Albert E. Dotson Jr. took over as managing partner of 100-attorney, Miami-based law firm Bilzin Sumberg Baena Price & Axelrod LLP almost two years ago.
He shared his vision for the law firm's future with Law360 during a recent interview, highlighting his goals when it comes to technology, growing the firm into new practice areas and grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Here are Dotson's thoughts on the legal industry and the future of his firm. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How has your law firm changed in the last five years and how is it adapting to changes in the legal industry?
If you look over the past five years, there's a few things you will see in relation to our 20-year history as a law firm. We have absolutely maintained our position within the state of Florida as a major commercial law firm, in part based on the normal metrics — whether profits per partner or revenue per lawyer.
We have, as a firm, focused on the importance of succession planning. I am the new managing partner. In the past five years, we have successfully transitioned to the next generation of leadership throughout the firm.
And in doing that transition, it was important that we focused on the shifting law business that we saw taking place before us and the acceleration of change, which in the past months has been turbocharged. The technology that has impacted our industry, very much like it has impacted industries around the world, is very much something the law firm has focused on and invested in significantly.
In recent years, what has the law firm's growth trajectory been like and what has its strategy been around growth?
Our growth strategy has been one we adopted years ago and it has really allowed us as a firm to grow in a smart way without increasing our overhead by having brick and mortars all over the country. We are able to represent our clients from Miami. We've grown our business in large part because a law firm in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles has clients looking to do transactions in Florida who call upon us to represent their clients.
Second, we have, as a firm, looked to industries we believe are counter-cyclical in nature and can sustain themselves throughout the ups and downs of the economy. For example, we grew over the last five years our public-private partnership practice and we've handled transactions that were valued over $5 billion across a range of sectors — transit, affordable housing and critical infrastructure. That highlights how we have grown our firm as Florida continues to be a growth state. We've seen a migration of clients into Florida that have engaged us to represent them.
We've also grown through identifying practice areas that we want to expand through lateral hiring. One is in the affordable housing area. We have, as a firm that's actively engaged in real estate transactional work, we've done about $13 billion in financing since January of this year. But the product type we've been focused on has been mostly market rate. We wanted to round out our real estate transactional work by adding more affordable housing expertise. So we brought on a lateral hire to help us with that.
The other area is in construction. We have watched the cranes go up since 2008. And the recession was not as deep or as long as it was in other parts of our country in South Florida. We have been actively engaged in representing clients throughout the construction finance process, the land use and zoning and entitlement process. We have recently added a six-member group to augment our construction expertise.
We have a number of clients that may be headquartered elsewhere. It has been interesting to watch the growth of their investment in Florida and the growth of Bilzin Sumberg along with them.
How is your law firm grappling with the coronavirus pandemic and how is it adjusting the way it conducts business?
When coronavirus hit the U.S. and companies were looking to work remotely, we started a few weeks early before going remote in assessing the technology needs of our staff to make sure they were trained on all of our systems and how one accesses them remotely. By the time we went remote, we had everyone trained on how to use the technology so there was little downtime when it came to servicing our clients' needs. We started with an understanding that while we were struggling as human beings and grappling with the impact of COVID-19 on our lives, so were our clients. We understood that empathy was our currency and it was important for us to reach out to clients to make sure they knew we were there for them.
Like some other firms, we became very conversant in the changes in the law as they were happening quickly. One impact on South Florida was the hospitality industry. That's an industry that we have been a leader in for a number of years. What's interesting in that regard, we became sort of the first number on the speed dial when people were trying to assess what was going to happen with local laws that impacted the hospitality industry.
Since the beginning of the year we've had about $3 billion of financing we've handled just in the hotel industry alone and $6 billion in [commercial mortgage-backed securities] hotel debt we have been assisting our clients in restructuring. Our goal is not to simply survive COVID-19, but to come out the other end stronger than we started and to thrive through it. That has driven our activity at the firm and I'm proud to say that thus far, we have achieved our objective.
What are your goals for the law firm over the next five years?
There used to be a time when companies would set a 10-year strategic plan, then they shortened it to a 5-year strategic plan, now I'm hearing people wonder what the next five minutes are going to look like.
Our firm has prided itself in the steadiness of its activity. We have hovered around 100 lawyers for quite some time. We believe that is our sweet spot. We look for opportunities where opportunities exist to augment the lawyers we have, either in existing practice areas or a new practice area.
We're also working to operationalize some of the lessons learned [during the pandemic], which I think will accelerate us as a firm in a number of ways.
Our goal is to be an innovation leader as we move forward the next five years. We're laser focused on that. Whether it's the real estate industry or litigation or even the number of international companies and individuals who want to invest in Florida. Our ability to reach them, communicate with them and do that quickly, efficiently and productively is first and foremost among our focuses.
When you say you want to operationalize some of the lessons learned, what do you mean by that?
Prior to going remote in March, the thought of videoconferencing versus meeting in a conference room, most people thought that was heresy. You've got to meet in person and you've got to get in a conference room. And there's something to be said about that. But the number of meetings that can now occur without either getting in a car or walking down a hall, and the ability to see reactions and make a decision allows you to be more efficient. Operationalizing that as we move forward beyond the necessity that requires us to do it now will be key to how we move forward.
Second, there used to be a belief that you had to have everybody within arms length of you, not only lawyers but staff, in order to efficiently conduct business. There are businesses all over the world that have divisions of their businesses in different states and countries. This is not a new concept. But the way we have operated has shown us that there are productive ways in which you can operate regardless of location. And we intend to operationalize some of those efforts. And, quite frankly, it is important to recognize that lawyers in this case can be productive in different venues, whether it's home or in the office or someplace else.
But culture is also important. And you can't lose sight of the importance of the human interaction that takes place simply by walking by someone in the office in the hallway or the learning that occurs by observing a negotiation. Being able to replicate our culture of collaboration with the lessons learned through remote operation — they both must coexist, not one to the detriment of the other.
If you could have lunch with any well-known lawyer, alive or dead, who would it be? Why?
In this moment, the first name that comes to mind is Thurgood Marshall. In a moment where social justice is being discussed around the world, a man who lived his life as a lawyer to bring about social justice and social change and then saw the makings of transformational law at the highest level of our nation from the inside. To get his thoughts about what we are seeing today and his thoughts about what actions we should be taking to sustain change would be fascinating.
*This article was republished with permission from Law360.