David Robinson: A Tokyo-To-N.C. Connector
By Russell Rawlings
Nexsen Pruet lawyer David Robinson is uniquely qualified to serve for the next five years as the Honorary Consul for Japan in North Carolina. Japan has played an integral role in Robinson’s life; from his childhood growing up in Tokyo, to his college experience studying abroad at Sophia University, and now, his extensive personal and professional friendships with the Japanese community. To top it all off, Robinson says he always enjoys a good plant tour!
“Just give me a hard hat and let me walk around and see people making things, and it’s a great day,” says Robinson, whose appointment by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs became official March 30. He had been acting as the Honorary Consul designee since the beginning of the year, and had already organized several events prior to becoming official.
Robinson says he is especially pleased his five-year term coincides with the 70-year anniversary of the end of World War II this year, and ends with Japan’s hosting of the Olympics in Tokyo in 2020.
“This year is a particularly opportune time to reflect not only on the value of the economic relationship between Japan and North Carolina, but also on our larger geo-political relationship.” Robinson said. “For nations not getting along right now, here is a road map for a brighter future, based on shared values.
“Our business collaboration with Japan underpins what I believe is one of the most successful geopolitical relationships ever. It really is a model for the world, and my primary purpose this year is to celebrate this partnership by talking about how combatants can heal wounds and work together for a common good.”
Robinson, who just completed a second term as chair of the NCBA’s International Law & Practice Section, developed his global perspective at an early age.
“My father was with one of the ‘Big 8’ accounting firms and the headquarters for their operations in Asia was Tokyo,” Robinson said. “I spent seven formative years immersed in Japanese culture while meeting kids from all over the world. It was a tremendous opportunity provided by my parents. I also returned ‘home’ to Tokyo for my junior year of college and have been to Japan nearly every year since, sometimes with kids in tow.”
A graduate of Georgetown University and George Washington University School of Law, Robinson came to Raleigh to work for the firm Graham & James – at the time, the world’s largest law firm.
“It was 1990 and Japan was still buying up trophy properties throughout the U.S.,” Robinson said. “Graham & James had a large Asia practice, and invited me to interview at their Raleigh office. I drove here from D.C. over Christmas break, and I got a parking ticket during the interview.
“That parking ticket cost me, I think, six bucks at a time when legal parking in D.C. was $35, so I figured I should research this place further and found out I loved it! I tell people I would move almost anywhere in the world for adventure, but for quality of life -- there’s no comparison.”
Robinson later worked for Moore & Van Allen, and then practiced on his own for 10 years. Five years ago he joined Nexsen Pruet, where he serves as Special Counsel with its Labor and Employment and International Law groups.
“I went out to lunch with a Nexsen lawyer to talk about the potential intersection of hog farming and Republican politics,” Robinson said. Sold on the entrepreneurial nature of the firm, “a month later I was a Nexsen lawyer.” The firm, Robinson added, is very supportive of his appointment as Honorary Consul.
“Although facilitating foreign investment in North Carolina can be exciting, I particularly enjoy helping North Carolina companies export their products, especially to Asian markets.”
Robinson says the key is connecting N.C. companies with export resources both in the United States and in the international marketplace.
“North Carolina products generally sell themselves,” Robinson said. “North Carolina’s annual trade with Japan is around US$5 billion. There are also 329 Japanese-owned companies in North Carolina, representing over US$5 billion in Japanese investment in this state. All told, over 23,000 North Carolinians work for Japanese-owned companies and another 20,000 or so North Carolina jobs are connected to our exports to Japan.”
“Some of our state’s best ‘promoters’ have, over the years, been merely temporary visitors here. Any foreign relocation can be stressful, of course, but it is nice to see Japanese nationals relax and integrate as they become accustomed to the welcoming nature of our ‘Southern Hospitality.’
“The golfing helps too, of course,” he smiles.
Robinson said he would like to see North Carolinians develop a greater appreciation for a broader spectrum of Japanese culture and custom, and vice versa. A little exposure can lead to greater understanding. To illustrate, he referenced anime, which is defined by Webster’s as “a style of animation originating in Japan that is characterized by stark colorful graphics depicting vibrant characters in action-filled plots often with fantastic or futuristic themes.”
“Anime is hugely popular right now,” Robinson said. “Fifteen thousand people recently attended an annual anime conference in Raleigh. Of that group of people, a significant number of them will get excited about Japan and will want to travel to Japan and to study the language.”
There is, of course, so much more to Japanese culture.
“In my New Year’s remarks to the Japanese community,” Robinson said, “I urged them to interact with North Carolinians at every opportunity, to share their experiences and to learn from North Carolinians while they are here.
“My greatest fear is that Japanese executives and their families will transfer here for a few years and only eat at Japanese restaurants. I want them to experience the breadth of offerings here. Any time we can get people to interact with each other on a personal level; those relationships will bear fruit without any other activity on my part.”
Robinson’s tenure as Honorary Consul is just the latest chapter in a career marked by community service and volunteer leadership. He currently serves as chair of the Wake County Board of Elections and as a member of the Wake Tech Community College Board of Trustees.
Robinson is also a fellow of both the Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina Healthy Community Institute and the Institute of Political Leadership, and a longtime volunteer with the American Red Cross. He coordinated training for more than 500 volunteers during the Hurricane Katrina relief effort, for which he was named an Outstanding Volunteer for 2005.
Last year Robinson was honored by the NCBA International Law & Practice Section as the recipient of its Dortch Award for Excellence in International Law.
This article originally appeared in the August 2015 edition of North Carolina Lawyer magazine, the flagship publication of the North Carolina Bar Association.