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Bradley S. Gould doesn’t remember hearing the term “eminent domain” too frequently in law school. “They might have mentioned it in a split second,” the Miami lawyer says. Despite his lack of schooling in the field, eminent domain became Gould’s bread and butter during stints at the Florida attorney general’s office and the state Transportation Department. It also contributed to his becoming a partner, effective Jan. 1, at the Miami-based, 142-lawyer firm Shutts & Bowen. In the past, making partner at a top firm required big courtroom victories, booking lots of new business and being a jack-of-all-trades. Those achievements and skills still help, of course. But today, lawyers who rarely or never go to court, who may not be great rainmakers and who are anything but versatile increasingly are breaking into the partner ranks. That’s because they offer something just as valuable to law firms: expertise in a practice field, like bankruptcy, employment law or intellectual property, which is highly sought after by clients. “Virtually all lawyers in most large firms specialize,” says John Sumberg, managing partner at the 70-lawyer Bilzin Sumberg Dunn Baena Price & Axelrod in Miami. “They have to in order to be effective and efficient for clients. “There is no such thing as a generalist at the big firms anymore,” agrees Joseph Ankus, a former practicing attorney and president of Ankus & Ankus Inc., a Weston, Fla.-based legal recruiting firm. “It doesn’t exist.” Managing partners note that having experience in a hot niche practice area has become almost a must for attorneys who want to move laterally into a partnership. But for associates on the partnership track within a firm, the fundamental criteria still apply — all-around good lawyering, sterling character and significant business origination, managing partners say. Bill McBride, managing partner at Tampa-based Holland & Knight, with 1,200 attorneys, notes that for the first time, the lateral-entry partners his firm hired last year were mostly nonlitigators. “Historically, we’d always hired more litigation people,” McBride says. Overall, Holland & Knight’s new partners in 2000 were evenly divided between litigators and nonlitigators. In contrast, 14 of 24 new partnerships in 1999 went to litigators. In fact, many of the new partners of 2000 say it was their niche experience that helped them earn entry into the partner ranks. David Softness at Miami-based Akerman Senterfitt, with 355 lawyers, has practiced bankruptcy — and little else — for more than a dozen years. His lack of experience in other fields actually helped him make partner last October. “I came out of school, clerked for a bankruptcy judge and never looked back,” Softness says. Marcy Levine Aldrich, another new Akerman partner in Miami, says she first got involved in complex civil litigation as a beginning associate. That experience led to a thriving practice representing insurance companies in complex and class-action cases. “Your clients say, ‘I want someone who’s done this before,’ ” says Aldrich, who made partner in November. Ankus says lawyers with experience in a busy niche area like intellectual property, labor and employment, securities or bankruptcy, face less pressure from their firms to originate business. He points out, however, that the trend toward narrow practice focus is limited to midsize and large firms. Attorneys at small firms still must be jacks-of-all-trades. Experts say the specialization trend is a reflection of changes in the law and in society, and the growing complexity of the law. Employment law, for example, is relatively new. Yet it has expanded sufficiently in the past decade to become as extensive and intricate as more traditional areas like patent law. “In 1990, you didn’t have the Family Medical Leave Act or the Americans with Disabilities Act,” explains Joan Canny, an employment law specialist and new partner at the Miami-based, 82-lawyer Stearns Weaver Miller Weissler Alhadeff & Sitterson. One law firm consultant, Ward Bower, a principal at Altman Weil Inc. in Newtown Square, Pa., says that while specialists have moved to the forefront at law firms in other parts of the country, the trend has been more sluggish in Florida. That’s because Florida hasn’t been a major headquarters state for large corporations — though that’s changing — and because the state has a higher percentage of small law firms, Bower says. Now, however, Florida firms are catching up. They are adding specialized practice groups and doling out partnerships to their top niche practitioners. Thomas A. Snow, president and CEO of Tampa-based Carlton Fields, with 200 attorneys, says this specialization is a byproduct of Florida’s growing and diverse economy. “The legal field follows the business field,” Snow says. Gabriel Imperato, managing partner at Miami-based Broad and Cassel, with 155 lawyers, denies any significant shift in his firm’s benchmarks for making partner, such as increased weight to expertise in a hot practice field. “The criteria for partnership never change that much,” Imperato says. “You look for productive lawyers who can bring in business, manage business, have good lawyer-client skills and can work in a teamlike fashion to achieve the firm’s objectives.” But Ankus insists that market forces play a bigger role in partner selection than law firm leaders like to admit. If the market demands experts in particular areas of law, firms will offer partnerships to attorneys with the sought-after skills. “If the economy heads into a downward spiral, someone who does bankruptcies may well make partner without originating much business,” Ankus says. Surprisingly, the increased preference for making specialists partners has not necessarily resulted in higher compensation for new partners. That’s because law firms are spending more for associate salaries. “That hurts young partners,” says Joseph Goldstein, a new partner at Shutts & Bowen in Fort Lauderdale, where he concentrates on complex commercial, real estate, probate and tax litigation. “There’s only so much of the pie, and if you’re giving more to junior associates, there’s less to give to junior partners.” On the other hand, niche experience is a scarce commodity; and firms face growing pressure to price it accordingly. “Most firms have reacted by paying their new and younger partners more,” says Holland’s McBride.

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