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Building Lasting Relationships

Abigail Watts-FitzGerald believes that strong relationships are the foundation for being a good corporate lawyer. “The better you know your clients and their businesses, the more effective you can be,” says Watts-FitzGerald, a partner at Weiss Serota in Coral Gables. “It’s not like being a litigator, when you focus primarily on the case. One of the things I like about corporate law is that you can build those long-term relationships.”

For more than 30 years, Watts-FitzGerald has been helping companies, non-profits and individuals with their transactional legal needs. She’s helped to structure sales, mergers, acquisitions and divestitures, along with shareholders and employment agreements. Her work also includes sports and entertainment law, intellectual property matters and distribution and licensing agreements.

“I’ve found that building personal connections is important to generating referrals and getting new clients,” says Watts-FitzGerald, whose extensive contact list dates back to the early 1980s. “I also try to maintain cordial relationships with attorneys on the other side of various matters. While a litigator might want to attack each point of a case, a good corporate attorney strives to reach a middle ground that results in a positive outcome for both parties.”

Becoming an Attorney

Born in 1952, Watts-FitzGerald grew up in a small town in New Jersey at a time when women were expected to be homemakers rather than professionals. “I had to talk my junior high teachers into letting me take shop rather than home economics,” she says. After graduating from high school, she enrolled at Franklin & Marshall College, a small school that had recently gone coed. “I remember my government 101 professor would never call on any of the women in our class,” she says. “Fortunately, we had blind grading and I remember how surprised he was that I got an A in his course.”

In college, Watts-FitzGerald double majored in anthropology and English, while working as a waitress to make ends meet. After graduation, she went to the University of Chicago and earned a master’s degree in English. While in graduate school, she dated a law student and began thinking of changing her career plans. “My father loved watching ‘Perry Mason’ on TV, but I wasn’t thrilled by the idea of standing up in a courtroom as a trial attorney,” she recalls. “Instead, I was attracted to corporate law, and that’s been my focus throughout my career.”

After deciding to become an attorney, Watts-FitzGerald enrolled at the University of Miami, and became one of the first women editors-in-chief of the law review. During law school, she also met her husband, Thomas Watts-FitzGerald, who was then attending law school while an officer with the U.S. Coast Guard. After earning her degree in 1979, she joined Arnold & Porter, LLP in Washington, DC. In the early 1980s, they moved back to Miami, where Watts-FitzGerald joined Steel Hector & Davis. After spending 15 years with Steel Hector, she moved to Hunton & Williams’s Miami office in 1999, and joined Weiss Serota in 2012. Meanwhile, her husband Thomas joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office, where he is now head of the environmental crimes section.

Along with their careers, the Watts-FitzGeralds raised three children, Caitlin, now working at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and fraternal twins Colin and Devin, who just graduated from college. The family enjoys skiing, snorkeling and scuba diving vacations. “It’s always a challenge balancing family and a career, and I hope I’ve done it fairly well,” she says. “I would regularly take work home with me but 90 percent of the time I would make dinner for my kids so we could all sit down together.”

Handling a Wide Range of Matters

Early in her career, Watts-FitzGerald was exposed to a wide range of corporate matters. “Since Arnold & Porter didn’t have a corporate law department, I had an opportunity to work on cases like the Braniff airline bankruptcy,” she says. “That gave me a good start in terms of issue spotting. I think it’s good for young lawyers to get that general experience, rather than become specialists right away.”

Watts-FitzGerald also believes that young attorneys should start cultivating relationships with their peers, beginning in law school. “If you can maintain those contacts through the years, you’ll find that one of two of your classmates will become a corporate counsel, CFO or CEOs,” she says. “I still get calls from my days in Washington from senior executives who tell me, ‘I thought of you and want to give you some legal work.’”

Throughout her career, Watts-Fitzgerald has served as an outside general counsel to for profit and non-profit organizations. She has represented the Orange Bowl Committee, Inc. (OBC) for more than 25 years, negotiating Orange Bowl sponsorships and Bowl Championship Series (BCS) agreements. She’s also set up arrangements for media coverage at the nationally televised football games and signed off on entertainers’ contracts. “It’s amazing what some performers specify as requirements in their dressing room,” she says.

Eric Poms, chief executive officer for the OBC, praises Watts-Fitzgerald’s personal and legal skills. “Abi is an invaluable sounding board with tremendous institutional knowledge and a real asset to our organization,” he says. “She has a passion for our organization and what we do in the South Florida community. She is very strategic in her thinking and very analytical when asking legal questions.”

    Watts-FitzGerald has also helped clients from many other sectors of South Florida’s diverse economy. She was lead counsel in the transition of Gulliver Schools, Inc. from a for profit to nonprofit corporation. In representing one affluent client, she arranged for the sale of a luxury yacht loaded with expensive personal possessions to take place on the high seas so that no valued added taxes (VAT) would be due. “We had the captain take a photo of the GPS position, along with the bill of sale, to document that the transaction occurred in international waters,” she says.

Exploring new Opportunities

    Now with her children “out of the nest,” Watts-FitzGerald says the next stage of her career might include doing some part-time teaching, giving law students the benefits of her hard-won experience. She also plans to continue providing strategic advice and hands-on expertise in structuring transactions and agreements.

    “In business, you have to think about what might go wrong when drawing up the initial documents in order to avoid leaving gaping holes in an agreement,” she says. “In litigation, when the judge makes a ruling, you can close the files and never look at them again. But in corporate law, every closing binder can be a smoking gun in a lawsuit down the road.”

    Watts-FitzGerald recalls one corporate executive who launched a joint venture with a personal friend and ignored her advice about including a default provision. Seven years later, the company’s new president called her and started chewing her out because the venture was a failure. “I looked back on my files, and found my note that the executive had disregarded my recommendations,” she says. “I immediately faxed that documentation and never heard another word from them. It just goes to show the importance of keeping good records, along with giving good advice.”

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