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From posh digs atop the 34-story Miami Center, the men and women of Ferrell Schultz Carter Zumpano & Fertel see a world that is quite possibly the envy of their peers. We’re not referring to the spectacular view of Biscayne Bay and downtown, though a visitor could easily spend an afternoon transfixed by the panorama outside any associate’s window. The 18-lawyer firm is at the beck and call of well-heeled clients from around the U.S. and abroad, serving the likes of onetime corporate raider Victor Posner, National Enquirer publishing heir Paul Pope and an array of international business figures. “A perpetual boom,” says partner Francis Carter with a chuckle. “What the firm is about is client service at the highest level — meeting their needs, whatever they are.” The firm will help a client buy a yacht, a corporate jet or a piece of prime property. While consulting with their lawyers, clients can lunch or sup in the firm dining room, choosing from a menu prepared by the in-house gourmet chef. They can confer in private meeting rooms bedecked with fancy art and discuss matters with the knowledge that the firm’s security team will help keep their business in proper perspective — meaning private. What does it all cost? “Ummmm — quite a lot,” Carter muses. “I don’t know if I want to say.” Indeed, says David Bates, a partner at Gunster Yoakley in West Palm Beach, “it’s a wonderful time to be a lawyer.” Adds Charles C. Papy III, managing partner in Miami for Duane Morris & Heckscher: “The great news in town is that we’re all having fun.” Throughout 1999, the fun extended from the acquisition-happy powerhouses to small and mid-sized firms seeking to carve out specialties for themselves. Many experienced a roller-coaster year filled with takeovers, talent raids and salary wars for top-flight veterans or budding associates fresh out of law school. By July 4, Miami’s Greenberg Traurig was as hot as a firecracker. During the 1990s, the firm had opened 10 new offices and had tripled its roster of lawyers. And, on that day, it laid the groundwork to add yet another office and about 30 attorneys who had just declared independence from O’Connor Cavanaugh, a 130-lawyer firm in Phoenix that was closing its doors. As bottle rockets and cherry bombs went off around the nation, a different kind of fireworks were igniting for Jeff Verbin, who was negotiating for the Phoenix group. “I got real charged up about the firm,” Verbin recalls. “I haven’t had that feeling that many times in my life — my wife, and Greenberg Traurig.” The deal began when, a few days after the National Law Journal published a story headlined “How Greenberg Got So Big,” Verbin called Cesar Alvarez, Greenberg’s president and chief executive. Would Greenberg be interested in the 30 top-notch corporate attorneys? Interested? And how. After a Greenberg partner described Verbin’s firm as one of Arizona’s true blue-chippers, Alvarez picked up his phone. “I called back and said, ‘I forgot to give you my fax number’” On July Fourth, Verbin met with Alvarez and Greenberg founder Larry Hoffman, and, in a few weeks, Greenberg had its 15th office. For Verbin, it had been love at first sight. He liked Greenberg’s entrepreneurial style, the way top managers would take the leash off attorneys and let them run loose with their practices. He liked the way the firm was not bogged down by structure or bureaucracy; if Alvarez wanted to get engaged, by gosh, he didn’t have to ask his parents for permission first. “I just knew in my mind. This was it,” Verbin said. Greenberg Traurig, which has grown from 182 lawyers in 1993 to 630 today, is not the only South Florida law firm that pitched serious woo in the last few years. Holland & Knight, Florida’s largest firm, has exploded to 950 attorneys in 22 offices, adding two 80-lawyer shops in the last three years alone. Akerman Senterfitt, one of the fastest-growing law firms in the nation, has more than doubled in size the last five years, from 130 lawyers to 275. Shutts & Bowen has grown from 90 lawyers in five offices in 1995 to 140 lawyers in seven offices, including Amsterdam and London. Their goal is to double in size within the next decade. Gunster Yoakley also has 140 attorneys on staff, up from 85 five years ago. And all the new marriages have coincided with, predictably, a boom in the legal market as a whole. South Florida firms are developing statewide reputations, adding offices up and down the Interstate, while statewide firms have gone national. And national firms have, well, you get the picture. Greenberg Traurig’s revenues this year will top $400 million, and several firms are not far behind. With an abundance of cash but a shortfall of talent in key areas, firms continued to hunt for laterals among their competitors’ preserves. In April 1999, Stearns Weaver Miller Weissler Alhadeff & Sitterson lured David C. Pollack, who was the chairman of Stroock & Stroock & Lavan’s litigation department in Miami. In January, Greenberg brought in four new shareholders from Steel Hector & Davis, including first amendment heavyweight Martin Reeder. In March, Akerman Senterfitt hired David C. Goodwin, who was an of-counsel litigator with