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South Florida’s solo practitioners and small law firms are weathering the economic downturn and the weak recovery by keeping their fingers in more than one piece of the legal pie and hustling harder. “You have to be creative, you have to be flexible and fluid,” says J.B. Harris, a solo practitioner in Coral Gables. “I’ll sue anybody for practically anything that has merit.” Robert Pelier, another Coral Gables solo practitioner, agrees that rolling with the market as practice areas ebb and flow is key. “It’s like a seesaw,” he says. “A couple of areas go down, and a couple go up.” Many South Florida solo practitioners say they’ve survived the turbulent economy just fine, and those who have lost income say they’ve found ways to lessen the trough. What remains unclear, however, is whether layoffs at bigger law firms and government agencies in the past year have caused more lawyers to go it alone — thus creating more competition for solos. Pelier thinks that has happened, but not to the extent that it’s become a hardship for him and his solo colleagues. His gross revenue has increased every year, he says. “Florida is such a growing state,” says Mark Osherow, who has a two-lawyer practice in Boca Raton. “I think lawyers are getting absorbed very easily.” LITIGATION RELIABLE Indeed, Osherow believes the weak economy can even be good for small law firms. That’s because some people who otherwise might have sought help from a larger, better-known firm instead may choose a small firm or solo practitioner because the fees are more affordable. He says a lot of the clients coming in are those with business disputes. “While people don’t have money ad nauseam, they have enough to protect their interests,” Osherow says, adding that income at his young firm has risen 15 percent to 20 percent in the past year. “Litigation is very solid right now,” Osherow says. “I don’t hear many horror stories about lawyers not being able to make a living.” Harris agrees, but still thinks diversifying your practice provides more insurance. He’s a plaintiff trial attorney who also handles commercial and contractual matters. In addition, he does work from time to time for Levey Airan Brownstein Shevin Friedman Roen & Kelso in Coral Gables, where he serves as of counsel attorney. That’s been a comfort during lean times. “That makes for a little bit of a safety net when things get tough,” he says. And it has been dicey at times. “The phone stopped ringing after Sept. 11,” Harris says. “The world slowed down.” TROUBLE PAYING FEES Pelier spends about half his time on criminal and civil litigation; the remainder is a mix of transactional law — reviewing contracts and helping foreigners set up U.S. corporations and acquire property. He formed a partnership last year with a solo practitioner in Naples that generates additional work. One effect of the downturn, he says, is an increase in the number of criminal defense clients who have trouble paying his fees. In civil cases, he collects his costs and fee when he wins. Sometimes he has to refer the nonpaying criminal defense clients to the public defender. Harris’ clients, too, have less cash to pay legal bills. “I get more requests for contingency business,” Harris says. “I try to have a healthy balance between contingency and hourly work.” Like Harris and Pelier, Osherow has a varied practice at the two-person law firm in Boca Raton that he started four years ago. Osherow does general litigation — personal injury, medical malpractice, insurance fraud and commercial litigation. He tries to be flexible with clients who struggle to pay his fees. “I think people appreciate it when you give them leeway,” he says. “If you’re used to getting paid in 30 days, now it’s more like 45 or 60 days. An upside of the down economy has been the number of people who have taken advantage of low-interest rates to refinance their homes, and have retained small law firms to help them, Osherow says. And he thinks that people with a viable personal injury case may be more inclined to pursue it than during economic boom times because they need the money. DIVORCE, NO MATTER WHAT On the other hand, Robin Roshkind of West Palm Beach is proof that a lawyer can focus mainly on one area of law and still thrive during a recession. She and law partner Victoria Vilchez devote most of their practice to family law. And business is up. Roshkind says business dropped sharply during the three months after Sept. 11. But, “by December, families were back to normal and fighting again over who gets the kids at Christmas,” she says. Even people struggling financially won’t put off getting a divorce if they’re unhappy in their marriages, she says. “What I’m seeing is a huge increase in pro se litigants.” While she agrees that a diversified practice is more recession proof, she balks at that approach. “We would like to be known as lawyers who specialize in the family law business,” she says, “because that’s what we do best.” Still, she and Vilchez have discussed adding a bankruptcy lawyer to their firm. INSURERS DEMANDING MORE Deerfield Beach solo practitioner Mark Rutledge concentrates on insurance defense work, which has gotten tougher during the downturn. Insurance companies are demanding more work from their outside counsel, he says. And insurance defense lawyers are marketing themselves more aggressively to insurers, reducing their fees and taking cases they previously would have spurned. Rutledge says he also spends more time staying in touch with insurance clients, stressing how he keeps his costs down. “I take less for granted now, business relationships, for example,” he says, estimating that his revenues dipped 8 percent the past year. He buys fewer journals for his law library and attends fewer seminars. There’s one other survival strategy solo lawyers or those in small firms say they employ to survive hard times — hustling harder. “You have to outwork the other side,” Harris says. Once a lawyer demonstrates that he or she does that, he says, new clients often follow.

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