When Ari Tenzer told colleagues, clients and friends he was leaving one of the premiere — and highest paying — law firms in South Florida to hang his own shingle at the tail end of a recession, the reaction ranged from surprise to disbelief.

“Most people were very surprised,” said Tenzer, 34. “The market wasn’t great. There really wasn’t a clear path to what I was doing. In their defense, I didn’t really know where I was headed. Everyone said I was brave and admirable, but behind closed doors I’m sure they thought I was crazy.”

That was two years ago. Now, Tenzer has a partner, a secretary, a host of clients and some of the fanciest office space in town. His downtown Miami offices, featuring a pool table, pricey espresso machine, tropical fish tank and sleek furniture, resemble a South Beach club more than a downtown law firm.

For Tenzer, the decision to leave White & Case was not gutsy or angst-filled but a natural move for the son of Canadian entrepreneurs who speaks six languages.

“We started at the right time,” said Tenzer, who was joined in his new firm by fellow White & Case associate Juan Delgado. “We’re young ambitious guys who are hard-working and were not married and had no children. White & Case taught me how to be a good lawyer, but I wanted to be more hands-on and have more flexibility with regard to how much I charge, what clients I represent, what technology I use. And, I wanted to work in an office that was a reflection of who I am.”

The Tenzer and Delgado partners are part of a new wave of Big Law attorneys fleeing large law firms to start their own shops.

While litigation boutiques have been popping up for years, transactional lawyers, appellate attorneys, and bankruptcy and reorganization specialists are now going out on their own — a bit of a rarity in past decades.

Attorneys who have left large South Florida firms to strike out on their own in recent years include Elliot Kula, former appellate head at Greenberg Traurig; Linda Leali, former senior associate at White & Case; Jason Alderman, a former partner at Carlton Fields; Pedro “Tony” Alvarez of White & Case; Alejandro Arreita, a partner at Stearns Weaver Miller Weissler Alhadeff; and Jim Leshaw, former chair of Greenberg’s Florida bankruptcy and restructuring group.

Others include Adam Schachter and Gerald Greenberg from Stearns Weaver; Paul Savage, formerly with Greenberg Traurig; Gus Lamelas, formerly with Greenberg Traurig, DLA Piper and Squire Sanders; Kubs Lalchandani, formerly with White & Case; Jeff Bast, a partner at Hunton & Williams and Holland & Knight; and Tony Golden and Tania Soleto of Shutts & Bowen.

Life After Big Law

What is behind the recent Big Law exodus?

Legal experts say more attorneys are rejecting a career in Big Law for life as a solo or small-firm attorney. Their reasons include frustration with their inability to make partner, a desire for flexibility with fees and clients, a yen for more family time and an entrepreneurial spirit.

“The reality is there are fewer opportunities for associates to make partner today than there were 10 years ago, and that’s because of the change in the marketplace in the new normal,” said Bill Brennan, a law firm consultant with Philadelphia-based Brennan Strategy. “They may be reading the tea leaves and deciding they may as well go off on their own. Only 60 to 70 percent of associates are going to make partner these days.”

The good news, according to Brennan, is that nearly all of those breaking away from big firms find success and happiness running their own firms.

“There’s a period of intense anxiety but it’s extremely rewarding,” he said. “They say. ‘I wish I did it sooner.’ They love it.”

In some cases, of course, lawyers are forced to hang their own shingle after being shown the door or having their pay cut for economic reasons.

But nearly a dozen Big Law refugees interviewed by the Daily Business Review said they left the mother ship of their own volition. Not one expressed regret at leaving a big firm to start his or her own shop.

Certainly not Kubs Lalchandani. While he enjoyed working as of counsel for Jones Day and White & Case, the Cornell University law graduate has never been happier than he is now, running his own firm.

Lalchandani, 36, whose family runs successful New York City bars, said he has “an entrepreneurial spirit, being Indian.” He was formerly a banker and financial analyst.

“I think if I had stayed at White & Case I would have made partner,” he said. “But I’m very into technology. Starting my own law firm geared to technology firms was something I was very attracted to. I wanted to run something myself.”

Lalchandani persuaded fellow White & Case lawyer Danny Simon to join him in Lalchandani Simon in 2010. Since then, the Miami firm has moved four times, expanding each time. After starting with a 250-square-foot temporary office, they now occupy permanent space with six offices and a lounge.

Lalchandani’s strategy was to attend every technology-related event in Miami to connect with the burgeoning Miami high-tech movement. The firm will be a key host of the first Miami Legal Hack-a-Thon in May, which will put lawyers and tech developers in the same room to brainstorm. Lalchandani also travels the country giving speeches on the legal pitfalls of social media.

After three months of “losing hair,” the two partners said they are now approaching their White & Case salaries and looking to hire three more lawyers.

Steakhouse Strategy

Other Big Law refugees are Pedro “Tony” Alvarez, Alejandro Arrieta and Albert Diaz-Silveira. Formerly with White & Case and Stearns Weaver, the lawyers teamed up in July to form Alvarez Arrieta & Diaz-Silveira in downtown Miami.