Gunster Yoakley. And, for the lucky ones, such wealth is, indeed, trickling down. Salaries for first-year associates have eclipsed $105,000 at a handful of South Florida’s richest firms. In the heat of battle for talent, firms are adding incentive bonuses and helping young associates invest toward equity status down the road. For law students, it remains a seller’s market. According to the National Association for Law Placement, the employment of law graduates topped 90 percent for the Class of 1999 — for the first time since 1990. CONCENTRATION Reflecting a nationwide trend toward the consolidation of market shares in fewer and fewer hands, the business of law has become more concentrated in recent years. In its annual forecast for law firms, New Jersey-based consulting firm Hildebrandt International called such consolidation “the most dramatic development of the past few years in the legal industry.” As evidence of the trend, Hildebrandt noted that, in 1994, the firm recorded only four mergers of domestic law firms. Five years later, the number of mergers jumped to 60. Greenberg Traurig’s Alvarez has long predicted the contraction of South Florida’s legal market. In 1998, he notes, a year which saw great prosperity in the business of law, law firms with 200 or fewer lawyers shrunk in size by 4 percent. The same year, law firms with 300 or more lawyers grew by an average of almost 10 percent. “People generally make market decisions at the end of the day,” said Alvarez. “Brand names in the industry garner a higher hourly rate, because names are perceived as adding value to the client.” Large national law firms with young Miami offices continued to beef up, as well. Leading the pack is White & Case, a 100-year-old firm that is one of the nation’s largest with about 1,100 attorneys in 26 countries. White & Case planted its flag in Miami in January 1995, with 27 attorneys. Earlier this year, White & Case acquired the well-regarded Halsey & Burns, a four-lawyer environmental law boutique, bringing the office’s total to 57. “We need to add a little more to have critical mass in certain areas,” executive partner Chuck Kline said. “I would foresee continued growth probably over the next three or four years.” When Kline looks in his rear-view mirror, though, he’s likely to see Marty Steinberg and Papy, the managing partners in Miami for Hunton & Williams and Duane Morris & Heckscher, respectively. Hunton, another centenarian firm which employs 700 lawyers in 15 offices worldwide, opened its shop in Miami four years ago, with Steinberg, a defector from Holland & Knight, at its helm. Today, 22 lawyers have desks at the Miami office, and Steinberg expects that number to increase. “The firm has given us no objective,” Steinberg said. “Basically, they told us to try to recruit the best lawyers we can for every position in every practice area, until we can create a full-service firm in Miami.” Duane Morris, based in Philadelphia, opened its doors in Miami in January 1999, when Papy bolted as head of Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott’s Miami office. The office has grown from five lawyers just a year ago to 18 now, by luring away well-established partners from other Miami-area practices, such as Zack Kosnitzky’s Pat Fletcher, a real estate attorney who took three associates with her. Other silk stocking firms have experienced more modest growth, such as Ruden McClosky Smith Schuster & Russell, which added about 20 lawyers last year and about 40 since 1995; Broad and Cassel, which went from 110 lawyers in 1995 to 150 today, and Stearns Weaver, which has grown from 65 lawyers a decade or so ago to 90 today. “Our philosophy,” says Stearns Weaver managing partner Jay Shapiro, “has never been to grow for growth’s sake.” SMALL IS GOOD Meanwhile, a number of well-positioned midsize firms have managed not only to survive but to thrive, despite the gloomy predictions of inevitable consolidation. Michael Kosnitzky, managing partner at 37-lawyer Zack Kosnitzky, says he is happy with the hand he holds, though he continues to lose some of his most prized attorneys to the frequent poaching of larger firms. To help keep the troops happy, management threw a “Just Because Party” for the entire staff at a downtown Miami hotel, complete with open bar. It’s not that name partners Kosnitzky and former Florida Bar president Stephen N. Zack haven’t been tempted to listen to recruiters. “I have had, personally, last year at least a dozen calls,” Kosnitzky says. “Steve Zack has had the same amount. We’ve done the meetings. We’ve flown to different cities. But we always come back to the same place. They’re not offering anything better than what we have here.” “We feel that being a niche player in a local market creates a more satisfying way of life for the principal partners here, and the people who want to join us,” Kosnitzky said. “It’s not our aspiration to be the biggest firm in town. We want to have the highest quality in town, and the best working environment. It all depends on what you want to be when you grow up.” Bilzin Sumberg Dunn Price & Axelrod, which employed 15 lawyers five years ago, has bulked up to 55. Managing partner John C. Sumberg has this to say to the