutzpah and the ability to strategize.
Everyone knew everybody. It was difficult to hide from anything. Trouble had a unique way of finding you. But you did the best you could to avoid it.
And lots of characters.
I remember this one guy, “Birdie,” who got arrested and we all went to see him appear in court. The judge told him: “I’ll give you a $100 fine or 100 days.” Birdie said, “I’ll take the time.” We all cheered and were thrown out of the courtroom.
But you also have a Brooklyn love story.
We used to hang out at the “corner” and that was where all the action occurred, which included egging people walking down the street. One of those people turned out to be my future wife. She was walking down the street, we hit her with an egg, and she came up to the corner screaming and wanting to know who did it.
All of my “good friends” pointed the finger at me. She cursed me. I chased her. She was totally fearless. It was love at first sight. That was Brooklyn.
About a week later I saw her at a party. We spoke and four children, 13 grandchildren and 56 years later we’ve never been apart.
Your love life kind of got delayed while you took care of some business.
I was around 17 when I met my wife. Every night there was a bad story about who got shot, who got hooked on drugs. My dad finally said, “You are going to the Marine Corps.”
At 17 I stopped running the streets of Brooklyn, and I ran the streets of the U.S. Marine Corps. And that was a whole new level.
After the Marines, things turned around as far as your love life and your professional career.
I got married after the Marines and my sister went to a court reporting school in New York. Her Steno machine was gathering dust and my dad said I should give court reporting a try. I gave it a shot and eventually it turned into everything that we have today: We’ve got a huge number of major cases and a lot of our work is repeat clients. Magna is one of the largest court reporting companies in the country. We also provide jury consulting, trial presentation, record retrieval, and interpretation.
Tell me a crazy story about being a court reporter in Philadelphia.
These were wild times in Philadelphia! I was working as a court reporter during the sentencing of the guy that was found guilty of starting the prison riots in Philadelphia. The guy gets in front of the judge and says the judge is not honorable enough to sentence him. So, the judge continues to argue with him.
So, I’m thinking, if this guy gets mad enough, he is going to jump over me to get to the judge and all I’ve got is my court reporting tripod. Security guards are behind the curtains in the courtroom, but they have machine guns more for an outside group storming the courtroom and I figure I’ll be caught in the line of fire and killed if they start shooting.
Sure enough, the guy gets angry and flies over my table towards the bench. Two old court officers are wrestling with him and trying to hold the guy back. More security comes and they grab him.
Then what happened?
He got sentenced.
A private equity company purchased a majority stake in Magna about four years ago, but the co-founders are still active in the business and in some ways, it retains that family business feel.
Pete Hecht is a Magna co-founder and my son-in-law. Pete’s dad and I used to play basketball before he was born. I actually first met Pete when he was 2 years old, but I say that I knew Pete before he knew me.
Pete had another job before Magna, and he was doing well at it. But I wanted to make sure Pete worked harder – and made more money.
Pete took over sales at Magna and built up the company from low to high revenue and made it exciting. When Pete gets into something, he gets into it. He’s like a Brooklyn guy: We don’t do anything halfway.
For example, Magna now puts together conferences. How did that come to be? Well, Pete mentioned that we were going to all these conferences but not getting anything out of them. He said we should have our own conferences.
You’re talking about Magna’s “Chopped” mock trial conferences that I think everyone would agree are fun and innovative compared to the normal legal seminar.
It’s like those cooking shows, where they have a process of elimination regarding recipes but at our seminars, the presentation involves a theoretical legal case and our clients (the attorneys) argue it. The events include obnoxious noises to distract the attorneys and last-minute challenges like shortening their presentations from eight to five minutes. But the attorneys are good. They think on their feet. I always say it’s like a Broadway play.
To be honest, when Pete came to you with this idea, you thought it was kind of half-baked (pun intended).
I said to Pete, “Are you crazy? You’re going to cut our clients out of the seminar like game show contestants and send them home?”
Pete said, “Trust me.”
And he was right. People now know about Chopped and want to be involved.
What makes you most proud about Magna?
The four co-founders, Pete Hecht, Mark Calzaretta, and my son, Jonathan Ackerman, have stayed together and maintained a trust that is unyielding both on business and personal levels. It’s that trust that has kept us growing and together. I love those guys!
As Magna has grown, how do you maintain quality control?
There are C-level executives, managers, etc. and the four co-founders are extremely on top of it through the separate areas we oversee. Pete Hecht runs weekly meetings with the managers to discuss noteworthy events from the past week and anything moving forward.
However, I cannot say enough about our employees, most of which have been with us more than 20 years. They are dedicated, loyal, trustworthy and proud of their products.
The company is also service-oriented, and we are all about being good to our clients. We are a sales-oriented business. If there is a problem, our salespeople get involved and straighten it out and probably end up getting more business out of it by solving the problem.
What’s next for you?
No big plans. This has been my life. No plans to go anywhere else at this point. Just watch the business grow.
Do you have any hobbies?
Golf. And I admire most of the big names in the game, particularly Tiger Woods.
Is there anything you regret?
Yes. We never put our business on reality television. It would probably still be running.
Do you ever go back to Brooklyn?
Not much but when I do, I see that it is a truly different world. I’ve seen it go from people living in the streets to one of the most expensive properties in America.