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Joseph P. Klock Jr. sees tough times ahead, but he doesn’t seem to be breaking a sweat. The head of Miami-based Steel Hector & Davis is hunkered down for any downturn in the economy. He says he learned his lessons from Southeast Bank, one of his firm’s biggest clients before the bank went out of business in 1991. Those lessons? Stay lean. Don’t expand based solely on business from one client. And don’t allow any one client to represent more than 10 percent of your business. “We’re not hurting from the economy, nor will we,” Klock boats. “The other law firms were popping champagne corks during the dot-com days. We take our champagne in shot glasses.” That same confidence was expressed by managing partners at four other respected law firms of different sizes around Florida. One thing all the managing partners agreed on was this: While some practice areas clearly are reeling with the economic dip, overall law firm business has been unaffected so far. But they also acknowledge that it’s risky to predict which firms will survive and thrive, and in what form. And they say a major challenge in this turbulent legal market is recruiting and retaining quality attorneys. Smart law firms have prepared carefully for a potential recession, they say. To offset declines in corporate deal-making and real estate, firms have beefed up in recession-proof fields like bankruptcy and litigation. In their view, the firms that haven’t taken preventive measures may be in trouble. “We’ve seen a softening in some areas and an increase in others,” says Biff Marshall, managing partner at Gray Harris & Robinson, a 200-lawyer, Orlando-based firm which has expanded rapidly in Central Florida through mergers. It was no accident, Marshall says, that one of his firm’s merger partners, Shackleford Farrior Stallings & Evans in Tampa, had lots of bankruptcy lawyers. “Overall we’re busier than ever,” he says, predicting that his partners’ profit checks in August will be healthy. Here’s a closer look at the leaders of the five firms, their strategies, and their assessments of the biggest challenges faced by Florida law firms this year. THE SNAP DECISIONMAKER
photo: Aiza Montero-Green

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

While growing up in Palm Beach County and attending law school at the University of Florida, Don Beuttenmuller says, he fantasized about working at Gunster Yoakley, which he considered “the absolute premiere firm” in the county. But his grades, he admits, were “really bad.” So after graduation, he toiled away at another local firm, quietly making a name for himself as a litigator. One day in 1980, Gunster called and invited him to join. To him, it was like a minor leaguer getting a call from the Yankees. Beuttenmuller never dreamed that one day he’d be running the whole show. Especially since the firm, starting at about the time he got there, had been run by a businessman-CEO, not an attorney. The firm’s top partners had felt that a financially savvy chief executive with a CPA was what the firm, founded in 1925, needed to grow. But last year, amid internal turmoil, Gunster Yoakley reverted to the traditional approach of having a lawyer run the firm. With characteristic modesty, Beuttenmuller says he was selected for the job only because a serious back problem made it impossible for him to sit in court for long periods. But colleagues offer a different reason for why the 53-year-old was chosen as leader of the 140-lawyer firm, which has offices in West Palm Beach, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Tallahassee, Palm Beach, Stuart and Vero Beach. “He is one of the most admired attorneys in this firm,” says Jim Davis, a partner in corporate law who joined the firm recently from what was then called Berger Davis & Singerman. “He’s a natural leader.” Beuttenmuller knows he needs to rebuild morale at the firm, which was devastated by bitter leadership battles two years ago. At that time, dissident partners unsuccessfully attempted to jettison the firm’s Miami office, and numerous lawyers jumped ship. The new managing partner plans to name a management committee charged with keeping Gunster lawyers and making sure they receive plenty of training. The committee will consist of the heads of the firm’s four departments — litigation, real estate, corporate and private wealth services — plus three other attorneys. And if the committee members are unsuccessful at keeping the lawyers happy? “I can appoint new department heads,” Beuttenmuller says bluntly. “If people feel they are cared about, that they have some feeling of comfort that they will progress, they will stay.” Along those lines, Beuttenmuller says the firm likely will name more partners than it did in the past. His aim is to build a loyal team of lawyers, but he refuses to throw buckets of money at lawyers to keep them in the fold. “I think those people who left for a few dollars more at another firm are making a career mistake,” he says. “Because if someone came to my firm for a few extra dollars, I would think, ‘Aren’t they just going to leave at the first offer they get?’ “ Beuttenmuller insists that the word on the street is that Gunster is once again is a good place to work. Herbert Hertner, who heads a legal search firm in Miami, agrees. “They’re over some of the problems they’ve had,” he says. “They’ve stabilized.” “People are saying, ‘We’ve heard things are changing at your firm,’ ” Beuttenmuller says. “ In this business, word travels fast.” THE DERVISH

