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Florida law firm senior partners have been playing a wicked game of musical chairs in recent months, partially driven by the gloomy economy, and the game is expected to continue through the month. More than a dozen senior partners have jumped firms since October, not counting the 20 lawyers who left English McCaughan & O’Bryan, the Fort Lauderdale firm that folded late last month. “The economy brings things to a head,” said law firm recruiter Herb Hertner of H. Hertner Associates in Miami. “During good times, you ignore problems — you’re so busy you don’t have time to think about things. But in bad economic times, everyone starts dissecting everything, and people get more tense.” Mike Short, an associate consultant with Hildebrandt International, a law firm consulting company, said the South Florida trend is unusual. Nationally, the company has seen considerable movement of associates and junior partners, who are being laid off. But, he added, “If changes in the economy are occurring at the local level, partners may want to move to a broader, more secure platform … a larger firm.” Some partners typically leave firms in mid to late January, after annual bonus checks are handed out, say lawyers. So this could be just the tip of the iceberg. “You can expect to see a lot more movement this month, once checks have cleared,” said one senior partner who did not want to be identified. In a move that has stunned the local legal industry, Martin Press, who started Broad and Cassel’s Fort Lauderdale office in 1987 and served as managing partner there until last year, is leaving the firm to work for Gunster Yoakley in Fort Lauderdale. Press, who has been practicing law in Fort Lauderdale since 1976, would not disclose his reasons for jumping ship, citing a confidentiality agreement. But sources close to him say it has to do with his unhappiness over the firm’s direction — the firm laid off a host of attorneys in September — and that Press did not want to make a move while firm founder Shepard Broad, an idol of his, was still alive (Broad died two months ago). “The firm lost most of the future backbone,” said an insider. “Everything is being controlled out of Orlando.” “I try to be a good lawyer, I try to follow the ethics and proper way of dealing with people in the tradition of Shepard Broad and Alvin Cassel,” said Press, who is taking associate Luann Dominguez with him to Gunster Yoakley. He said he chose Gunster Yoakley because “it’s a stable firm.” Gabe Imperato, managing partner of Broad and Cassel’s Fort Lauderdale office, would only say, “I wish them the best.” On an attorney shopping spree, Gunster Yoakley, which is based in West Palm Beach, snapped up two other lawyers for its Fort Lauderdale office, partner Linda Conahan and associate Ann Burke. The litigators came from English McCaughan & O’Bryan, where Conahan was managing partner. A former president of the Broward County Bar Association and the Legal Aid Society of Broward, Conahan was highly sought after and chose Gunster Yoakley because “their offer was the most attractive.” Most of the other English McCaughan lawyers started a firm called Redgrave & Turner in Boca Raton, which includes 10 attorneys and 20 staffers from the defunct firm. The other lawyers at English McCaughan have also landed jobs or hung out their own shingles, said Conahan. Economic factors also drove longtime friends Bob Wright and former U.S. Attorney Kendall Coffey to join forces. A civil litigator in Miami for 27 years and former partner at Shutts & Bowen, Wright opened the Miami office of Washington, D.C.-based Verner Lipfert Bernhard McPherson and Hand two years ago. But the firm “felt they overexpanded,” and is pulling out of Florida, said Wright. At its peak, the firm had 12 lawyers in Miami, but last year, about half left for Steel Hector & Davis and “we never grew back,” he said. Wright and Coffey have been friends for years; Wright tried to hire Coffey for his first job and the two have worked together as co-counsel on cases over the years. Coffey had been practicing with a few associates for about six months, out of the penthouse of the Grand Bay Plaza in Coconut Grove, and the two formally joined forces Jan. 1. Coffey (whose name appears first on the shingle because “he won the coin toss”) specializes in white collar defense and Wright, civil litigation. Coffey & Wright now has seven lawyers and will grow “to whatever the traffic will bear,” said Wright. The biggest adjustment for Wright is geographic. “I worked at the same intersection in downtown Miami for 27 years, and now I’m in Coconut Grove,” he said. The slumping economy also led to the shift of shareholders William Nortman and Jonathan Robbins from the Fort Lauderdale firm of Atlas Pearlman to Akerman Senterfitt’s Fort Lauderdale office two months ago. Nortman has 30 years of experience in corporate securities litigation and was in charge of the Miami branch of the Securities and Exchange Commission from 1975 to 1980. Robbins focuses on securities litigation. “Did the economy play a part in this? In all candor, yes,” said Nortman. “You need a law firm with different groups, with a bankruptcy group, a litigation group, a firm that can carry a business from womb to tomb.” Atlas Pearlman is strongly concentrated on corporate securities and also maintains litigation, real estate and tax practices. “Our litigation presence in Broward County is strong, so I’m not sure what Bill is referring to,” said Jan Atlas, managing partner of Atlas Pearlman. “As far as bankruptcy is concerned, I understand his feelings about that.” One lawyer whose game of musical chairs has nothing to do with the economy is Chuck Lichtman. Lichtman, a former name partner with the firm Genovese Lichtman Joblove & Battista in Miami, joined Berger Singerman in Fort Lauderdale, along with three associates, Robin Frydman, J.M. Grant and Debra Frank. Lichtman was co-lead counsel for the Democratic Party in the 2000 Broward County election recount and lead assistant to former Florida Attorney General Robert Shevin. Lichtman’s motivation was born of geography. He wanted to practice in Broward, and his former firm wasn’t ready to venture north of Miami-Dade just yet. The presence of Mitchell Berger, a leading fund-raiser for the Democratic Party and close pal to Al Gore, at the firm didn’t hurt, either. “My family is located in Broward and much of my business is located in Broward,” Lichtman said. “Berger Singerman is probably the top business firm in Broward and I had outstanding relationships with everyone here. My whole life is centered around Broward.” Another firm that broke up recently is the 13-lawyer firm of Burd Lozano & Zacherl in Miami. Burd and five associates joined Tew Cardenas Rebak Kellogg Lehman DeMaria Tague Raymond & Levine in Miami Oct. 1, creating an aviation group there. Burd is heading the group as partner; the associates are John McPhee, Stuart Grossman, Charles Balli and Maria Arias-Morgado. Burd represents aviation clients throughout the southeast United States, South America and the Caribbean, and was recently retained by EMI/Virgin Records in connection with the aircraft accident that killed singer Aaliyah. Other clients he is bringing to Tew Cardenas include United Airlines, Grupo Taca, AIG Aviation, Houston Casualty, Underwriters at Lloyds of London, Universal Loss Management and LAD. The split was not related to the economy, said Burd, but a mutual decision. “Everyone went their own way,” he said. “I’ve known Tom Tew since high school here and there is a lot of mutual clients and respect between us. Plus they’ve got a lot of time in the courtroom — we needed more trial lawyers to help out cause a lot of my cases are so big.”

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