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Florida's business courts

The state Legislature — with a push from the Florida Bar — created Florida’s first business court in Orlando in 2004. Since then, that court has handled more than 3,600 cases, and the concept of designating a judge to specialize in business litigation — antitrust suits, franchise cases, intellectual property suits and the like — has spread throughout Florida.

Tampa and Miami created business courts in 2007. A year later, Fort Lauderdale used a slightly different model to create a litigation unit for disputes of more than $150,000. Judges Jeffrey Streitfeld, Jack Tuter and Patti Englander Henning hear cases other business courts in Florida might not, including medical malpractice and product liability suits.

So far the courts have been almost universally well-received. Attorneys say that having a judge with expertise in complex litigation helps move cases through the system faster and has made judicial rulings more consistent. "These cases would have bogged down other divisions," says Merrick Gross, a commercial litigator at Carlton Fields who spearheaded the Bar’s advocacy for business courts nearly a decade ago. Economic developers, meanwhile, have touted the courts because they say businesses are drawn to areas that show an understanding of business-related litigation.

Lawyers say several factors have left room for improvement, however. "There’s a perception that cases were moving too slowly and decisions were taking longer than hoped to get decided," says Jim Murphy, an attorney with Shook Hardy & Bacon in Tampa. Murphy says much of the problem has stemmed from funding issues — the business courts, he says, didn’t get the kind of support staff and other help to enable them to work through cases more quickly. "These are complicated cases that require research and active case managing, and the resources we initially had envisioned were not there," he says. "I think the caseloads were more than anticipated."

In 2009, there was a moratorium on assigning additional cases to the business court in Tampa, and Murphy served on a committee created to recommend tweaks.

? Growth of Business Courts ?

Some see changes in judgeships at several business courts in Florida as an opportune time to refine the courts’ operation.

Murphy says the previous committee in Tampa may be reconvened now that there’s a new judge, and a similar committee is to begin meeting early this year in south Florida. Joel Brown, chief judge of the civil division in the 11th judicial district, has asked Michael Higer, a commercial litigator with Higer, Lichter & Givner in Aventura, to co-chair a committee of lawyers to advise the business court in Miami-Dade County.

Attorneys say there may be a learning curve for the new judges, but they don’t expect the business courts to lose much momentum. Higer points out that it’s still early in the history of Florida’s business courts. With tweaking in 2012, he’s convinced they’ll stay on a good path.

"Business courts have accomplished exactly what the lawyers in the business community wanted to see occur," says Higer — "to get a judge whose more proficient and efficient in handling business disputes."

A New Round of Judges

Orlando:

Lisa Taylor Munyon and Frederick Lauten
Lisa Taylor Munyon (left) replaces Frederick Lauten (right) as business court judge in Orlando. [Photo of Munyon: AP]

In Orange County, departing business court Judge Frederick Lauten says about 40% of the cases he presided over in 2011 were construction litigation lawsuits, typically with more than 20 parties requiring six to eight weeks of jury trial time. "In the general civil division, it’s hard to get to that case," Lauten says. Most business court judges have about 500 cases at a time. "I meet with every party and lawyer and schedule these out," says Lauten, who recently ruled on a $90-million construction litigation lawsuit with so many warring parties that he needed to use the large courtroom in which the Casey Anthony trial took place.

judges
Also in Orlando, Alice L. Blackwell (left) takes over for Thomas Smith (right).

Tampa

Herbert Baumann and Richard Nielsen
Herbert Baumann Jr. (left) takes over for Richard Nielsen (right).

Miami-Dade

Jennifer Bailey, Jose Rodriguez and Gill Freeman
Jennifer Bailey (left)and Jose Rodriguez (center) will take over for Gill Freeman (right) in Miami. [Freeman photo by Tampa Bay Times]

Gill Freeman, the first business court judge in Miami-Dade, says her background as a commercial litigator gave her an edge when ruling on the large commercial foreclosure suits and real estate-related disputes that have come to her courtroom. "I manage the cases, which means (at the start) I set down orders for the discovery period, file motions and when the case is going to trial. It gets everyone marching and that doesn’t happen in regular civil divisions."