photo: Aiza Montero-Green

Popping out of a meeting in his office, Joe Klock charges up to his secretary’s desk to pick up messages. “What’s up, Magmeister?” he asks longtime assistant Maggie Garcia. Then he bolts out the door to his home-away-from-home, the Miami City Club, 14 floors up from Steel Hector & Davis’ downtown offices, for a drink with a visiting reporter. On the way, Klock seems to recognize everyone and engages in brief, rapid-fire banter before whirling on. In the elevator, he bumps into the new City Club manager and tells her he liked the carrot soup that day. Klock, 52, sometimes seems more like a friendly puppy than the managing partner and chairman of one of Miami’s largest and oldest law firms, founded in 1925. Colleagues and friends call him brilliant, compassionate, and blunt. “Joe is an extremely bright young man,” says U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King. “He and his wife are wonderful people — they’ve done a tremendous amount of pro bono work over the years.” Klock started at Steel Hector in 1973, fresh out of law school at the University of Miami. To everyone’s surprise, he was named managing partner just six years later. In 1983, he was named chairman of the executive committee. Last year, that committee was abolished, leaving Klock as the sole decision maker. Even so, he says, he strives to build a consensus. Last year, he put himself and Steel Hector on the national stage when he represented Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris in the presidential election recount battle. “I thought she was being abused in partisan attacks” is how Klock explains his decision to represent the much-criticized Harris, a Republican. But he insists that he would have represented whichever party called first. In fact, he says, Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Theresa LePore left a message for him before Harris’ office called. But LePore, a Democrat, never called back. Klock still spends nearly half his time practicing law. Among his biggest clients are the Fanjul brothers and their sugar companies. The other half of his time is spent managing the firm, which has nearly 200 lawyers and offices in Miami, Tallahassee, Key West, Naples, West Palm Beach, Caracas, Santo Domingo, London, Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. The far-flung offices result from his decision years ago to expand throughout the state and into Latin America — a move some of the firm’s lawyers disagreed with at the time. “A lot of firms have a conference room in Sao Paulo and they call themselves an international firm,” he says. “But we really are.” Despite the fact that Steel Hector is highly sought after as a merger partner, Klock insists that he and his partners are not interested. He says he sometimes meets with representatives of larger firms “out of courtesy.” But, he says, his attorneys are determined to maintain their “high-quality product” and its culture, which strongly encourages lawyers to do pro bono work. Klock says he tries to maintain a prudent balance of practice areas in the firm and deliberately avoided any big buildup in the hot fields of the ’90s. “Our clients come to us in good times and bad,” he says. Klock predicts hard times ahead for firms that have gone on expansion sprees. “You have a generation of people who had never seen hard times,” he warns. “The mercenary — the lawyer who moves from firm to firm and has no loyalty — will be the first person cut.” THE CAT-HERDER In 1986, when her clerkship with a federal judge was ending and she was looking for a job, Marion Hale had only one law firm in mind: Johnson Blakely. “They were the only firm in Tampa area that had more than one female partner,” she says. “That showed me there would be potential for making partner.” She landed the job at her dream firm but underestimated its openness. Two years ago, Hale, 51, was named to a three-year term as managing partner at the 25-year-old Clearwater law firm, now called Johnson Blakely Pope Bokor Ruppel & Burns, a 33-lawyer full-service firm that also has an office in St. Petersburg. She’s the first female managing partner ever at the firm, and one of the few female managing partners in Florida. Since being named head of the firm, Hale, a former newspaper reporter who attended Stetson University law school, has kept up the same pace of practice in her field of business litigation while also handling recruiting, long-range planning, and “herding the cats” — as she calls managing independent-minded lawyers. Colleagues say Hale is well-liked by the firm’s lawyers and nonattorney staff. Associate Sharon Krick says she started going to Hale for help with problems and questions back when Hale was a partner in her business litigation division, including seeking advice about Krick’s divorce several years ago. “That sort of opened the door,” Krick says. “After that I always felt comfortable going to her about anything, personal or professional.” Hale has instituted more family-friendly policies at the firm, perhaps because she has three children and has to drive 30 miles to work. She allows all the lawyers — whether they have children or simply hate commuting — to work from home, without limit. The firm has set up its computer network and each attorney’s laptops so everyone can remotely access firm records and conduct research from home. “Our biggest challenge in future years will be hiring and retaining good lawyers,” says Hale. “We have to do what we can to make people happy.” But a major part of what makes lawyers happy is, well, money. That’s why Hale’s firm is an “eat your own kill” firm that allows lawyers to keep the profits they bring into the firm. That compensation structure makes a merger with another firm difficult. Johnson Blakely was approached last year by a large Florida firm, which Hale declines to name. The Johnson Blakely partners rejected the deal when they realized that their pay system would have to change. Due to this, Hale says, the firm’s preferred approach is to grow by attracting top laterals. But can a firm of Johnson Blakely’s size survive in today’s market? Absolutely, says Hale. “Lawyers are unhappy in very large law firms,” she says. “And we definitely have a niche because some clients don’t like dealing with megafirms.” Given Johnson Blakely’s eat-your-own-kill policy, Hale says, “lawyers who work very hard and bring in a lot of business like to work here. And those that don’t, don’t.”

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