Richard A. Wood, Christopher E. Knight and Edward J. Briscoe lead Fowler White Burnett as managing partners of the midsize law firm, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary.
The partners responded to questions giving an overview of the firm.
How big is your firm, where is it located, and what are its primary areas of practice and focus?
Fowler White Burnett is a full-service Florida law firm with more than 75 attorneys practicing in our Miami, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and Naples offices. Our core practice groups include medical malpractice/health care, products liability and toxic torts, insurance, domestic and international business transactions/tax and maritime.
Please explain your firm’s governance structure and compensation model.
Our firm is governed by a management committee made up of three managing shareholders elected for staggered three-year terms. The current committee is comprised of Edward J. Briscoe, Christopher E. Knight and Richard A. Wood. Our compensation system is not formulaic, but rather it is based on multiple criteria such as business generation, financial performance, profitability and a number of other intangible measures, including corporate citizenship.
What do you view as the two biggest opportunities for your firm, and what are the two biggest threats?
We are strategically growing and expanding our core practice groups to take advantage of the region’s growth and have made significant investments in our maritime, insurance, product defect/mass tort and international business tax groups, including the expansion of our trademark and patent practices. Our biggest threats are shared by all firms in the legal industry, ever increasing competition, commoditization of legal services and stiff resistance to rate increases. We have invested heavily in technology, business development and marketing for attorneys to offset these challenges.
After the recession hit, the prevailing theory was that midsize firms would start to see more work come their way from large clients who could no longer justify paying Big Law rates. What has been your experience? We weathered the Great Recession in large part due to our longstanding firm policy of fiscal responsibility. We have historically operated with no debt. Our client base is worldwide, and we work with many out-of-state and international firms through our affiliation with ALFA International. We have enhanced our financial position since the recession and strengthened our balance sheet in virtually every aspect, and recently enjoyed some of the most successful years in the firm’s history.
Are your clients pushing for more alternative fee arrangements, and if so what types? Is your firm amenable to those requests?
We are always open to discussions with our clients, and we work with them on fee arrangements when it makes sense for both the firm and the client. By investing in technology and our attorneys’ practices, we have increased efficiency in the delivery of our legal services and remain highly competitive from a fee standpoint in both the traditional hourly rate as well as AFAs.
There is much debate around how law firms can foster the next generation of legal talent. What advantages and disadvantages do midsize firms have in attracting and retaining young lawyers, particularly millennials?
The firm’s strategy and culture over the course of 75 years has been the recruitment and retention of highly talented attorneys and support staff. We have focused on and successfully preserved the firm’s culture and maintained a highly collegial and professional workplace. We have consistently invested in our younger attorneys, providing training, legal education, leadership and business development. We have been ahead of the curve on flex time and recognizing life-work balance.
Does your firm employ any nonlawyer professionals in high-level positions (e.g. COO, business development officer, chief strategy officer, etc.)? If so, why is it advantageous to have a nonlawyer in that role? If not, have you considered hiring any?
We have an executive director with a high level of authority who overseas our nonlegal, day-to-day operations in cooperation with our management committee, along with comptroller, human resources, information technology, marketing and office services. Their expertise and focus in on the nonlegal operations of the firm and support of our attorneys’ practices.
What if any technology advancements have you made in your firm in recent years? What are the challenges in implementing tech changes?
Technology, security and training are at the top of tech challenges. Yet staying abreast of the latest advances in technology, data security and training our employees are just a few of the ways in which we provide our clients with exceptional service. Our network is designed to provide cohesion and redundancy between all of our offices for us to be able to work as efficiently as possible. We give our employees access to the latest tools and software needed to handle the demands of the legal workplace today and tomorrow, whether it’s through the use of our cloud-based document management system, NetDocuments, using the latest e-discovery tools like Logikcull or Relativity or providing effective tools for collaboration with other firms. Clients demand efficiency, which is achieved when all of the tools are used.
What would you say is the most innovative thing your firm has done recently, whether it be internal operations, how you work with clients, etc.?
Recently we contracted with an outside training company to maximize the software proficiency of all our attorneys, paralegals and legal assistants. We are taking it a step further and having those same people tested to become certified. Doing so further demonstrates to the market, and our clients, the firm’s commitment to providing the most cost-effective legal representation possible. Our goal is to bring value to our clients and exceed their expectations. That requires us to stay focused on opportunities and leverage technology to the fullest extent possible. Finally, along with providing a solid infrastructure, the most advanced software as well as the training certification of all of our employees, our highest priority is keeping our data secure and client information safe. We provide our attorneys secure access to our systems anywhere, anytime and on any device. Protecting client data is a 24/7 responsibility we take very seriously. We are HIPAA compliant and adhere to PCI and ISO standards. We have implemented multiple layers of security to defend against cyberwarfare and use tools such as dual authentication using Duo Mobile, geo-fencing, whitelisting, data analytics, DNS and internet monitoring, etc., to ensure our data is always secure. We are proactive and forward-thinking on all fronts rather than reactive.
Does your firm have a succession plan in place? If so, what challenges do you face in trying to execute that plan? If you don’t currently have a plan, is it an issue your firm is thinking about?
Succession planning is part of our firm culture. We are currently celebrating our 75th anniversary in South Florida and continually update our strategic plan with the future in mind.