To say that Robert "Bobby" Preston has overcome personal challenges to emerge as one of New York City's more grounded and sensible divorce lawyers would be accurate - and it'd be a roaring understatement. Few professionals anywhere have managed to build a solid reputation so successfully, all without privileges or connections - and in the face of setbacks that would have derailed most careers, much less get one off the ground. More important for clients, his life experience - growing up in the Parkchester projects of the North Bronx, working his way through college and law school, building practices on Long Island and later Manhattan - has made him a better lawyer, superior in fact to many of the high-profile poseurs the profession seems to attract. "There are plenty of scoundrels in our line of work," says Preston. "For a long time I wondered if, to be any good at it, I had to be one too." Today his straightforward nature has made him something of a throwback. Yet his practice - he recently joined Greenspoon Marder as a key partner in its matrimonial law department - keeps attracting the range of clients that New York City is famous for.
Divorce law, and the law itself, was hardly pre-ordained for the young Preston. He grew up in the Parkchester section of the Bronx, near the E 177th Street IRT stop. His father was a printer by training, "a bartender by choice"; both his parents struggled with both mental and physical health issues all their lives. Thus, for the younger Preston, "I was a care-provider from an early age." For years young Preston worked to create a normal life for himself, which included playing and lifeguarding at the Castle Hill Beach Club, once in the shadow of the Whitestone Bridge. Though no natural student, he was diligent enough to gain admission to the Bronx High School of Science, where "I encountered a whole new world" of peers from Manhattan and Queens. Today Preston - his Jewish family has roots to England - remains closely connected to his old neighborhood. "A lot of people will say they are from The Bronx. But most of them left as young kids. We never left." When he enrolled, SUNY-Binghamton was "all kids from Long Island, less diverse really than high school. I loved college, but I felt a little out of place." While many SUNY students were attending "because their parents promised them a car if they went to a state school," Preston scrambled with student loans, determined to stay in school. He says he received his first "C" in a calculus course, which "changed my life - I decided right then to major in political science." He went straight to law school, amassing more debt, not sure where he was headed. But he took a corporate tax class that "I nailed right away - an almost accidental aptitude."
He was recruited by Coopers & Lybrand, at the time trying to snare legal work during the late-80s M&A boom. "I was OK at it but I felt out of place in the world of finance," After a year "they were shocked when I gave notice." He later worked for Suffolk trial lawyer Norman Weiss, and got his first taste of divorce cases. "It was all right up my alley. After all, I'd been a caregiver all my life." He earned his way up: In January 1996 the firm was renamed Weiss & Preston. From there Preston built practices, first a classic general practice and later a divorce firm on Long Island, partnered with Sondra K. Pardes, now a NY State Supreme Court Justice. But for many of those years, Preston, underneath a natural ambition, ran into mid-life struggles that his clients today so easily identify with. His own marriage crumbled, and he pushed himself to exhaustion. "By the late 90s things came home to roost." He stopped practicing for several months, put on weight, and dealt with "the Sunday blues seven days a week." Reflecting, he adds, "I was a good lawyer, but not as good a manager. I tried too hard, built too fast." Thus, "I needed to do some work: I got into therapy, started taking better care of myself, went to the gym." There were no epiphanies, just better habits - and they changed him. In 2004 Preston re-married his wife and mother of his three children 14 years to the day after the first time. In many respects he re-built both himself and his career, basing his practice in Manhattan and working as counsel to leading divorce lawyers Bill Herman and Pam Sloan. One key influence was Blank Rome's Stanford Lotwin, who "reminded me you didn't have to be a jerk to be an effective divorce lawyer. He was a gentleman, honest, forthright - and real." In late 2011 Preston launched his own practice, which included four lawyers and five paralegals and support staff. In 2016 he joined Greenspoon Marder. Says Preston: "Clients find us, stick with us and refer us - I'll take that." He continues to work "crazy hours" but has a better work/life balance than ever. "I'm finally at peace with what I do for a living now." A lifelong fan of the Knicks and the Yankees, Bobby Preston and his wife Dana live in Nassau County with their teen-age sons. Their oldest daughter attends NYU. As a postscript, Preston says his career is "just beginning," and he expects to practice - on his terms - for years to come: "There are not that many Haimish types in our business. But you know what? That's the only kind of lawyer I want to be."