Ever since US law firm Kirkland & Ellis announced it was setting up shop in Miami, private equity partner Jeremy Liss has found himself very popular with his colleagues.
The 49-year-old is trading the breezy city of Chicago for the heat of South Florida to lead the new Kirkland outpost and has been fielding calls from lawyers wanting to join him ever since.
“Initial demand has been extremely strong. That’s probably even higher demand than we anticipated,” he said. “[Miami] is the hot spot in the United States. . . It becomes Wall Street South.
Kirkland is one of many businesses expanding in Miami to capitalize on mass migration accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic. In the year to July 2021, more Americans moved to Florida than any other state — 220,890 of them, according to census data. The influx included billionaires and unmoored hedge funds from their Wall Street offices who flocked to South Florida for its low taxes and year-round sunshine.
In June, billionaire hedge fund manager Ken Griffin said he was moving his company Citadel from Chicago to Miami due to rising crime rates, calling the Florida city “a growing metropolis that embodies the American dream. “. Carl Icahn moved his hedge fund office from New York to Miami during the pandemic, and Blackstone announced it would open an office there in 2020. Venture capitalists David Blumberg and David Sacks are among those who have spent millions for waterfront homes in Miami Beach.
Lawyers quickly followed. In May, Kirkland, the world’s most profitable law firm, announced it was moving to Miami with attorneys moving from Chicago and New York. Winston & Strawn opened its own base in May, and King & Spalding is also expected to move in.
“For the past 10 years, international law firms have dipped their toes in the South Florida pool, but now people are diving in headfirst. . . It’s an irrevocable change,” said Joe Ankus, a Miami-based recruiter with 30 years of experience in the market.
Lawyers once flew to Miami primarily to work on Latin American-focused deals and left. But the city has emerged as a new hub for technology and private equity.
“The economy was doing very well [pre-pandemic] and there has been an increase in developing technologies and private equity groups that have sprung up in South Florida. Then the pandemic created this desire to be out in the open and not locked in concrete,” Ankus said. “This has led many Northeasterners with connections to the tech and venture capital worlds to view Miami as an opportunistic move.”
Enrique Martin, a mergers and acquisitions lawyer from South Florida, hired this year to lead Winston & Strawn’s new office, said: “In the past, Miami was seen as a gateway – a place where you stop on the way to a more important place.
“Now it’s a destination that has attracted significant pools of capital.”
Low tax rate and lifestyle
As a result, the ranks of lawyers are growing rapidly in South Florida, populating Miami’s Brickell neighborhood in the heart of the financial district.
The number of Miami lawyers at the top 200 firms topped 1,800 at the start of 2022, up from about 1,660 at the start of 2019, according to data from Leopard Solutions. Across Florida, top companies added nearly 200 partners to their ranks during this two-year period.
Recent movers include litigation specialist Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, which hired attorney and Miami Mayor Frances Suarez to launch its new office last year along with nine other attorneys. The company said the Miami office was its biggest opening.
Suarez is a crypto enthusiast — he said he took his mayoral salary in bitcoin — and promised favorable regulation for crypto companies moving to Miami. Last year, the city even launched its own cryptocurrency, MiamiCoin, which has since lost almost 100% of its value.
Tom Lauria, a White & Case attorney, has lived in Miami since the 1990s. His three decades of experience as America’s top corporate bankruptcy attorney, based in Miami, means he meets regularly to calls from rival national law firms wanting him to sponsor lawyers to move to Florida.
“I moved to Miami in 1992 and . . . it became the perfect place for me. On the one hand, I’m in the same time zone as New York and it’s a two-hour flight. But when I’m done, I can look in the rearview mirror and drive back to Miami.” Lauria lives on exclusive Fisher Island and cites the lifestyle and low taxes as attractions for him.
Law firms are split between those attorneys parachuted into Miami offices from other states when needed, and those like Winston & Strawn, who hire established partners already working in the area.
Martin, who returned to Miami in the early 1990s after law school and college, said Winston & Strawn aims to develop its expertise in complex commercial litigation, private equity and blockchain.
“Miami has always been known for its beaches and sunshine,” he said. “But there was a time when it really was just that. The 1980s were difficult times in terms of public perception — the miami vice era, where much of the business conducted involved drug trafficking.
“I was in high school during those years, so I’m excited about what Miami has become.”
Real estate and Wall Street know-how in demand
A boom in mergers and acquisitions in the United States last year and a growing number of successful real estate deals in Florida have also driven lawyers’ fees up and led to an uphill battle for staff.
“We are seeing a trend towards hourly rates [that] routinely eclipse $1,000 an hour, which the Miami market was not used to having, and the demands [that lawyers have] business books well over $1 million,” Ankus said.
“We have between five and eight times more [vacant] qualified candidate positions,” he added. “We are called 10 times a month by law firms and companies asking if we have someone. We resorted to telling them that we don’t have any more purple unicorns today.
The most in-demand lawyers are those who specialize in real estate, due to an increase in large real estate transactions, and those with Wall Street experience. “It’s a very good day if we get a call from [a lawyer who qualified] in Florida, who grew up here, cut his teeth on Wall Street and wants to come home,” Ankus said.
As financial firms and lawyers have arrived in Miami, offices have also become harder to find. “Properties were flying off the shelf, there was nothing available,” said John O’Sullivan of Quinn. “We were going through a list of available places and within hours half of them were gone.”
Lawyer says even with recent growth in finance and crypto, Miami isn’t as big as New York, Chicago or Los Angeles and litigants are better off living near major courthouses .
But Kirkland and other companies say they are already fielding calls from partners and associates wanting to swap the climate of New York or Chicago for the climate of Miami.
Liss said, “We believe there are tons of talented attorneys here today as well as attorneys across the country who are talented and would rather live in South Florida.”
“For people from the northeast and from California, Florida still looks like a good deal,” Ankus commented. “Lawyers realize that it’s a great climate. . . and think: I just sold my house in New York for $3.8 million and I can buy a nice house for $1.6 million, why didn’t I do it sooner?