Top Law Firms See Growth Opportunities in Key Practice Areas
When Robert Brochin looks to the future, he sees growth opportunities in South Florida’s legal market. “I feel very bullish about our state and our region from both a demographic and economic perspective,” says Brochin, managing partner of the Miami office of Morgan Lewis & Bockius LLP. “One of the most positive trends is Florida’s evolving role in the global economy, including Miami’s strategic position for handling international transactions, arbitrations and litigation matters.”
Like other managing partners interviewed by South Florida Legal Guide, Brochin says the biggest challenges facing law firms today are staying current with technology and meeting the evolving expectation of clients, while maintaining the firm’s fundamental values and culture.
In addition, the role of the managing partner is changing as well – at least in mid-size and large law firms. The autocratic style of the past is on the way out, as today’s managing partners take a more democratic approach in striving to engage the firm’s lawyers in strategic decisions and initiatives.
Here’s a closer look at how five Top Law Firms are seeking to capitalize on timely opportunities in the legal services market.
An international Perspective
In January, Brochin succeeded Mark Zelek as managing partner of the Miami office of Morgan Lewis, which recently become the largest law firm in the U.S. based on domestic attorney head count. Last fall, the national firm gained 700-plus lawyers after its consolidation with Bingham McCutchen LLP. “None of those attorneys were practicing in Florida, so the Miami office wasn’t affected,” says Brochin. “We did pick up about 80 lawyers in Singapore, so we are well-equipped to provide full legal services to clients with interests there.”
Currently, there are 25 lawyers in the downtown Miami office, with a total staff of about 50. “We will be adding more attorneys in the coming year to add to our legal talent in key practice areas,” Brochin says. “Miami is one of the cities of the future for international dispute resolution, and we have a big opportunity to put our language skills and capacities to good use in the legal world.”
Under Brochin’s leadership, the Miami office has made a commitment to provide pro bono contributions for the rights of children, including immigration, education and guardian at litem legal services.
Brochin started with Morgan Lewis in 1984 and has practiced with the firm ever since, with the exception of serving three years as deputy counsel to the governor and Florida inspector general. As co-chair of the firm’s litigation practice group, Brochin represents a wide range of clients across the nation.
Brochin says the role of the managing partner at large firms has changed in recent years. “Historically, the managing partner’s role was geographically oriented,” he says. “Now, “There is much less emphasis on where you reside and more on being skilled in legal services, shifting the focus to a vertical perspective, based on a practice group or industry. It’s a much better way to organize a law firm, because it puts the focus on how to solve the client’s problems.”
Ten Years of Growth
Since opening its West Palm Beach office ten years ago, Fox Rothschild LLP has steadily grown its presence in the region. “Our full-service West Palm office now has more than 25 partners and associates handling issues for our diverse client base,” says Amy S. Rubin, office managing partner. A board certified specialist in civil trial and business litigation law, Rubin focuses her practice on complex commercial litigation.
In 2013, Fox Rothschild opened a Coral Gables office with partner Raúl J. Valdés-Fauli. Recently, that office – which now has six attorneys – moved to a new location in downtown Miami to accommodate future growth, Rubin says. “We expect Miami will really grow in the business practice areas.”
Rubin has seen greater mobility among attorneys in the past year, reflecting South Florida’s stronger economy. “The competition for laterals continues to grow,” she says. “It’s vital for law firms to know how to attract and keep talented attorneys.”
The national firm, based in Philadelphia, now has more than 600 attorneys practicing in 21 offices coast to coast. Rubin says the practice of law has accelerated with the availability of 24/7 communications technology. “Technology is a big issue for law firms,” she adds. “You have to provide greater access to connect with clients, while maintaining data security throughout the process. Being able to have videoconferences with attorneys and clients in multiple locations has really helped us deliver legal services more promptly.”
Rubin says the role of the office manager today is to work closely with practice chairs, to support Fox Rothschild’s entrepreneurial culture. “Our firm focuses on mid-market clientele, as well as big clients, so we have a very solid foundation for future growth.”
Adele I. Stone, co-managing shareholder, Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney’s Fort Lauderdale office, says information technology poses both challenges and opportunities to the region’s firms. “IT moves at light speed, and law firms need to keep up with their clients and the business world in general,” Stone says. “But technology is also making the world much smaller, and our attorneys in Broward and Miami-Dade are well positioned for growth in the global market.”
Board certified in real estate law, Stone handles a wide variety of transactions for her clients. She also leads the 16 lawyers and 14 staffers in the Fort Lauderdale office, including strong practice groups in international tax, business transactions and real estate. “Expanding our teams in Fort Lauderdale and Miami is a top priority for the entire firm,” she adds. “South Florida presents a unique opportunity for growth and the time to capitalize on that is now, not later.”
