In the 12 years she has lived in South Florida, Kara MacCullough has worked at all three of Florida’s largest law firms — Holland & Knight, Akerman Senterfitt and Greenberg Traurig.

The Fort Lauderdale securities lawyer moved to Greenberg from Holland in May 2011, bringing her multibillion-dollar client roster with her. MacCullough represents Burger King Worldwide Inc., Ryder System Inc. and SBA Communications Corp. She has been churning out major deals with regularity, including a $350 million note refinancing for Ryder last week.

“Generally what you are seeing is the market is beginning to get better and business is picking up, so clients are beginning to reach out and do more activities, and in my situation I really needed someplace that was just bigger with more resources, more offices and more attorneys,” MacCullough said. “I needed the bench strength. In South Florida, GT is the largest law firm serving the corporate market. I have definitely found a home.”

MacCullough is among a cadre of marquee-name senior partners who switched law firms in the last year or so, making 2011 the year of the senior lateral in South Florida.

Among the veterans who have hop-scotched in the last year are Marcos Jimenez, a former U.S. attorney who left as Miami managing partner for Kasowitz Benson Torres & Friedman for McDermott Will & Emery; Marty Steinberg, who left as Miami co-managing partner of Hunton & Williams for Bilzin Sumberg Baena Price & Axelrod; Peter Quinter, who moved his nationally recognized customs practice from Becker & Poliakoff to GrayRobinson; William Hill, who departed Bilzin Sumberg for Gunster; Jesus Cuza, who left Greenberg for Holland & Knight; and a host of prominent lawyers who joined Akerman Senterfitt, including Richard Sharpstein, Elizabeth Hernandez and Larry Silverman.

Transient Market

Some of these lawyers worked at their former firms for as long as two decades, which made their parting all the more notable. Lateral moves were virtually unheard of in the old days when lawyers stayed at their firms from cradle to grave.

But those days are long gone, with an increasing array of law firms opening shop in South Florida and luring partners with lucrative books of business.

“Our profession is more and more a mercurial profession,” said Pedro Martinez-Fraga, hiring partner at DLA Piper’s Miami office. “It’s less likely someone will stay somewhere for their entire career.”

Miami’s maturing legal market has become more international and practice areas more diversified, he said.

“Not all that long ago, Miami was a plaintiffs tort jurisdiction with a very vibrant real estate practice, with a white-collar criminal defense and maybe bankruptcy bar. Now you have international law, which feeds into every discipline,” Martinez-Fraga said. “What we’re seeing is more expansive practice areas giving rise to greater movement among lawyers.”

In the last year, international law firm DLA Piper and Atlanta-based Wargo French opened offices in Miami.

DLA Piper made a big splash, paying sizable salaries to recruit big-name lawyers from McDermott Will & Emery, Hunton & Williams and elsewhere. A year later, the office is up to 29 lawyers.

Wargo French opened a small office with former Greenberg partner Lori Sochin and associates from LewisTein and elsewhere.

But some laterals who were once successfully wooed by out-of-town law firms now find themselves choosing to return to home-grown firms. That’s the case with Silverman and Sharpstein, who both joined Akerman Senterfitt for the next phase of their careers.

Silverman helped launch Kasowitz Benson Torres Friedman’s Miami office in 2009, while Sharpstein helped Jorden Burt open a Miami office in 2001.

For Silverman, the decision to return to Akerman, where he worked from 1996 to 2007, brought his career full circle. He left with several partners to start his own practice and was lured away by Kasowitz in 2009. The litigator who specializes in “bet-the-company litigation” said he had plenty of options.

“The continued entry of the national firms causes an increase in solicitation of lawyers,” he said. “People come to town and need to staff up, which means that the people already here have to play defense. Plus firms here want to expand. Imagine a parking lot with four cars and four parking spaces. If there are suddenly five cars and four parking spaces, that means you’re going to have to pull them from somewhere. I had the opportunity to go anywhere I wanted.”

Bumper Crop

At 60, Sharpstein decided to spend the last chapter of his career with a large Florida law firm, which just happened to be looking to restore its white-collar defense department.

“Every decade or so I evaluate where I am,” he said. “The business of law is a very different thing from the practice of law. There is not stability and security in every law firm. In the last five or six years, we’ve seen law firms who have been in Miami for decades close up shop. Everybody is looking to find a place where they can spend the rest of their career without worrying about the future.”

