Prior to the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Florida was enjoying a fast-growing population and economy, prompting major law firms to venture to the Sunshine State to establish more permanent residences, especially in Miami.
But Florida is now wrangling with the third-worst outbreak of the coronavirus in the United States, and managing partners across the state expect that the new challenges presented in 2020 will persist through the coming year.
In the same breath, firm leaders expect the state to be in a position to effectively tackle the ongoing issues, such as mining its experience dealing with the housing market crash of 2008 to navigate strains on the court systems due to delayed jury trials.
“I think South Florida is uniquely situated to do well in this environment,” said Steve Marks, the managing partner of Miami-based Podhurst Orseck PA, in regard to hiring and retaining talent through 2021.
Here are four issues keeping Florida-based managing partners up at night in the new year.
Location, Location, Location
Unsurprisingly, the continued evolution of working from home remains at top of mind for managing partners, though they note the successful transition of business in the past year.
“Productive employees remain productive,” said Gary Rosen, managing shareholder and chief executive officer of Fort Lauderdale-based Becker, who further noted that, “We can’t unlearn what we have discovered over the past 10 months, and that is that, speaking for my firm, we migrated an entire workforce, approximately 300 employees, to remote work.”
That reduced reliance on real estate may continue after the pandemic subsides, especially in evaluating overhead and nonrevenue costs. The state has become an attractive destination for corporations and law firms, but for Rosen, the equation of maintaining productivity while spending less on real estate is obvious. “To be able to do so means that there is a substantial piece of our top-line revenue that’s going to be able to drop to our bottom line.”
“It’s inevitable that physical footprints are going to shrink,” Rosen said. “It’s not going to be a sudden and dramatic shrink, but as leases come due, tenants will be looking very hard at how they can rethink the utilization of space, who is going to be in office, how often they’re going to be in office, and who can work remotely entirely or partially.”
The Becker manager estimates that, within five years, “We’ll be able to shrink our total firmwide footprint by at least 35%, possibly more.”
In the case of Tallahassee-based Dean Cannon, president and chief executive officer at GrayRobinson PA, which operates 14 offices across Florida, the distinct considerations of the state coincidentally readied his team for a pandemic.
“Because of our preparation for things like hurricanes and business interruptions, and because we had already reduced our real estate footprint in several of our offices around the state, we were sort of doing some of the things that we then needed to accelerate once COVID hit,” Cannon said.
The flexibility of working from home is welcomed, but there is a downside noted by managing partners.
Florida-based law firms aren’t hurting for new attorneys but the remote-working reality around the country makes training and integrating these employees that much more difficult. While innovations like court hearings over Zoom create new efficiencies, sharing an office is missed by some.
“Most of us are still struggling with bringing the lawyers and staff back in the office in a productive way,” said Richard Cole, managing partner of Miami-based Cole Scott & Kissane PA.
Safety comes first, but managers lament some of the natural conversation and collaboration that are lost while working remotely, especially when every interaction needs to be scheduled on a calendar.
“I don’t think more than two days go by in a row without me thinking about that and worrying about that,” Rosen said. “It is especially problematic for new lawyers, because new lawyers are to a large extent, especially younger lawyers, drinking out of a fire hose. Everything that they’re experiencing in the workplace is new to them, so they depend greatly on frequent and oftentimes unplanned contact and communication with peers and with superiors.”
Offices have tried to counteract this with events such as virtual happy hours and group presentations, but it’s not a perfect art.
“Our challenge is to replicate our culture of collaboration while we are working remotely,” said Miami-based Bilzin Sumberg Baena Price & Axelrod LLP managing partner Albert Dotson.
Real estate itself is among a few practice areas that have seen a dip in the past year as lifestyles change and the economy continues to struggle.
“Money continues to sit on the sidelines,” Rosen said. “We rely upon other practices to pick up the slack, and that’s exactly what we’re doing this year.”
In that respect, while sectors like litigation and tourism may have taken a hit, others are seeing increased activity due to the pandemic, from health care, labor, construction practices and industries that have been borne out of a more diversified state economy in recent years.
“The negative impact on travel, tourism and hospitality certainly impacted some of the client demand for legal services from that sector,” Cannon said. “The good news is, it also increased some need for good legal counsel for how to deal with it, and as the sector is recovering it will also drive demand for restructuring and liability defense going forward into 2021.”
Dotson similarly noted that, “The lawyers within that practice area are cross-trained to support the up-and-down movement of our clients and their businesses.”
With the introduction of a coronavirus vaccine, there’s also hope the economy may see growth in the first half of the year.
“We’ve seen unemployment come down and economic activity start to pick back up. If those trends continue, I’m thinking hopefully in the first, second or third quarter of 2021, we’ll see levels approaching pre-COVID normals,” Cannon said.
A Crawl to Judgment
A top issue weighing on the minds of litigators: ongoing delays in jury trials. In December, the Florida Supreme Court requested three additional trial judges and funding for 10 previously approved judgeships to address the “substantial” caseload that’s been building the past year.
“The biggest downside for a practice like ourselves, as trial lawyers, is not having the ability to have a jury trial, which is usually the most important leverage a plaintiffs firm has in forcing a resolution in the case,” said Podhurst Orseck’s Marks.
Soon after the outset of the pandemic in the U.S., Marks and his team quickly adapted to the new normal and began coronavirus-related litigation, especially involving insurance companies. But delays add new challenges for the firm.
“Without the trial date, very often, the insurance companies or their corporate defendants are not willing to resolve the case because they don’t have that pressure,” Marks said. “So we are losing that tool, which is an important one for a plaintiffs law firm.”
Cole’s firm took part in Florida’s first jury trial during the pandemic, though it was nonbinding. “Mostly I think it was well-received,” Cole said, adding it was mostly done over Zoom and the biggest challenge was jury selection.
“Maybe I’m too old-school but I do think when it comes to a jury trial that you want to be able to look into the people’s eyes,” Marks said. “And I think it makes more sense, given our practice at least — the plaintiffs side — to wait until you can return to normal, our jurors aren’t spread all over the courtroom, and people aren’t wearing masks and we can really see people’s expressions.”
The Podhurst Orseck partner also shared concerns over a possible rush, even if unconsciously done, through trials whenever they resume. “There’s going to be, between the civil and criminal cases, a large backlog of cases that are jury trial-ready and I hope that judges are going to be up to the task. … It will trickle down to the lawyers and clients.”
–Editing by Bruce Goldman.