Robert Wilson Esq. is the founder of Wilson Law Firm in Media, Pa., general counsel for ARMD Resource Group, and a frequent contributor to P&A. The magazine caught up with Wilson to learn more about his career, his path to the automotive industry, the future of the CFPB, and the pitfalls of free legal advice.
P&A: Where are you from, Bob?
Wilson: I’m from Philadelphia. I grew up in the Germantown section, which had some significance during the Revolutionary War. Some big losses on our side, actually, but who’s counting?
P&A: What were your career aspirations?
Wilson: I didn’t really have a defined idea in my younger years. I went to undergrad at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., where I entertained the idea of working in radio and television. I had a weekly show at the campus radio station. I’m dating myself a bit, but our main broadcast booth had two turntables, and the back room was stacked floor to ceiling with record albums. It was a one-man show, 9 to 12 on Thursday nights.
P&A: What did you play?
Wilson: We weren’t subject to playlists, so I would play whatever music I wanted. Sometimes rock ’n’ roll, sometimes funk, sometimes late jazz. The only proviso was that you had to make public announcements and you couldn’t say any of George Carlin’s seven dirty words.
P&A: How did you go from disc jockey to law school student?
Wilson: I had received an offer to do an internship at a television station, and it was a good opportunity, but I was committed to my housing situation and I had to turn it down. That’s when I thought I’d better change direction. I had taken a fascinating law course in high school. It was an overview of historical decisions with a focus on constitutional law, including a lot of First Amendment-type issues.
P&A: What exactly does it mean to practice constitutional law?
Wilson: Laws come from many sources. A new law could come from a federal or state regulation, for example, and it could come from the Constitution. Constitutional lawyers and scholars are focused on that slice of the legal pie.
P&A: Which law school did you attend?
Wilson: I attended law school at Temple University, back home in Philadelphia.
P&A: Any memorable experiences?
Wilson: Not so much. Law school is a difficult process. The first year, you’re in shock. I remember trying to wrap my head around the idea that my entire grade depended on the final. Blow one question on a three-question final and you’re toast. And you’re introduced to the Socratic method, in which the teacher engages you in front of the class. It’s a bit of a change from the traditional approach to teaching. You can’t allow yourself to be intimidated.
In your second year, they pile on the work, and in the third year, you start looking for a job. There are a series of challenges along the way. They teach you a certain type of analytical thinking. It bleeds over into other areas of life. Whatever the situation, you find yourself asking, “What’s the issue, what law applies, and what’s the solution?”
P&A: I asked Aaron Lunt whether he is bothered by people asking for legal advice in social situations. He said he is more bothered by the fact that he often doesn’t have an answer.
Wilson: No man can be the master of everything. A lot of attorneys are familiar with a recent case in which a lawyer, at a party, was asked for advice. The person relied on it, took a loss, and sued. The lawyer said, “Look, we had no fee agreement, no understanding.” And the judge said, “When you give legal advice, you have to believe people will follow it.” So the lesson there is, when you’re in a social situation, limit your conversational topics to football.
P&A: How did you choose which type of law to practice?
Wilson: My first job out of law school was clerking for a homicide judge. I then practiced a fair amount of homicide and matrimonial law, and I became convinced the two go hand-in-hand. Working in the criminal realm, I learned you either become a district attorney or a defense attorney, and it seemed like the only defendants who could afford their own attorney were involved in drugs or organized crime. That was not an area I wanted to be in, so I jumped the fence to the civil side, and I haven’t looked back.
P&A: What was your first job on the civil side?
Wilson: I worked at a plaintiffs’ personal injury and medical malpractice firm. We handled some memorable cases. We brought a number of motorcycle helmet defect lawsuits and some cases that involved diethylstilbestrol, also known as DES, a synthetic form of estrogen that was linked to a specific type of cancer.
P&A: How did you break into the auto industry?
Wilson: I started working in consumer finance about 25 years ago, and the two segments are very closely related. They are subject to many of the same regulations and watched by the same regulatory bodies. Since then, we have watched the explosion of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau onto the scene. It certainly makes for some interesting times. Everybody is focused on what’s coming next. The PHH case is going to be reargued soon, and that could give us another read on the constitutionality of the CFPB itself.
P&A: That case came out of the mortgage industry, correct?
Wilson: PHH is a mortgage company the CFPB went after and upon whom they eventually imposed a $100 million penalty. PHH stood up to the CFPB and appealed, and the appeals court judge found the CFPB’s single-director structure was unconstitutional. The next step is an en banc hearing, which is scheduled for April. Meanwhile, there has been a lot of talk swirling around our new president, who promised sweeping regulatory changes.
P&A: Has Trump specifically mentioned the CFPB?
Wilson: I don’t profess to follow everything politically, but he did say he was going to dismantle the Dodd-Frank Act, and the CFPB is essentially the child of Dodd-Frank. A lot of people are hoping — secretly or not — that the CFPB will be dismantled.
I personally don’t think that is going to happen. There is certainly a possibility it could be scaled back, but it’s not going away. And don’t forget, the regulatory landscape is not solely composed of the CFPB. A number of agencies have oversight, and all those other entities, including state attorneys general and consumer groups, will still be there.
P&A: What is your day-to-day workload like?
Wilson: It varies, of course. I do a lot of work in the financial sector. I also have a regular commercial litigation practice, and I handle general civil matters and compliance issues in the consumer finance space. And I have been working with ARMD Resource Group, which is coming to market with a compliance management system for the automotive space.
P&A: How did you end up writing for the magazine?
Wilson: I met the publisher, David Gesualdo, through a mutual friend. We had some discussions and one thing led to another. I hope the articles have been helpful. A good teacher can make a complicated subject easy enough to understand. A teacher with less skill will hit you over the head with big words and concepts and fail to convey the lesson. I want to teach in a more efficient fashion, and I think that’s something that ARMD looks to do as well.
P&A: Why is it important that agents and product providers stay current on compliance matters?
Wilson: Because for dealers, the No. 1 goal is to sell cars. They need good advice and a compliance management system that automates the process and makes repeatable, consistent performance possible. There was an ad campaign for Staples that featured a big, red “Easy” button. I think that’s what ARMD represents. It’s an “Easy” button for compliance procedures.
P&A: I agree that dealers are focused on sales, but wouldn’t you agree that all the recent enforcement actions have compelled them to take compliance more seriously?
Wilson: I think that’s absolutely correct. There’s an old saying for which the first part is “Money talks.” We’ll skip the second part. But, yes, when there is a massive monetary penalty for disparate impact or unfair, deceptive or abusive practices — whether it’s coming from the CFPB or an enterprising class action attorney — that gets the dealer’s attention.
But as a practical matter, when the dealer makes fair treatment of every customer a priority, that makes perfect sense. It’s a way of generating the type of loyal customer everyone is looking for.
P&A: Every F&I trainer I know says transparency sells.
Wilson: They’re right. It’s all about relationships. Any good relationship has trust. If you’re not treating people fairly, you’re never going to earn their trust. When you have policies and training in place, again, you can go out and do what you’re best at, which is selling cars.
P&A: And F&I products.
P&A: What do you do in your spare time?
Wilson: Well, I spend most of my spare time with the family. We like to travel. I’m an avid bicyclist and, once in a while, I try to find the fairway. It’s a work in progress. I came to the game late in life. But there is something pretty rewarding about being outside, spending quality time with clients, and discussing these topics over 18 holes.