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Business Observer Friday, Dec. 19, 2003 15 years ago

Good Business (Tampa edition)

All the refinancing action has resulted in older debts being paid off, causing a boon for collection departments and lawyers, including those at Kass, Shuler, Solomon, Spector, Foyle & Singer PA

Good Business (Tampa edition)

All the refinancing action has resulted in older debts being paid off, causing a boon for collection departments and lawyers, including those at Kass, Shuler, Solomon, Spector, Foyle & Singer PA

By Bob Andelman

Contributing Writer

There is a pirate cruise boat on Clearwater Beach where the proprietor, Captain Memo, revels in climbing up the ship mast while at sea and screaming at passing ships, "We're having more fun than you are!"

Michael Kass, founder and managing partner of the Tampa law firm of Kass, Shuler, Solomon, Spector, Foyle & Singer PA, is a little like that. You can't spend an hour in his company and not think he's having more fun than you are.

"One thing this place is not is boring," says Kass's partner Gil Singer. "We work very hard but we have a good time doing it."

It doesn't seem possible that Kass, 61, and partners such as Gil Singer, 48, and Richard McIver, 48, specialize in collections and foreclosure law. The field is so mundane and they're so¦ not.

"We like what we do; I think that makes it colorful," says Kass.

Kass started the firm in 1978. Or so he thought.

"I think it was 1976," Singer says.

"'78," Kass differs.

"Are you sure?"

Long pause.

"You know what? You're right. It was '76," Kass laughs. "That's why I bring him along. I'm starting to lose my mind."

Mind games aside, the 15 lawyers here - including six shareholders - and 70 non-lawyers on staff specialize in business commercial law for local and national clients. But it's the kind of business where they seldom sit across a table from their clients. In fact, they could be standing in line next to most of their clients at the bank and never know it. "We tend to represent companies that normally don't come to the office," Kass says.

They do know the mail carrier by name. And the FedEx guy, the UPS guy and most of the drivers for in-town document delivery services.

"Most of our work is done by phone, fax or e-mail," Kass says. "Rich (McIver) probably doesn't know most of his clients, other than meeting them at seminars. I have clients I've had for 25 years and I've never met them."

A bad day around this office is when the mail is extremely light. "Which makes Mondays a very good day," Singer says.

For the most part it's a fairly impersonal practice; that's just the nature of processing work and protecting the rights of sometimes large, faceless corporations. Attorneys do their best to personalize it, getting to know the individuals who represent clients to the firm when they can on a daily basis.

"When I first started to practice in '72, people came to your office," Kass says. "Today, you could have the bank down the corner for a client, but we get delivery of their documents by mail."

"The corporate world is different," Singer says. "But individuals have expectations, whether we see them once a year or not. It's different from being a storefront lawyer, doing diverse cases, development, or bankruptcy. It's a different environment, a different mindset."

Not having to worry about many clients walking in the front door certainly gives the firm the ability to carry on in a "different environment." Its 15,000-square-foot office since 1982 has been in a former automobile dealership, directly across the street from the Salvation Army headquarters at North Florida Avenue and Henderson. That's why Singer assures a visitor in advance not to worry; the parking lot is "gated" and "secure."

"I enjoy working in this neighborhood," Singer says. "Quite frankly, it's safer here than in a downtown parking garage. Being here gives us the ability to spend our money on top-of-the-line technology that benefits our client. The money that might otherwise go to outrageous rents downtown instead goes into technology that does a better job for our clients."

The office halls feature a remarkable range of modern art pieces, one more intriguing than the last. That's something firm clients miss by not visiting from time to time.

What they don't miss is the managing partner's office, a stunning pastiche of clever sayings, insightful quotations and passing thoughts plastered on every inch of available space in the form of Post-It notes and photocopies attached to cabinet doors with Scotch tape. Even Mike Kass's computer is not immune in this environment. But instead of Post-Its, he actually writes telephone numbers in ink on the plastic frame.

"Most offices have a Queen Anne chair and a pipe rack," Kass says. "I always tried to make my office not look like a lawyer's office."

Back to work. The attorneys at Kass, Shuler, Solomon, Spector, Foyle & Singer define themselves overall as business lawyers, with individual specializations in commercial litigation, collection work, bankruptcy, commercial transactions, foreclosure, and construction litigation.