Hot Practice Areas in 2012

  • Commercial bankruptcy
  • Latin American practices
  • Corporate litigation (construction, white collar, trade secrets)
  • Healthcare
  • Labor and employment law
  • Social media

Still Chilly

  • Real estate
  • Eminent domain / condemnation
  • Banking

Stats and Facts

  • Women comprise 34% of Florida Bar membership. Thirty years ago, women accounted for only 8% of membership; 20 years ago, 20%; 10 years ago, 27%.
  • 62% of women lawyers in Florida are employed in private practice positions compared to 87% of men.
  • In a randomly selected poll of Florida Bar members, 35% of all respondents report their hourly rate to be more than $250, while 16% report their hourly rate to be more than $300. Additionally, 40% report their hourly rate to be $200 or less.
  • Biggest areas of concern for lawyers in Florida: "Lack of ethics/professionalism" and "poor public perception."
  • Florida Bar members say issues of greatest impact on the profession over the next decade: Technology, too many attorneys and the economy.

Source: Florida Bar 2010 Economics and Law Office Management Survey, 2009 Florida Bar Open Membership Opinion Survey

Digital Deluge

» The proliferation of electronic communication is creating mountains of evidence that may be promising but are difficult to mine.

Paul Singerman
Paul Singerman has retrieved documents from hard drives and memories of copy machines and voice mails from corporate and personal mobile devices. [Photo: Scott Barfield]

In complicated cases, Miami attorney Paul Singerman may amass thousands of e-mails and voice mails during the discovery process. Singerman, who currently represents clients in two of Florida’s biggest fraud cases, knows just one electronic record can hold the key to a million-dollar judgment. But how many can an attorney realistically scour — and how much should a company have to spend to retrieve electronic information to defend itself?

Increasingly, the volume of electronic communication is creating big challenges when a company ends up in court. A company with about 100 employees sending an average of 25 e-mails daily produces about 625,000 e-mails yearly. When sued, if a company can’t easily comply with a court order to produce specific e-mails or other electronically stored information it can face sanctions and higher litigation costs. A judge can even bar a defense if it appears the party being sued didn’t preserve evidence after a claim was asserted.

During consultations, one of the first questions Singerman says he asks a potential client is how the company manages its electronic information. "If they have paid no attention to electronically stored information policies and practices, we’ve got lot of educating to do in terms of human and financial resources required to zealously represent or defend them."

Singerman says his firm has hired two full-time litigation support specialists and invested in a document management program that allows its lawyers to input and review documents for themes or key words. Firms around the state are making similar investments in document management systems. "It would surprise people to learn how much trouble you can be in if you don’t know how to manage and exploit large amounts of electronically stored information," he says.

An area of increasing debate is who picks up the tab for the cost of retrieving electronic information. Lawyers likely will make their case in March before Florida’s Supreme Court to shift the cost to the party requesting the information.

Orlando attorney Francis Sheppard, who represents public agencies such as school boards, says plaintiff attorneys are asking for his clients to produce electronic information that takes hundreds of hours to retrieve.

"These agencies already are strapped for cash," says Sheppard, managing partner of Rumberger, Kirk & Caldwell. In some instances, he says, the cost of retrieving the information might force a client to settle. "Some of these discovery requests may or may not be necessary."

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Florida Law Schools 2012 - List available for download

Purchase this list of Florida Law Schools, published in the February 2012 issue of Florida Trend. Excel download includes data not published in the magazine, including fees, room & board, law degrees conferred, phone, fax, website and full mailing address. Available in Excel only ($19).

Lean Law

» Law firms are hiring — but selectively.

From boutique legal offices to Florida’s top-name law firms, hiring is back but nowhere close to pre-recession levels.

Law firms are adding litigators and specialists in busy practice areas including corporate law, healthcare, bankruptcy, employment law and government regulation. The nine-office Gunster firm, which has added more than 25 attorneys as it expanded in Jacksonville and added a Tampa office, is notable for its growth. Most big firms have hired between five to 20 lawyers this year, focusing on experienced attorneys with a track record.

Manuel Garcia-Linares
Attorney Manuel Garcia-Linares:
Midsize firms "don’t have lawyers sitting around who don’t have work to handle."
The recession has taught law firms how to get by with less.

"In particular, we’ve seen the most significant cuts in areas like legal secretaries, finance and library research and mail staff," says Steven Sonberg, managing partner of Holland & Knight.

Sonberg says Holland & Knight, like other firms, has changed its hiring approach: It moved away from picking up attorneys "with books of business" toward those who fit into a practice area where the firm sees growth. And it’s expecting more productivity from all its lawyers.

