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Hard times can present the best opportunities. Just ask Bowman Brown, chairman of the executive committee at 85-attorney Shutts & Bowen in Miami. In his view, the current recession offers a great opening for hiring top-notch partners. “Word is out that we’ve had a pretty good year and other firms have had a less than good year,” Brown says. “That makes it easier to pry good people loose. We’re finding a lot of interest in movement.” He’s scouting for veteran lawyers in international transactions, employment law, intellectual property and corporate work. Some call it the “flight to quality,” a choice by experienced attorneys to seek more money and security at more stable, better managed firms. In other cases, it might be called deserting a sinking ship. Whatever you call it, there’s little question that experienced senior associates and partners with hefty books of business have been entering the market. In January, Miami’s Steel Hector & Davis lost five partners, including one member of its executive committee, Jose F. Valdivia, to Washington, D.C.-based Hogan & Hartson’s Miami office. Also that month, both Miami’s Akerman, Senterfitt & Eidson and Tampa, Fla.’s Carlton Fields saw partners depart to Steel Hector. Akerman lost its managing partner in West Palm Beach, while Carlton Fields lost the head of its Miami corporate practice. In December, Broward County’s oldest firm, English McCaughan & O’Bryan in Fort Lauderdale, closed its doors, and 20 attorneys sought work elsewhere. And Martin Press, who had been managing partner at Broad and Cassel in Fort Lauderdale since 1987, moved to Gunster Yoakley in January. Last May, Greenberg Traurig lost six partners to the Miami office of Richmond, Va.-based Hunton & Williams. “This is the most movement I’ve seen since the last recession in 1991 and 1992,” says Matthew B. Gorson, managing partner of Greenberg Traurig’s Miami office. “People do not look to move when everything is going well.” There are dissenters from this view. “I don’t see any more movement now,” says Charlie Schuette, chairman of Akerman Senterfitt, who has overseen the rapid expansion of his firm. “I see everyone being cautious.” ESCAPING THE COLD WAVE Still, attorneys are uncomfortably aware of the current economic fragility of their firms. A legal market so hot two years ago that partners agreed to lavish 25 percent pay hikes on first-year associates — putting them in the six-figure stratosphere — now has cooled to the point where the state’s largest law firm, Holland & Knight, has frozen associate pay. “There’s a lot of movement in the market,” agrees Victor Alvarez, managing partner at the 71-attorney Miami office of New York’s White & Case, which has the rare distinction of not losing a single partner to another law firm since it opened in 1987. “Several firms are going through changes, and the tendency can be to relocate.” This increased attorney mobility is a nationwide trend. In its recent national survey of the 200 largest firms in the country, The American Lawyer found that 2,400 partners had jumped to new firms during the year ending last September — a one-third increase from the previous year. LATERAL LEADERS Florida firms have both benefited and suffered from the free flow of talent. Indeed, Holland & Knight led the nation in lateral hires last year, while Greenberg Traurig led in lateral losses, according to The American Lawyer. Holland & Knight, which has 11 offices in Florida and many others nationally and internationally, topped all firms across the country by adding 106 lateral partners nationwide over the past year. On the other hand, nine partners left the firm during the same period. Greenberg Traurig, which has six offices in Florida and has been the fastest-growing firm in the U.S. over the past five years, led the nation with 40 partner departures last year — just one year after it added a remarkable 107 new partners nationwide. Carlton Fields named 16 partners over the past year, 12 being lateral hires; the firm’s four newly minted partners came to the firm as lateral associate hires prior to being named partner. Elizabeth Bergen Zabak, director of attorney recruiting and training at Carlton Fields, says that “17 years ago, it was unusual to hire laterals. That’s not so now.” Even Steel Hector, which long has taken pride in filling its partner ranks from the ranks of its associates, has seen a significant rise in the number of laterally hired partners. “It is almost 50-50 between lateral partners and associates,” says Edwin G. Torres, the hiring partner at Steel Hector. “That’s more partners via laterals than historically is the case for us. Historically, our partners have been homegrown.” STRONG GET STRONGER While Torres says the last five years have seen increased attorney movement between firms, other observers say the movement has particularly accelerated in the last year. If a firm is managing an economic downturn well, some observers say, that presents an opportunity to snatch quality talent from firms struggling to keep business. “The Greenberg Traurig attitude during recessionary times is that it affords us an opportunity to hire good people, because we can attract productive attorneys who want to be at a strong firm,” Gorson says. “We view this time as a time of opportunity.” But others question that. “We don’t see more movement now than in any other year,” says Adolfo E. Jimenez, a Holland partner in Miami. “There’s a lot of talking about movement, but I don’t see it happening.” Jimenez compares 2002 with previous bleak periods. In the mid-’90s, for instance, several prominent Florida law firms, such as Mershon Sawyer Johnson Dunwoody & Cole, Blackwell & Walker, and Fine Jacobson Schwartz Nash & Block, closed their doors for good, putting the dozens of attorneys who had not yet left the three crumbling firms finally out on the street. “That was significant movement,” Jimenez says.

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