The firm bills itself as a “boutique business and corporate law firm” targeting foreign and domestic companies, entrepreneurs and investors. They play up their “50 years combined law firm experience” in brochures and on their website.

Like other former large firm lawyers, Arrieta stressed his group’s desire to have a closer relationship with clients, no billable hour requirement, lower rates and less paper pushing.

The Alvarez Arrieta founders said they hatched the idea to start a firm over lunch at Morton’s Steakhouse in Coral Gables. The friends had practiced together for 5½ years.

With little fanfare, the firm was launched in temporary space. They used savings to help fund the venture, but secured a line of credit line from City National Bank, thanks to an extensive business plan. “Our banker said it was the most well-prepared business plan he had ever seen,” Arrieta said.

Arrieta’s biggest challenge wasn’t finding clients but handling administrative matters — securing IT services, staff, malpractice insurance, furniture and art work and office space.

“Coming from a big firm, you’re spoiled from the administrative end,” Arrieta said. “Juggling administrative functions has been a challenge. Luckily we have some back office help, and it’s becoming less and less burdensome.”

The firm has a 3,500-square-foot office, an associate, an of counsel attorney, an office manager, a receptionist and a bookkeeper. Arrieta said he would eventually like to grow the operation to include 20 to 25 attorneys.

“We’re taking it back to how the legal profession was years ago,” Arrieta said. “It’s much more of a personalized, relationship-based practice, whereas a lot of times, given the business model of Big Law, it’s more of a project by project practice approach. Ours is a more holistic approach.”

‘Doesn’t Happen Overnight’

Dan Gelber, a former state senator and representative, and two Stearns Weaver partners, Gerald Greenberg and Adam Schachter, launched Gelber Schachter & Greenberg last year.

The three partners said they wanted to practice in a smaller work setting and handle a wider variety of cases. They had discussed their dream for awhile, but “it doesn’t happen overnight,” Schachter said.

With three children each, the partners said it wasn’t a decision without risk. But they launched Gelber Schachter & Greenberg, a boutique firm focused on complex civil litigation and white-collar matters.

Like many other new firms, finding clients was not a problem. “They come from the most unexpected places,” Greenberg noted. “Referrals from attorneys we know well, some come from attorneys we have had passing relationships with. Fortunately, there has been a steady flow of clients.”

The challenges have been in the details, like securing their website domain name, gsgpa.com. It was held by an older Miami lawyer who wasn’t using it. Gelber and Schachter convinced him to make the name available to them.

The former Stearns partners said they have no regrets about making the move, and frequently field calls from other large firm attorneys seeking advice on how to make a similar jump.

“I tell them six months away is the best time to make a move,” Greenberg said. “But it’s just a matter of eventually having the confidence to make the leap.”

Spousal Support

For former Carlton Fields partner Jason Alderman and former White & Case senior associate Linda Leali, the decision to start a firm was easier because both have spouses with good jobs with benefits. Alderman’s wife, a former Carlton Fields partner, is general counsel for Turnberry Country Club. Leali’s spouse works for the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

“That gave me a feeling of security that I can fail,” Alderman said. “It starts with the support of your spouse. The real heroes out there are the people who have stay-at-home wives who do this.”

Alderman said he was looking for more money and flexibility. Leali, a 12-year White & Case associate, was far from making partner at the firm, where only one woman has made partner in Miami. She and Alderman, law school buddies, discussed opening a firm for years before finally making the leap. Based in Miami Shores, Alderman Leali has one associate and one office staffer.

“I wanted to build something rather than leasing my life out to someone else,” Alderman said. “Before, I could work on a trial for three weeks and win and get a pat on the back. Now, I get $100,000 for it.”

Alderman says he is now making “close to seven figures.”

“If you have a certain pedigree and work hard, work will come to you,” he said. “There is a litigation boom right now.”

Possibly more important, though, is the flexibility he now has. Alderman said he can leave the office every Friday at 3 p.m. to take his daughter out for ice cream or pony rides and take off six weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.

Leali is hoping to use her bankruptcy experience to secure receivership appointments.

Thinking of themselves as business people first and lawyers second was a big short for the pair.

Importance Of Collaboration

For Elliot Kula, the former Greenberg Traurig appellate head, a key to starting Kula & Samson two years ago with former Greenberg associate Daniel Samson was collaborating with other Big Law dropouts.

“We started to see high-caliber litigators starting up their own shops,” Kula said. “We realized these folks don’t have appellate lawyers. We thought, ‘We could all collaborate together.’ ”

At GT, Kula found himself having to turn away clients due to conflicts and rates.

Another GT appellate attorney, former Florida Supreme court chief justice Arthur England, recently joined the Aventura firm.

Despite forming his own firm, Kula recognizes there will always be a place for big law operations.

“If you are the VP of legal affairs for Yahoo, as smart as I am, they shouldn’t use me,” he said. “That way, if the case goes south, they can say, ‘I went to the No. 1 firm in the universe, don’t blame me.’ There will always be a place for Big Law.”