by Mike Vogel
Updated 5 yearss ago
Bilzin Sumberg Baena Price & Axelrod
Painting On His Own Canvas
As Scott Baena tells the story, he became a bankruptcy lawyer because Citibank called the firm where he was a young lawyer and needed someone to immediately go to bankruptcy court to argue a case. The lawyer who hired Baena didn't know where bankruptcy court was. Baena did.
That was that. Now Baena, 55, can give directions to bankruptcy court in several states. He's worked on such cases as Heilig-Meyers, USA Floral and Southeast Banking Corp. In 2002, he won a $1.1-billion settlement in asbestos litigation in the W.R. Grace case.
Baena got the lawyer itch at age 8, in part from watching Anatomy of a Murder and The FBI Story. As a college senior, his prowess led President Richard Nixon to put him on the President's Committee on Economic Development. "Pretty much like Forrest Gump," he says of meeting Nixon. "A short sound bite and a great smile and 'I hope you enjoy the buffet' sort of thing."
Baena spent 22 years with Stroock & Stroock & Lavan in Miami before leaving in 2000 to join Bilzin Sumberg Baena Price & Axelrod to get "to paint on my own canvas, if you will."
The painting's going well. He has been listed for the last two years on the K&A Restructuring Register Top 100, a peer-selected list for reorganization and bankruptcy work. He's been on the Best Lawyers in America list for bankruptcy since 1988. He's currently bankruptcy court trustee for Lernout & Hauspie, the former owner of Dictaphone. He hopes to do more trustee work.
He credits his reputation for innovation to an unlikely source: "I'm willing to try anything -- undaunted by the fact, in my ignorance, that it's been tried before and someone has failed."
Senior partner / Bilzin Sumberg Baena Price & Axelrod, Miami
Recommended lawyer films: My Cousin Vinny and The Godfather. "It's all there."
At trial: "It is showtime. It is an opportunity to do things different. It is an opportunity to take otherwise somber and boring proceedings and lend some color to them."
Bronx native: "If somebody finds that part of me amusing, I try to amuse them. I'm happy to be My Cousin Vinny."
Ancestry: Baena's ancestors were forced out of Spain in 1492 because they were Jewish. His family settled in Turkey, where his paternal grandparents were born. "I marvel at the fact that 500 years later they were still speaking Spanish."
Just married: Baena this month is on his honeymoon in Istanbul. He married South Africa-born banker Michele Fluxman.
Jay Starkman at the relatively tender age of 35 went to Washington to argue a whistleblower employment case before the U.S. Supreme Court. It was something. Says Starkman: "It's actually the reason I ultimately left the practice of law." Wait, he says, hear the rest: "What I mean by that is, it was such a great experience, nothing else I could do in law would ever rival it."
Starkman's new experiences are in HR outsourcing. Since late 2002, he has been president of Boca Raton-based AlphaStaff, which handles HR outsourcing -- payroll, benefits administration, compliance assistance and other services for clients. For a majority of those clients, AlphaStaff also serves as a traditional PEO, co-employing clients' white- and gray-collar workers. Customers include Hampton Inn hotels, U.S. Lawns, Tandem Rehabilitation Group and the New York Mets. AlphaStaff targets midsized employers with at least 50 employees. Starkman says AlphaStaff's level of flexibility and technological sophistication gives it a 95% customer retention rate, far above the industry average. "We win our deals because we fit best, not because we're cheapest," he says.
A New York native, Starkman took an interest in AlphaStaff when it serviced a law firm he worked at. Since last year, it has grown to 90 corporate employees from 50 and to 15,000 worksite employees, up from 8,000. Starkman promises to increase the sales force and AlphaStaff's geographic reach. "We are going to be the top national company in the industry, and we'll expand the industry," the 40-year-old says.
Starkman, by the way, didn't win his Supreme Court case. He thinks positively about it, though, saying the court ruled for what's best for all rather than his client. The loss doesn't diminish the memory. "It was such a great experience," he says.
From Law to Outsourcing
President / AlphaStaff
Family: Wife, Roxana; sons, Kyle, 8, and Connor, 5.
Fourth of July plans: The Key Biscayne parade.
Pater: Starkman's father, Milton, was a federal administrative law judge in Fort Lauderdale.
Few bits of advice for building a law practice are as hackneyed as getting involved in the chamber of commerce. Yet that's what Arthur J. Furia, a CPA-turned-lawyer, did in the 1980s -- with a slight twist. The Italian-American joined the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce in Miami. He later became its president, the first one not born in Italy. He organized trade missions to Italy by then-Govs. Bob Martinez and Lawton Chiles. He's represented Italian companies in a variety of dealings here. And Furia, 51, has been the Republic of Italy's official lawyer for the Southeast U.S. and Caribbean since 1996. He holds Italy's highest civilian honor, the cavaliere, and also is a Knight of Malta, a papal honor awarded for help to the poor and needy. In March 2003, he joined Gunster Yoakley in Miami.
Scott G. Hawkins, 46, a corporate litigator and intellectual property lawyer with Jones, Foster, Johnston & Stubbs in West Palm Beach, grew up in Lutz near Tampa, went to UF and then to Scotland on a Rotary scholarship. He's been president of the UF alumni association and on the law college's board of trustees. He's in Best Lawyers in America for business litigation and is a member of the Florida Bar Board of Governors. He's been at Jones, Foster his entire career. "It's a very collegial environment here," Hawkins says.
Another CPA-turned-lawyer, Jeanne L. Seewald, 46, of Fowler White Boggs Banker in Naples, came to Florida from Little Rock, Ark. So naturally she's often asked, "Do you know Bill and do you know Hillary and were you at the Rose Law Firm?" The answers are "no, no and no," says Seewald, a corporate lawyer. Seewald is president of the Collier County Women's Bar, vice chair of the Florida Bar's intellectual property committee and active in the Naples chamber. She had her pilot's license before her law license. She doesn't do much piloting, though, even when she has some time. "If you don't fly a lot, you're a danger to yourself and everyone else," she says.