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Thomas Cardwell, the new chairman and CEO of Miami-based Akerman Senterfitt, says the 360-lawyer firm plans to focus on expansion of its younger offices in major cities, namely West Palm Beach, Tallahassee and Tampa, Fla. Cardwell, 56, a banking and commercial litigation specialist based in Akerman’s Orlando office, has been a member of the firm’s nine-person board of directors and chairman of the firm’s compensation committee. He joined the firm right out of the University of Florida law school at age 23. In a telephone conference Sept. 17, the board voted unanimously that starting Nov. 1, Cardwell will take over from Charles A. Schuette, who has served as chairman since 1993 and as a board member since 1988. Schuette, 60, who has run the firm from Miami, its largest office, plans to remain on the board and resume practicing real estate law after helping Cardwell make the transition for at least a year. Schuette says he started the leadership transition process a couple of years ago. “It was a matter of trying to find somebody who had a history of loyalty to the firm and who would be able to deal with the different personalities of the eight offices. Clearly, Tom was the one.” Robert A. Zinn, managing partner of Akerman’s Miami office, says Schuette mentioned as long as a year ago that the board should start working on a transition. “With 360 lawyers, it’s a tough job and doing it for eight years, I can see how you would get tired,” Zinn says. The law firm was founded in 1920 in Orlando, where most of its administrative operations still are located. But the Miami office is its largest source of revenue and has its largest number of lawyers, 147. The firm also has offices in Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, Jacksonville, Tallahassee and Tampa, as well as one-person outposts in Tavares and Boca Raton, Fla. During Schuette’s time as chairman and CEO, the firm more than tripled its number of lawyers, from 112 in 1993. Fee revenues increased by about 500 percent during that period, Cardwell says. Net income per shareholder rose by $130,000, he says. But he says that number understates the firm’s financial growth, because Akerman has a greater percentage of shareholders than most firms of its size. Of the firm’s 360 lawyers, about half are shareholders, and the other half are associates. Cardwell, who will work out of Miami two days a week, says he plans to continue the strategy of becoming one of the two or three best recognized firms in every major Florida city. The firm intends to accomplish that through both acquisitions of other law firms and lateral hires of individual lawyers. “It depends on the opportunities,” he says. Cardwell says the firm has no plans “directly on the horizon” to expand outside Florida. “But we wouldn’t rule out anything.” The areas of law in which the expansion will occur likely will be in real estate, business and corporate law, litigation and bankruptcy, he says. Asked how the firm would avoid the high expenses associated with rapid expansion — a dilemma that some top Florida firms such as Holland & Knight have wrestled with — he says Akerman has avoided “megamergers” that might dilute earnings too much. “We’ve basically acquired very good lawyers with very good existing practices that were able to move over with us,” he says. While that creates short-term expenses, overall the firm has kept borrowing and debt levels down. As for prospective mergers, “if it is going to be negative for a while, we budget it and put it in there, and if it’s too negative, we take a pass,” he explains. Schuette says the firm has considered opening an office in Naples, but isn’t yet sure whether it will. The key factors in considering an expansion to another city are whether it fills a professional need, whether the firm has a lot of clients there, and whether the move generally makes economic sense, Schuette says. Expanding out-of-state wouldn’t make sense, he says, since 90 percent of the firm’s clients are in Florida. “We don’t want to be in Washington and New York just to be in Washington and New York,” he says. Cardwell graduated from Duke University in 1964 and got his law degree from the University of Florida, with honors, in 1966. In addition to serving on the board and compensation committee, he previously was chairman of the firm’s litigation practice, in Orlando and statewide. According to a company bio, his practice areas include litigation, appellate law and class action. He has served as general counsel for the Florida Bankers Association. Among his clients are First Union Corp., Lockheed Martin Corp., St. Paul Cos., PricewaterhouseCoopers and Ernst & Young. He was chairman of the Orange County Housing Finance Authority in 2000 and chairman of the Florida Bar’s financial institutions committee from 1994-96. He also served on the American Bar Association’s banking law committee in 1983 and is a fellow in the American College of Trial Lawyers. Cardwell’s selection was made without a formal process of campaigning and elections. Schuette says he approached him 10 months ago. Cardwell decided he was interested in the job, but didn’t want it unless all the firm’s offices were in agreement. Last February, Schuette set up a succession committee. “They interviewed partners in each of the offices and without soliciting or indicating what my desire was, everybody overwhelmingly suggested Cardwell,” Schuette says. As the company’s fiscal year ends Oct. 31, it was decided to have Cardwell take over on Nov. 1, Schuette says. “Tom was the right guy,” Zinn says.

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