Drawing on her more than 15 years of experience as a managing shareholder, Stone says some issues for law firms don’t change. “We have to always focus on meeting the demands from clients in legal matters of ever-increasing complexity, while managing the fee structure,” she says.
However, Stone’s role has changed since joining the Pittsburgh-based national firm. “Now, I am more of a facilitator than a CEO, since I receive a great deal of administrative support from the firm,” she says. “That allows me to focus on continuing the firm’s commitment to growth and community outreach.”
Stone also serves on The Florida Bar’s Vision 2016 Commission as chair of the Access to Legal Services group. “Technology is one of the core issues affecting the future of the legal profession,” she says. “It is a key factor in facilitating the delivery of legal services to those who are unable to afford attorneys. It’s also changing the practice of law in many other ways. If you can’t jump on the tech bandwagon now, you will be left behind, regardless of your legal experience and abilities.”
A Democratic Approach
Pablo Quesada, Peter González and Roland Sanchez-Medina Jr. have taken a democratic approach to managing SMGQ Law, their growing Coral Gables-based law firm. “Before we opened our doors in January 2007, we sat down and talked about the best approach to management,” says Quesada. “As founding partners, we all wanted to be involved in setting the direction of the firm, rather than have one person running the show, as other managing partners in the community suggested had historically been the best approach.”
Initially, each partner had the right to veto major decisions, but that policy changed after the firm expanded in 2009. “At that time, we set up a management committee, similar to a corporate board, that delegates most day to day and administrative functions of the firm to one or more equity partners, but retains control over key decisions that require majority vote,” he says. “With technology, there is no longer a need for formal board meetings or circulating written consents. Instead, the equity partners can quickly provide feedback and make decisions electronically.”
Quesada says this management structure has been beneficial, giving the equity partners input into firm decisions, but maintaining the agility needed to move quickly with the market. Also, having various partners involved in the administration of the firm and in making key decisions, instead of one managing partner, allows the firm to tackle a variety of matters at the same time and properly flesh out proposals before they are implemented.
Today, SMGQ has 25 attorneys and a staff of nearly 50, with more growth expected in the coming year. The firm’s key practice areas include corporate, real estate, tax and estate planning, as well as commercial transactions related to Latin America and inbound investments. The firm also has a large commercial litigation practice that represents numerous Fortune 500 companies, among others, and maintains high-end family and criminal law practice groups.
“Our growth has been, and will continue to be, based on the needs of our clients,” says Quesada. “We have also built a strong network of relationships with other law firms in Latin America for in-country issues.”
Looking ahead to the second half of 2015, Quesada says domestic transactions and investment activity continues to pick up. “For the past five years, foreign investment has helped South Florida recover from the recession,” he says. “That incoming flow has continued, as the U.S. market has strengthened. We expect the next few years to be strong ones for our region.”
A Dramatic Expansion
GrayRobinson is on the fast track to growth, adding nearly a dozen new attorneys to its Miami office in the past six months. “We have been on a strong growth trajectory for many years, and expect that to continue in the future,” says Steve Zelkowitz, managing shareholder of the Orlando firm’s Miami office and co-chair of the Hospitality Industry Group.
The firm’s recent hires include Jack Reiter, co-chair of the firm’s appellate division; John Boudet, the new complex litigation chair; Kevin Levy, chair of a new technology group; and Dania Saavedra and Michael Sastre, who focuses on complex commercial litigation, construction litigation and insurance defense.
A decade ago, Zelkowitz opened GrayRobinson’s Fort Lauderdale office, followed by new offices in Miami and Boca Raton. There are now more than than 100 attorneys among the three offices, and a total of 300 attorneys in GrayRobinson’s 12 Florida offices.
After the ups and downs of the past decade, South Florida’s law firms learned the important importance of “smart growth” and maintaining profitability in the “new normal” economy, Zelkowitz says. “Clients expect services to be provided in a cost-effective manner, such as having a shareholder be assisted my multiple associates.”
Noting that the firm moved in January to a new location in downtown Miami, Zelkowitz says attorneys’ offices in general have become smaller and more uniform in size. “In Europe, some firms have adopted an open-space model, but that doesn’t work when you have several attorneys talking with clients on their speaker phones,” he says. Another change in office layouts is flexible conference rooms that host both large and small meetings, along with creating informal rooms that provide a comfortable space for visitors.
Zelkowitz says real estate, land use, hospitality, healthcare, senior housing and elder care law are hot practice areas for the firm at this point in the business cycle. “We will continue to add practice areas in fields like corporate tax,” he says. “We believe in organic growth, because that provides for more stability over the long term.”