Andrew Smulian, chairman and CEO of Akerman Senterfitt, has enjoyed a “bumper crop” of top laterals. He also picked up Hernandez, the former city attorney for Coral Gables; Richard Tuschman, a labor and employment shareholder formerly with Duane Morris; Jacqueline Arango, a litigation shareholder and former federal prosecutor; and Manuel Fernandez, a real estate shareholder who spent 17 years at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan. They were among 18 laterals who joined the firm in South Florida since the beginning of 2011.

“Compared to the rest of the country, South Florida was an early leader in seeing people move from one firm to another compared to more established markets in the Northeast,” Smulian said. “The word is out that we are a good place to come to, and we have a lot of demand. I think we are seeing more senior-level resumes.”

Recruiters say that most lawyers change jobs for more money. Quinter, who moved his practice to GrayRobinson after almost two decades at Becker & Poliakoff, agrees.

“Why would a high-level equity partner change law firms after many years at one firm? Often it is for more money,” Quinter said. “For GrayRobinson, that is certainly true because of the structure of our open and fair compensation system.”

But Quinter, who has maintained his $500-an-hour rate at GrayRobinson, said he also likes the “corporate culture” at GrayRobinson.

GrayRobinson managing partner Byrd “Biff” Marshall said he can usually tell which law firms are foundering by the firms on resumes he receives.

“We continue to see a steady flow of resumes from lawyers who are tired of their bureaucracy at big law firms,” said Marshall, who has hired 95 lateral partners in the last five years of which 89 remain. “Our system, our lack of bureaucracy, allows people the freedom to practice law.”

Aging Out

But other lawyers have different reasons for changing jobs. Steinberg, who launched Hunton’s Miami office in 1999, stunned many when he left for Bilzin Sumberg earlier this year. Steinberg, a commercial litigation powerhouse who represents Bacardi & Company Ltd., Burger King Worldwide Inc. and Ryder System Inc., left for a very personal reason. He had turned 65 and, under the law firm’s bylaws, was being eased out as managing partner.

John Sumberg, who got to know Steinberg when the two helped start a school for autistic children, was only too happy to take in his friend with partner Jeff Gutchess.

“Marty Steinberg and Jeff Gutchess are a tremendous team and asset, and they’re the kind of lawyers and partners that we would be happy to have and anxious to get any time whether the economy is good, bad or in between,” Sumberg said.

As the economy picks up in South Florida, so does the lateral market, he said.

“This is a moment where there is more activity,” Sumberg said. “When the economy changes, people think about changes. As the legal market has picked up, I think firms have felt more stable and strong and aggressive because there’s an investment when you bring in a lateral. We are looking for senior-level real estate and litigation lawyers.”

Client Needs

MacCollough moved to Greenberg to take advantage of Greenberg’s wealth of resources.

“My clients are getting busy, and I needed the resources,” she said. “Greenberg Traurig is incredibly deep and has lots of good, well-trained associates and service partners I can grab. For me, that was the driving force. I need the help so I can continue to be the mommy of two young children and still be the Brownie leader.”

MacCullough said her clients all followed her after she explained her motivations for leaving, and she has picked up a new one since joining Greenberg: New York-based International Flavors & Fragrances Inc.

“I’ve moved SBA twice, and I’ve moved Ryder twice,” she said. “I’ve always moved based on what the client base needed. That’s the motivation for me.”

For Cuza, a complex commercial litigator, the decision to leave Greenberg for Holland was motivated by a major client conflict. He chose Holland & Knight for two reasons.

“Number one, I looked carefully at the way the partners interacted with each other starting from the very top, and secondly, one of my best friends since I was a kid is here. He came over from Greenberg, too,” Cuza said. “He told me H&K is the place he’s going to retire from. That stuck with me a lot.”

Legal recruiters don’t see lateral hiring slowing down any time soon, particularly for senior-level partners in South Florida.

“While I believe each partner has his or her own personal and professional reasons for joining a new firm, the common thread seems to be that longevity no longer rules the day,” said Abbe Bunt, a recruiter for Bunt Legal Search of Hollywood. “It’s a message that is being transmitted to the younger generation of lawyers — who, in their own right, have shown greater movement than previous generations. To use a jewelry analogy, years ago, partnership was like wearing a gold wedding ring — a full circle with no ending. Today it is more like a gold-link bracelet — the links can be added on or taken off.”