"They're wonderful guys, great to work with," says Diane T. Ellis, legal administrator for Ringhaver Equipment Co. in Tampa. "Kass has represented the Ringhaver dealership for almost 20 years and done a great job. Kass has expertise in the products of our business. They have the knowledge and upgraded tools to get the job done. They go above and beyond."

Commercial collection and commercial litigation represent equally large chunks of the firm's practice area. Creditor bankruptcy and foreclosure each stand for roughly 15%. As such, some of the lawyers bristle at any implication that describes the firm as foreclosure-centric.

"There are a number of firms that only specialize in foreclosure," Kass says. "They're dedicated to it; that's a new phenomena in the last 10 years. I would call them mills. We specialize in it but it's not the only thing we do."

"Lawyers are professionals and everyone tries to do a good job," Singer says, gently taking his boss to task. "That may be the colloquialism that's used. It's an expression people attach when they see things being done in a mass environment. We don't consider ourselves a foreclosure mill. In terms of service, we like to think we're something special in foreclosure because we emphasis client service and quality of work. That's not denigrating anyone else."

The firm's foreclosure clients represent about 15% of its business and are mostly on the residential side, although there is some commercial real estate work. It's a labor-intensive field; two attorneys and 10 staffers here will have handled between 1,500 and 2,000 foreclosure cases when the books close on 2003. Attorneys outside the specialty are nonetheless cross-trained to step in if McIver, for example, is out or unavailable.

Foreclosures go in cycles. When interest rates are low, there are more closings, more refinancings and fewer foreclosures. When times get tough, foreclosures increase. And today? "They're not necessarily on the rise," Kass says. "There's just a crapload of them."

Many lenders have loss mitigation programs in place to work with the customer rather than flip a property into foreclosure.

"The last thing a lender wants is to take possession," Kass says. "They really want to be paid. They don't want to take over a home."

In fact, foreclosure law is the one specialty where Kass Shuler lawyers might deal with the public.

"Occasionally, you talk to people and hear their stories," says McIver, who heads the firm's foreclosure practice. "We see situations where there is job loss, divorce or other catastrophic life events that cause people to get into situations that they can't get out of. As a human being, you have to feel for them."

Kass interrupts.

"We have to re-evaluate Richard," he says.

"You mean because he has a heart?" Singer says, laughing.

Foreclosure clients come in all stripes, McIver says, shrugging off his partners' jokes.

"Some of these (clients) have been in the business so long they have a callous attitude toward the customer," he says. "They don't believe a word anyone says. Others are more compassionate¦ Sometimes it takes filing a lawsuit to get the borrower serious. At that time they'll try to work something out or file bankruptcy."

Sometimes McIver deals with a foreclosure in which the homeowner files four or five bankruptcies because the case gets dismissed, then refiled again.

"When someone files Chapter 13, then they file the second one, we call that 'Chapter 26," McIver says. "When they file again, it's 'Chapter 39,' and so on."

The room erupts in laughter.

"I never heard that before," Singer says.

"I've been doing this for 17 years," McIver continues. "Once we had a foreclosure sale and the day of the sale, the wife killed the husband. That's taking it pretty seriously. I was going to be a witness in the murder trial. But they pled the case and I didn't have to appear."

The sale, incidentally, went forward.

"We didn't hear about the death until after the sale occurred," McIver says.

"Neither rain nor sleet will stop the foreclosure man," Kass says.

Collections, actually, represent the area in which Kass would like to see his firm grow.

"When the economy is good," he says, "the economy grows. If you said 5% of all debt goes into default, as the economy grows, you would have more debt in that 5%. It's cyclical just like the mortgage business. When times are good, there is less default debt; when times are bad, there is more. In bad times, you get more claims and they're not collectible. But when business picks up three years later, you collect. You're constantly working an account. It's not unusual for us to work an account for eight to 10 years. We never forget."

Don't believe it? All the refinancing action in recent years has resulted in older debts being paid off, causing a boon for collection departments and lawyers.

"People think that when general business is bad, you get more accounts in collection and you make more money," Kass says. "You get more claims but people can't pay them. But we'll be working harder; hopefully we'll collect down the lane."

What will the future bring to this unique, highly regarded business firm?

"I don't think any of the shareholders would be interested in a merger," Kass says, and Singer and McIver nod in agreement. "An acquisition, maybe. Lawyers, individually, are like cats; they're hard to herd. Once you get comfortable with people, you understand their limitations. Kinda like being married."

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