It was 11:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2000, and the phone rang in Cesar Alvarez’s Miami office. Barry Richard, a partner in governmental law in the firm’s Tallahassee office, was on the line. “Bush wants us to represent him,” Richard calmly told Alvarez. “When do you have to know?” Alvarez asked in reply. “By noon,” was the terse reply.

Alvarez walked into another room where the phones weren’t ringing so he could think. He briefly consulted with three of his department chiefs, then sat by himself to mull it over. He recalls thinking, “How could we not be involved in the most important case in Florida’s history?”

By noon, Alvarez had made up his mind. Greenberg Traurig would represent Bush. It was a decision he hasn’t regretted. Many observers say Barry Richard’s skillful leadership of the Bush legal team’s efforts in the Florida courts to block manual vote recounts was instrumental in Bush’s ultimate victory. The ensuing publicity made Richard — and Greenberg Traurig — known throughout the world.

Colleagues say Alvarez’s ability to make rapid decisions is the key to Greenberg’s success. While other firms have management committees making key calls, Alvarez has sole decision-making authority. “The world moves very fast,” he says. “You have to react quickly.”

Jeff Verbin, managing shareholder in the Phoenix office of Greenberg Traurig, jokes that “Cesar always says, ‘My decisions will always be quick. They may not be right, but they’ll always be quick.’ “

Most legal observers say Alvarez, 53, hasn’t made many wrong calls during his four years as managing partner. Since his appointment to the head post by former managing partner Larry Hoffman, Greenberg Traurig, founded in 1967, has been rated the fastest growing law firm in the country by The National Law Journal, more than doubling its number of attorneys between 1995 and 2000. It’s now ranked 25th on The NLJ‘s Top 100 list of firms.

Greenberg has gobbled up firms in New York City, Phoenix, Denver and Los Angeles, and now has 800 lawyers and 18 offices, all in the U.S. Alvarez says he will focus on consolidation, and won’t add new domestic offices for now, due to the economic downturn. But he would like to open offices in Great Britain and Spain.

The Cuban-born Alvarez grew up in Miami and received his undergraduate, MBA and law degrees from the University of Florida. He went to work at Greenberg straight out of law school and has never left. He quickly became a top producer at the firm in the area of corporate law.

Tapping Alvarez as his successor was an easy decision, Hoffman says. “Cesar has always shown great leadership skills,” he says. “He’s very good with people and he has innate business skills.”

Alvarez, who is married and has four children, travels two weeks every month to visit all the other firm offices. When he’s in Miami and he’s not answering the 350 e-mails he gets a day (“they have to have a catchy title for me to open them”), he spends much of his day meeting with employees. His nights are full of civic activities. Alvarez chairs the fund-raising efforts of the United Way of Miami-Dade and the Florida International University law school.

The only downside to being managing partner at a giant firm like Greenberg, Alvarez laments, is having to give up the practice of law and the direct relationship with clients. “I just wish there were more hours in the day,” he says.

THE EMPIRE BUILDER

Biff Marshall is only partly joking when he says he wants his partners to buy him a convertible. Marshall, the managing partner of Orlando-based Gray Harris & Robinson, wants to travel in style between all the law offices his firm has acquired in central Florida along the Interstate 4 corridor in the past year. Determined to dominate that corridor, Gray Harris has been on an expansion tear in the last two years, doubling its number of lawyers, to 135. The firm now has offices in Tallahassee, Tampa, Lakeland, Clermont, Orlando and Melbourne, and quickly has become one of the largest law firms in Florida.

The man spearheading the expansion is Marshall, 47, a securities lawyer who holds MBA and law degrees from Florida State University. He was his firm’s top producer before becoming managing partner nine years ago. The numerous mergers and the firm’s extensive lateral hiring “has made us much stronger,” he says. At the same time, he boasts, “we haven’t lost the midlevel guys. That’s important.”

“He has vision,” says Robie Robinson, one of the founding partners of the 31-year-old firm, who credits Marshall as the prime mover behind the firm’s rapid growth. “Lawyers are don’t like to be led. But they respect him.”

Marshall is still able to practice law, at least for now, spending six hours a day on law and six hours on management. Every other week he’s on the road, traveling to the firm’s other offices, frequently listening to motivational tapes en route.

How is Marshall so successful in luring firms to join Gray Harris? He thinks it has to do with his firm’s motto: “We’re a small firm with a lot of lawyers.” He strives to preserve that small-firm culture by maintaining a one-to-one ratio of secretaries to lawyers, which, he says, frees up lawyers to be lawyers.

“This is the story we tell,” he says. “We’re going to merge with you, but you’re not going to have to answer to a home office in Milwaukee or Ohio. The managing partner is here, and no one will interfere with your practices.”

Marshall currently is hunting for merger partners in Sarasota and Jacksonville, though he offers no clues about his targets. All he’ll say is that he’s looking for “high-production” lawyers with large books of business.

While he still wants more growth, he professes no ambition to take his firm national. “We want to be a regional firm,” he says.

But he vows to stay clear of South Florida, even though he was born in Miami and grew up in Boca Raton, where his father was mayor. “Up here,” he says, “the lawyers are more southern and gentlemanly.”

THE COMPANY MAN


photo:Philippe Jenney/Argent

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