Top brass at several of South Florida’s prominent law firms have a strong sense of optimism looking ahead to 2019, a year they expect will keep transactional, real estate, land use, tax and immigration lawyers busy.
Interviews with managing partners and executives at statewide and national firms with a large presence in South Florida revealed the leaders are bullish amid speculation the U.S. economy is due for a recession. They said they expect Florida’s economy to stay hot regardless of what happens nationwide — but some have plans in mind if demand drops for certain practice areas.
William Perry, CEO and managing shareholder of Gunster, said Florida remains a highly attractive place for investors and other newcomers. He explained the federal tax overhaul passed late last year has heightened that attraction since other states were more heavily impacted by limits on deductions for state and local taxes.
“We’re still in a growth mode of some 1,000 people a day moving into the state,” he said. “We’ve certainly seen an uptick since the tax reform act, and more people making a decision to — sooner rather than later — move to Florida.”
Perry also voiced optimism about the impact of the Brightline high-speed rail line connecting Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. He anticipates rising ridership will open the door for developers along the train’s path.
“It’s up and running and gaining ridership,” he said. “As that becomes more common and rail acceptance gets fully indoctrinated into the minds of Floridians, I think we’re going to see a lot for development in the rail corridors.”
Harvey Gurland Jr., managing partner of Duane Morris’ Miami and Boca Raton offices, also offered a rosy view of the legal market’s near future, specifically noting deal flow picked up in the second half of the year.
“We saw, in the early-to-middle part of 2018, a little bit of a slowdown in some transactional areas, but there’s been a pretty significant uptick in transactions” toward the latter part of the year, Gurland said. “I anticipate that will continue.”
BUSY PRACTICE AREAS
Firm leaders point to a number of practice areas, including real estate, land use, mergers and acquisitions, and private wealth management, as key business drivers that they expect to remain active in 2019.
As global investors looked to Florida as a place to park their money, Gurland said Duane Morris has seen its international tax practice do well. He also expects his firm’s lawyers will stay active in the areas of intellectual property, particularly in the life sciences sector, along with construction litigation and transactions.
Perry, who runs the firm from West Palm Beach, said its private wealth group has been humming, and he expects that will continue into 2019 and beyond.
“That’s a practice that we’re very bullish on,” he said. “It’s interesting how Miami attracts capital from all over the world.”
Mary Leslie Smith, managing partner of Foley & Lardner’s Miami office, named a few other areas that she believes will keep her firm’s Florida lawyers busy in 2019, including immigration, an area that’s undergone dramatic change amid new enforcement priorities by the Trump administration.
Smith said she also would be keeping an eye on the hospitality industry, which is a big focus of her individual practice. She noted, for example, the extended reach in 2018 of the red tide toxic algae blooms that have plagued the waters off both Florida coasts and raised concerns for the tourism industry. Environmental factors, she said, might also impact development in the renewable energy sector.
At Berger Singerman, all four practice teams — business reorganization; business, finance and tax; dispute resolution; and government and regulatory — have been busy, said firm co-chairman Paul Singerman. He noted his firm’s bankruptcy and restructuring group and the deal lawyers have had particularly active periods, and he expects all of the practice teams will have solid years in 2019.
“We’ve made a deliberate effort to stick to our knitting,” said Singerman. “We distinguish ourselves by generally not doing commodity work; we think that for a lot of reasons, the firms that have adopted models that revolve around commodity work will face continuing pressure.”
While several firm leaders said real estate, land use and construction practices would be active in 2019, Mitch Burnstein, managing director of Weiss Serota Helfman Cole & Bierman, noted that type of work might change its focus.
Following construction of skyscrapers and other large developments in over the recent years, he doesn’t expect as much new construction. But developers have found novel ways to repurpose, revamp and expand existing buildings, meaning there should be plenty of work for real estate and land use lawyers in 2019.
“There’s less new development coming out of the ground now, so you’re not going to see the same level of new residential construction. On one hand that is slowing down the private land use practice,” said Burnstein. “But there is a silver lining to this — developers are more creative in developing and holding properties.”
EYES ON EXPANSION
All of the firm leaders interviewed for this article said they have their eyes on expanding their South Florida lawyer headcount with prospects for business looking good in 2019.
“Foley’s got a strong eye on growing the office here,” said Smith, referring to Foley & Lardner’s 29-lawyer Miami outpost. “When you look at the economic numbers for the state of Florida in terms of driving the economy of the nation, given where we are size-wise here in South Florida, we need a larger footprint.”
Gurland said Duane Morris is likely to expand its Miami office, and hiring efforts could focus on corporate, transactional or real estate lawyers with books of business. But he also noted that, while it might seem counterintuitive, he views 2019 as a good time to staff up in bankruptcy and restructuring.
The economy is hot now, but Gurland wouldn’t be surprised to see it level off or dip, perhaps toward the end of 2019, meaning lawyers with experience representing financially struggling businesses might be in higher demand.
Virtually all of the firm leaders also said recent technological changes, such as ROSS Intelligence’s artificial intelligence-powered legal research tools, are likely to play a part in how their firms operate and approach cases.
None of the leaders said they expect AI or anything else to fully take the place of lawyers, but they said technology is changing how lawyers work and in many cases reducing the level of back-office support necessary to run a law firm. Those trends are likely to accelerate as technology advances, firm leaders said.
“If I’m doing a deal, you’re still going to need a lawyer; and ROSS is not going to try a case or take a deposition,” said Singerman. But he added, “Those human actions follow a whole bunch of preparatory work that technology is going to abbreviate.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the Berger Singerman firm. We apologize for the mistake, which has been fixed.