Manuel Garcia-Linares, managing shareholder at Richman Greer, with offices in West Palm Beach and Miami, says midsize firms are doing well. "They don’t have lawyers sitting around who don’t have work to handle."

"All firms in Florida are experiencing a profit squeeze," says G. Mark Thompson, senior vice president of Marshall, Dennehey, Warner, Coleman & Goggin. "And that will continue."

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Florida Law Firms 2012 - List available for download

Florida's 25 largest law firms, ranked by number of lawyers in Florida. Downloadable file includes data not published in Florida Trend, including full contact information, address, phone, fax and website, as well as area of specialty. Published in February 2012. Excel $29. Free HTML preview of Top 5 firms.

So Long, Partner

» Despite retention initiatives, women still represent less than 20% of law firm partners.

Mindy Mora
Mindy Mora
Mindy Mora puts in 12 hours at the office and then a few more after dinner. It’s a lifestyle she says most law firm partners consider the norm.

In Florida’s competitive legal industry, pressure to meet the quota for billable hours, develop new business and help clients who want instant responses is creating increasing demands on lawyers. “Being a partner at a law firm is not a 9-to-5 job,” Mora says.

Mora’s lifestyle, even with the glamour of a partner title at Bilzin Sumberg in Miami and a six-figure salary, is one some female associates have shunned. “They want to be able to have a family and enjoy their family,” Mora says.

Susan Healy
Susan Healy
The demands of partnership are one reason that Eleanor Barnett left Mora’s firm to practice at Heller Waldman in Coconut Grove, which has seven attorneys. Barnett says while the client demands might be the same, she doesn’t have the internal meetings and politicking that can be time-consuming. “That can make a big difference for women who are trying to balance motherhood and a busy litigation practice.”

The trend toward women lawyers moving on to practice outside of big firms has some managing partners concerned enough that they are ramping up retention and advancement efforts. Large firms such as Holland & Knight, Carlton Fields and Hunton & Williams have initiatives to help advance their rising stars to partner and tackle the higher female attrition rates.

For now, the numbers are sobering: Women make up half of law school graduates and about 45% of private practice associates. But they only represent 19.2% of law firm partners, according to an American Bar Association survey.

“Unfortunately that number has stayed relatively the same for the past 20 years,” says Susan Healy, partner at Vernon Healy in Naples and president of the Florida Association for Women Lawyers. “Regardless of initiatives and the high-profile advances women attorneys have made, we aren’t seeing it filtered the way it should.”

Nationally, efforts are under way to lobby firms to put more women on their compensation committees, where major strategy and partnership decisions are made.

“The initiatives have to go deeper than they are now,” Healy says. “We have to give women leadership skills to achieve at all levels.”

Young Blood

» It’s a buyer’s market for young legal talent.

As the recession has forced law firms to do more with fewer resources, many young law school graduates are finding slim pickings as they look for jobs.

Pascale Bishop
Pascale Bishop, assistant dean of career development at UF’s law school, says generally only top-ranked graduates are landing jobs within six months of graduating.

Large firms such as Holland & Knight say they are hiring 30% fewer new associates than just five years ago, and many midsized and small firms look almost exclusively at hiring experienced attorneys. Government agencies have cut back on hiring law graduates as well.

Meanwhile, with 11 law schools in Florida graduating more than 1,200 students each year — and with a 12th, Thomas M. Cooley Law School, to open this summer — the state’s legal market is one of the most saturated in the country. Young grads who could expect red-carpet treatment and signing bonuses now compete for fewer jobs at lower pay.

There are, of course, exceptions. In May, Jesse Unruh graduated summa cum laude from Florida State University College of Law and immediately went to work at Tew Cardenas in Miami. The 27-year-old believes his experience as a systems analyst and his high law school ranking “really made a difference.”

Salary Report
2010 median private practice salaries for law graduates
City
Starting salary
Miami
$85,000
Fort Lauderdale
62,000
Tampa
60,000
Orlando
57,500
Jacksonville 55,000
Source: NALP.org (National Association for Law Placement)
Pascale Bishop, assistant dean of career development at UF’s Levin College of Law, says the new hiring process has made it difficult for law school students to gauge their prospects, and most won’t even be considered for employment until after they pass the Bar exam.

“They want the security of having a job at graduation, but the market is making them wait,” Bishop says. More often, only the top-ranked graduates are offered law jobs within the first six months of receiving their degree, and Bishop says more are looking at using their law degrees in alternate careers.