Straightening the curve

By: 
Mar. 13, 2015

Ronald Cohn really doesn't like reading bad news in the real estate world. But he knows when the housing market is down, it means business for him is about to go up.

At least it used to.

Cohn has mastered a counter-cycle approach to law over the past two decades, first with his own firm, Cohn & Cohn, and now as part of the Arnstein & Lehr's Tampa office. Working against the economic stream, however, is exactly what Cohn wants to change. That comes not just from welcoming new practice areas for his law firm, but new people -- like veteran creditor rights bankruptcy attorney Edmund Whitson III.

“Usually, when the economy is poor, I'm going crazy,” Cohn says. “Now that the cycle has gone around and the economy is getting better, there is more money out there for borrowers, and there is less need for lawsuits.”

Litigation is heavy during gloomy economic forecasts, but once the sun starts peeking through the clouds, crowded courtrooms make way for clients looking for a different touch in legal matters that won't usually require a judge. That calls for attorneys providing far more individualized attention to clients, something that's not always easy for managing partners like Cohn.

“One of the things I'm best at is keeping a thousand balls in the air at the same time,” Cohn says. “I can't stop and focus on one ball for three weeks, because the other 999 are going to fall. But Ed is able to do that, to take on the complicated issues, and handle them from soup to nuts.”

Whitson caught Cohn's attention last year with his work on the prominent Channelside Bay Plaza bankruptcy case. Whitson was on the losing side of that fight, representing Liberty Channelside LLC, a development group led by real estate investors Santosh Govindaraju and Punit Shah.

Cohn, already looking for ways to refocus his law office from a one-sided approach, sees Whitson as the key to his transition strategy.

“There is a lot of negotiation in a time when corporations aren't in dire financial straits, and there's no ticking bomb ready to explode at any minute,” Whitson says. “That's really true when it comes to bankruptcy because that's what it is all about, making deals, and letting the deal-making process do its job.”

Without diversifying his practice approach, Cohn fears any change in market could sink everything he and his wife and law partner, Vanessa Cohn, have built over the years. So Cohn started adding not only more transactional work beyond distressed properties, but also looked to pick up banks needing loan help. With Whitson now onboard, Cohn is looking at new areas as well, including construction litigation.

Whitson started his career with Carlton Fields, and he expanded his bankruptcy and creditor rights experience later with the former Akerman Senterfitt. After a brief stint with Bryant Miller Olive, Whitson joined the young Tampa firm of Anthony & Partners, where he represented Liberty Channelside.

Now Whitson will be part of the new focus Cohn champions. “There are just too many firms that died because they focused too heavily on one side, and didn't foresee how far the market would fall,” Cohn says. “It just became too much of a risk for us, and we knew it was time for change.”

Follow Michael Hinman on Twitter @BizTampaBay