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From its inception four years ago, Carlton Fields’ Miami office focused primarily on litigation. But last year, the firm began noticing that clients wanted a wider range of services. Around the same time, Cohen Berke Bernstein Brodie & Kondell, a 15-lawyer firm in Coconut Grove, Fla., that focused on commercial and transactional law, realized that it also needed to grow quickly to meet client demands. In early 2000, the two firms began a six-month courtship. Last August, they tied the knot. Before the merger, Carlton Fields’ client base consisted primarily of national corporations, many of them Fortune 500 companies. Cohen Burke tended to represent local businesses. “The overall result is that we are a much more balanced firm, both in terms of client base and in terms of our practice areas,” says Reid. It’s a balance many law firms seem to be seeking these days. In the last year, there have been about a half-dozen South Florida law firm mergers. Those tying the knot include Adorno & Zeder, which in February acquired Bakst Bakst & Koenig, a six-lawyer West Palm Beach firm that specializes in bankruptcy and commercial litigation. Shook Hardy & Bacon, a 460-lawyer, Kansas City-based firm, last year picked up the remains of Coll Davidson Smith Salter & Barkett in Miami. When the economy was booming and business was good, law firm mergers took a back seat to billing hours. But as the economy has slowed, many firms have begun to realize that to remain viable and compete they are going to need new partners. Some firms have chosen to grow by cherry-picking a few good lawyers. Others have focused on bringing entire groups into the fold, says Herbert Hertner, a Miami-based legal recruiter. “While there isn’t a mania going on, people are looking for ways to expand,” he says. And they’re looking for ways to make their existing business stronger. RIPE FOR PLUCKING At Carlton Fields, the merger “brought to us a group of lawyers who had a very strong local practice in the sense of representing businesses and individuals,” says Benjamine Reid, managing shareholder of Carlton Fields’ Miami office. The 200-lawyer Tampa-based firm probably won’t stop there. Reid says his firm is looking to expand outside of Florida and has had conversations with firms in Atlanta and the Carolinas, though he declines to say with whom. “It seems we are constantly at some level of discussion,” says Reid. Any reasonably profitable, well-managed midsize firm with a good client base is a good candidate for a merger, say the experts. Florida is a particularly hot market because of the large number of small to midsize firms that are ripe for picking, says Norman Clark, a principal and shareholder with Altman Weil Inc., a legal management consulting firm in Pennsylvania. He figures that of the 1,700 or so law firms in Florida, about 94 percent have 20 or fewer lawyers. Clark also notes that there are a number of smaller firms and offices of larger national firms in South Florida that have “high-value practices,” such as those dealing with taxation and wealth management. “These are firms that have highly sought-after lawyers, they are profitable and they are in practice areas that are highly lucrative,” he says. BANKRUPTCY DEMAND Another high-demand area right now is bankruptcy. Around the same time Carlton Fields was merging with Cohen Berke, Bilzin Sumberg Dunn Baena Price & Axelrod, a 70-lawyer Miami firm, was bringing on board 17 lawyers from the Miami office of Stroock & Stroock & Lavan. Among them was Scott Baena, a bankruptcy attorney who had been with Stroock for 22 years. For Bilzin managing partner John Sumberg, the merger made sense because it filled a “strategic niche.” It also didn’t hurt that bankruptcy has become a booming area. Though it wasn’t a “merger” in the full sense of the word — a handful of Stroock lawyers remained behind — bringing in that many lawyers at one time “sure felt a lot like a merger,” says Sumberg. Unlike Cohen Berke, which joined a national firm, the lawyers from Stroock left a national firm to join one that only had a Florida presence. Baena, now a name partner with Bilzin, justified his decision in an interview last year, saying: “Here I find resources down the corridor, as opposed to 1,500 to 2,000 miles away.” CHERRY-PICKING TOO SLOW Though many firms have engaged in a lot of cherry-picking in recent months — bringing in a few strategic partners with big books of business from competing firms — that’s not what Charles Schuette, managing partner in the 156-lawyer Miami office of Akerman Senterfitt says he’s interested in. “Mergers, that’s the way to grow,” Schuette says. “The cherry-picking is expensive and extremely time consuming.” In October, Akerman merged with the West Palm Beach office of Milwaukee-based Quarles & Brady. The two talked for about a year before consummating their plans. Akerman brought in 11 property attorneys, mostly in intellectual property practices, to the existing 10-lawyer group. In the past five months, that group has brought in another 10 lawyers. “There are now over 30 lawyers, which makes us a good player in West Palm Beach,” Schuette says. And in April, the firm grew again with the acquisition of Ketchey Horan, a Tampa-based firm of eight lawyers, bringing to 29 the number of Akerman lawyers working in Tampa. “The benefit to us is that we are now part of a firm that has strength in depth of legal services, and we have gained the advantage of being part of a firm with offices in every major city in Florida,” says Charles Ketchey, now an Akerman partner. Though Akerman has grown quickly, Schuette says his firm has no interest in expanding outside Florida. In fact, he says, staying a regional firm works to Akerman’s benefit. “The New York and Washington firms are sending business to us because we don’t compete with them,” he says. Despite the costs associated with recruiting individual attorneys or small groups of lawyers, there are firms doing just that. Among them: Hunton & Williams in Miami. In May, the firm picked up six partners and seven associates from rival Greenberg Traurig. The recent additions boost the number of lawyers on the Hunton roster to 43, up from 30. Marty Steinberg, managing partner of Hunton’s Miami office, says the recruits are part of the firm’s plan to become a full-service law firm in Miami, and he hopes the local office will some day compare in size to Hunton’s primary offices in New York, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, which have nearly 100 lawyers each. ORGANIC GROWTH SAFER Firms that choose to grow slowly may have a tough time keeping up with other firms in the marketplace, says Clark. “We frequently encounter midsize firms that are being told by their clients that if you want to keep our work, you are going to have to grow quickly,” he says. On the other hand, taking on a handful of new partners and growing “organically” is not as risky as merging, notes Clark. “If you are fearful [of losing] your culture or concerned about losing control of your destiny, organic growth is one way to go about it,” he says. Shutts & Bowen is among those taking this more conservative approach, bringing in just a few lawyers at a time. The Miami-based, 145-lawyer firm prefers to start small in a market and “build with good lawyers we spot in the marketplace,” says the firm’s managing partner, Bowman Brown. For example, in April, the firm lured five litigators from the Orlando office of Holland & Knight to its Orlando office, which now has 30 lawyers. Half the lawyers in that office are litigators. Since September, Shutts & Bowen has brought in 21 new lawyers. Brown’s strategy has been to lay the groundwork for an office with existing Shutts & Bowen lawyers who have an established link to the firm. “If you bring in a whole bunch of new people that nobody knows, it’s hard to make them feel part of the firm and integrate them into the various practice areas,” Brown says. And, he noted: “If they’re not happy, the group that came in can just as easily leave en masse.” SOUTH FLORIDA MERGERS: A TIMELINE May 2000: Shook Hardy & Bacon’s Miami office picks up the remains of Coll Davidson Smith Salter & Barkett in Miami. August 2000: Carlton Fields’ Miami office merges with Cohen Berke Bernstein Brodie & Kondell in Coconut Grove. August 2000: Bilzin Sumberg Dunn Baena Price & Axelrod in Miami picks up 17 lawyers from the Miami office of Stroock & Stroock & Lavan. February 2001: Adorno & Zeder in Miami acquires Bakst Bakst & Koenig in West Palm Beach. October 2000 and April 2001: Akerman Senterfitt in Miami merges with the West Palm Beach office of Quarles & Brady and acquires Ketchey Horan in Tampa.

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