Florida - Law Firms A Shining Example Of A Law Firm A Credit To An Outstanding State

Tuesday, November 1, 2005 - 01:00
Akerman Senterfitt
Robert A. Zinn

Editor: Please give our readers a snapshot of your own personal history.

Zinn: I attended Emory University in Atlanta where I earned a bachelor of arts degree with honors. I then went to Cornell Law School in New York, graduating in 1985 - the same year in which I took the Florida Bar and was admitted to practice. My principal area of practice is corporate merger and acquisition work, with a particular focus on automobile and motorcycle dealerships because of a personal history in the automotive industry. In fact, during a period of time after I became an attorney I left the practice of law and had my own new car dealership, which I operated until it was destroyed by Hurricane Andrew.

Editor: You must find your business experience invaluable in working with clients.

Zinn: Certainly. Having been a client myself, I understand what it is like to be in their shoes. As a result, I think I do a few things differently from most other attorneys who have not had this experience. For example, one of the things I found as a client was that when a weekend came along and we were in the middle of a transaction, I would worry all weekend about my transaction, but was reluctant to disturb my attorney. So now as an attorney, on Friday afternoons, I try to call clients with whom I am in the midst of a transaction and let them know exactly where things stand, what is going to be happening on the project over the weekend and what we anticipate in the early part of the following week so they have a full feeling for what is going on and can enjoy their time off. I think this makes for a much better overall relationship with the client.

Editor: Along those lines, one of the things that struck me about your firm is that its members all make a point of getting to know the client's business so they have a better understanding of client problems.

Zinn: We think that is very important. Clients come to a law firm for a particular reason, and then it is our job to not only fulfill their expectations, but exceed them. One of the ways we do that is to know and learn their business. Knowing the practicalities of what they face on a day-to-day basis is vital to fully meeting a client's needs.

Editor: Why did you choose Akerman Senterfitt as the firm in which you wished to practice?

Zinn: I thought it was by far the best fit for me personally, for my practice area, and for my skill sets. A lot of law firms call themselves entrepreneurial, but this has vastly differing meanings at different firms. Akerman Senterfitt was responsive to my desire to create a new niche kind of practice. There are many corporate attorneys with M&A experience, but very few with a background in the automobile business. Akerman Senterfitt was open to my idea of developing a specific sub-practice in the merger and acquisition field for the vehicle business, and was far more open to my background and experience from a managerial standpoint. Having run a business, the firm welcomed my participation in management and operational issues. After a relatively short period, I was elevated to the position of the Miami Office Managing Shareholder, (Miami being the largest office in the firm), and then to the position of Chief Operating Shareholder, overseeing the operations of all of our offices. I am not sure that could have happened at many other firms with more entrenched hierarchical structures.

Editor: What are some of the firm's key practice areas?

Zinn: With more than 400 attorneys and governmental advisors, many of our practice areas rank among the largest in the Southeast, including Corporate, Real Estate, Policy, Labor and Employment, Litigation and Intellectual Property. Our Corporate/M&A, Antitrust, Insurance and Zoning/Land Use practices ranked number one in Florida in Chambers 2005, and also in the top three are our Banking & Finance, Bankruptcy, Construction, Employment, Healthcare, Litigation, Real Estate, and Tax practices.

Because of our extensive experience in certain other areas, we are also launching a Sports practice group, as well as a White Collar Advisory Group, to address client concerns as corporate criminal investigations and SEC and governmental prosecutions become increasingly common. Also, our international team has expanded into our new Global Investment Group, whose members' combined international experience spans 56 countries, handling international cross-border mergers and acquisitions, project finance, joint ventures and international arbitration. And with project development a major industry in the state of Florida, our Real Estate practice now encompasses nearly every aspect of the development process - from land use to construction to leasing.

Our Wealth Management practice is also a growing area for us, where we're employing innovative concepts and methods to the diverse needs of high-net-worth individuals, such as helping reduce or postpone the impact taxes can have on personal and family assets, and presenting all viable options for their personal and business planning.