Chicken Littles who see the sky falling on small and midsize firms without a specialized niche: “I just don’t believe it. Our size has definitely not been a negative.” Sumberg raised eyebrows throughout the region last spring when he announced that his firm would match the lavish salary hikes by a handful of national firms that many in South Florida considered downright gaudy. He offers no apologies. “We want the most-qualified people to do what we think is the most-interesting, cutting-edge work,” Sumberg says. James L. Berger, managing partner at Berger Davis & Singerman, does not see himself as a dinosaur, either. A full-service firm with strengths in real estate, commercial litigation and bankruptcy, Berger’s firm added 10 lawyers last year, bringing the Fort Lauderdale-based firm’s total to 40. Berger believes the consolidation of legal services among a handful of mega-firms may actually create opportunities for a firm his size. How? Some large-firm clients, Berger says, remember fondly the old days when their concerns carried great weight with their lawyers. Now, some may feel left out as their counsel gets too big. “They still want to be king,” says Berger. “But it’s harder to do as firms get larger.” “Astronomical growth,” Berger says, “is creating a void in the market that middle-sized firms are filling. It’s a natural marketplace progression.” LOTS OF NEEDS So, what has fueled the remarkable growth and maturation of South Florida’s legal market? Paul Courtnell, who heads the real estate department for Gunster Yoakley, chuckles a bit when he answers that question. “It’s the economy, stupid,” he says, making it clear the insult was directed at no one in particular. “The business of South Florida years ago was real estate and tourism,” says Courtnell. “It was not a diverse economy. Now we’re dealing with a very diverse economy which has a lot of legal needs.” Says Charles Schuette, chairman and chief executive of Akerman Senterfitt: “We’re long past our image as a tourist economy with a relaxed atmosphere. We compete with New York, and attract a lot of lawyers from New York and Washington.” To keep pace with the robust U.S. economy, many firms have found it necessary to strengthen their practice areas in mergers and acquisitions, initial public offerings, corporate securities, real estate, land use, and intellectual property. Fort Lauderdale-based Ruden McClosky even has developed a successful white-collar criminal defense practice, for those clients who may have found the strong economy a little too tempting. Not surprisingly, bankruptcy departments have remained somewhat stagnant. The maturation of industry in South Florida has pushed law firms to expand their practice. Many firms, such as Broward’s Becker & Poliakoff and Gunster Yoakley, have developed growing practices in e-commerce and intellectual property, for example, to keep pace with the area’s emergence as a player in the virtual business world. SOME DISAPPEARED And while 1999 was a good year for most of South Florida’s legal profession, some notable others were left behind. Keith/Mack, one of Miami’s oldest and most venerable law firms, closed its doors in May after failing in its attempt to find a suitor. Established in 1947, Keith/Mack flourished in the 1980s as the general counsel for Flagler Federal Savings & Loan. But when the thrift went belly-up in 1992, it nearly took the law firm with it. Keith/Mack struggled the next eight years to carve a new niche for itself as a small, 20-lawyer firm. Though some of Keith/Mack’s practice areas brought in attractive revenues, the firm became gravely ill in 1999 when several prominent partners, and their associates, left for greener pastures. Eventually, the firm’s lawyers scattered. Coll Davidson, another well-respected, but small, Miami firm had better luck finding an angel, though it lost its name in the process. It suffered key defections this year when partners Vance Salter and Barry Davidson jumped ship to work for the Miami office of Richmond, Va.’s Hunton & Williams. A year ago, former name partner Francis Carter had left to become a partner at Miami’s Ferrell and Fertel, now Ferrell Schultz Carter Zumpano & Fertel. But on June 1, the remains of Coll Davidson — which included six partners and six associates — merged with and took the name of the 18-lawyer Miami outpost of Shook Hardy & Bacon, a 460-lawyer Kansas City firm best known for its aggressive advocacy of the tobacco industry. Two years ago, Shook Hardy’s Miami office opened with a core of lawyers formerly of Anderson Moss Sherouse & Petros, which had a long-standing relationship with Coll Davidson. “In the midst of plenty, we see some firms not making it, closing their doors,” says Chuck Santangelo, director of Hildebrandt International’s Florida office. “They are not going to be able to compete effectively. And that’s not just a Florida phenomenon. It’s something that’s happening literally all over the country.” Adds Nova Southeastern University law professor Bob Jarvis: “The haves are getting richer, and the have-not lawyers are getting poorer. The gulf between the top strata and the rest of the legal profession is ever wider.”

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