Editor: How much of your business represents referrals from other national firms?

Zinn: We get a fair amount of referral business from other national firms, but it is not a huge percentage of what we do overall. We receive a good number of referrals from the Northeastern legal markets. We are recognized for doing "New York quality" work so that the attorneys who are referring the work feel confident that their clients are going to be served well and also know we will do this in such a way that their client relationship is not at risk.

Editor: Can you tell us about your Washington practice and why that office was opened?

Zinn: We opened a Washington, DC office as a result of an acquisition almost two years ago. It was our first office outside Florida, and initially focused principally on public policy and government relations work. We have been growing that office into a full-service legal office, having recently hired two attorneys who had high-level positions at the Department of Justice and have also brought in other attorneys and professionals from highly regarded Washington, DC firms. Our DC office enables us to provide an additional level of service to our clients with the federal government that can help them to achieve their business goals.

Editor: Why is the firm identified so closely with the state of Florida?

Zinn: We are Florida's largest full-service firm. The state has grown rapidly and we have as well. The firm was founded in Orlando in 1920 and our size and scope of work have grown significantly since then. We currently have eight offices throughout the state and Washington, and we're looking to expand into other areas as well.

Editor: Is your vision to become a national firm?

Zinn: We believe in maintaining our stronghold in Florida, as 'the Florida firm.' We do look for opportunities that work well for our existing client base, and are committed to providing services to our clients beyond the reach of our Florida offices in Miami, Orlando, Tampa, Jacksonville, Tallahassee, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. The continued growth and expansion of the firm will be driven by whatever is required to best serve the needs of our existing and prospective clients.

Editor: Why would you suggest that corporations seeking favorable tax and other environments look at Florida locations?

Zinn: Florida has numerous natural and economic advantages that make it a prime location for any kind of company. In our view Florida is the next California, but without the major tax burden. Florida is a large emerging economy, in the United States as well as regarding its connections to the Caribbean, Latin America and Europe, so it is a natural hub for international business. Between the good weather, the tax environment, the demographics and good transportation, Florida is a wise place for many businesses to be located.

Editor: Why has the firm attracted former judges?

Zinn: I think that from the bench judges have the opportunity to see the quality of the work that is done at our firm and the professionalism of the people appearing before them. The firm has an outstanding reputation and ethics are a very big part of our culture here. I think the three judges currently with the firm feel this is a good fit for them and helps them in trying to do what they hoped to accomplish after leaving the bench.

Editor: Many of your members take leadership roles in community service and you are actively promoting diversity. How important are these areas to the firm?

Zinn: It is important to us to take a leadership role since this is the community where we and many of our clients live and do business. It is essential to be involved in making the business and cultural environment a better place for businesses to exist and thrive. We cannot forget that if the markets we are in are not attractive for businesses, then our business will be impacted negatively. So not only is it the right thing to do, it is also just good business. Our attorneys are a "who's who" of those participating in political causes, serving on community boards, public commissions, fundraising bodies and other organizations.

We are also actively working to make sure that the diversity of our firm matches the diversity of our client base and the communities we serve. Our Diversity Committee is chaired by Joe Hatchett, formerly a Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit and a former Justice of the Florida Supreme Court. He was the first African-American to serve on the Florida Supreme Court and the first African-American to serve as a Chief Judge of a federal appellate court in the Southern United States. He was also recently inducted into the National Bar Association's Hall of Fame.

Our Diversity Committee drafts initiatives each year and its results are measured against these goals during periodic reviews by firm management. A major initiative from a few years ago was the rollout of a formal diversity training program for all attorneys and staff firm-wide. Akerman Senterfitt takes the recruitment and retention of minority attorneys very seriously. Again, it is not only the right thing to do, it is also just good business. The more diverse the resources we have to draw upon, the more effective we can be in advancing the interests of our very diverse base of clients.

Please email the interviewee at robert.zinn@akerman.com with questions about this interview.

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