(L to R) Paul Steven Singerman, Berger Singerman; Jeffrey P. Bast, Bast Amron; and Kristopher Aungst, Wargo French (Photo: Courtesy Photo)
Bankruptcy attorneys, one of the legal world's earliest indicators of a recession, are starting to see the signs of change even as their billing rates remain close to flat.
Average hourly rates for the 10 highest billers in an annual review of Florida court records show an $18 increase in the last year, a change several bankruptcy attorneys consider almost negligible.
"The increase is incidental," said Robert Furr, whose firm Furr & Cohen took the No. 4 spot on the list. "I haven't raised rates in four years. The rate of bankruptcies are still much lower than they were a decade ago."
ALM compiles the data by collecting billing rates reported in bankruptcy filings in the North, Middle and Southern districts of Florida. The list is by no means complete since rates for many attorneys representing creditors are not listed. Rates are also influenced by factors including firm policy and geography.
Berger Singerman partner Paul Singerman said that the lack of creditor representation misses attorneys from large law firms such as Akerman, DLA Piper and White & Case, who often charge upward of $1,000 per hour.
Though rates are not exclusively tied to the volume of work, bankruptcy work is often an early indicator of the state of the economy, and attorneys and recruiters are seeing the first signs that the economy may be turning down. A Wall Street Journal survey of economists found less than half believe a recession will start in 2020, and economists have begun to greatly reduce growth forecasts in the coming years.
Bankruptcy attorney Jeffrey Bast of Bast Amron said there has been a noticeable uptick of bankruptcy filings in Delaware, a corporate and debtor-friendly jurisdiction seen by many as a bellwether for the rest of the country. Bast hasn't seen a trickle-down effect reach South Florida yet.
"Every bankruptcy filing, every default, every refusal to pay affects other businesses in a ripple effect," he said.
Bast pointed to other economic indicators as signs of a possible recession. According to the Federal Reserve, a record 7 million Americans are three months delinquent on their car payments. The figure is 1 million higher than in 2009, the peak of the Great Recession.
CTI Foods, Z Gallerie and publisher F+W filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in Delaware on March 11. The companies join a graveyard of recent large retail bankruptcies that include Sears, Toys R Us and Sports Authority.
Legal recruiter Andie Viele of Viele Consulting Group said she's seen a slight uptick in law firm demand for bankruptcy partners and associates.
"We’re definitely seeing an uptick. Some clients have said, not a lot, have told me they were so busy they can’t keep up," she said.
But the economy is in a state where many firms don't want to pull the trigger on bankruptcy associate hiring yet, she said. There aren't enough clear signs, and law firms thinking of boosting their bankruptcy practices don't want to risk prematurely hiring if the workload isn't there.
"Bankruptcy is cyclical, so they don’t want to overstaff during those times," Viele said. "They are trying to be really careful."
Wargo French bankruptcy attorney Kristopher Aungst, whose firm is No. 7 on the list, is a little more conservative. He's definitely seen an uptick in Chapter 11 cases, though they appear to be one-offs: an issue with a family or fallout from a business partner dispute.
Like Bast, he's seen an increase in work filed in Delaware. Aungst believes many of those filings can be attributed to problems in the brick-and-mortar retail industry, and he's unsure whether that will translate to South Florida anytime soon.
But Aungst said the economy is cyclical, and it would be foolish to think the economy can maintain the expansion its seen over the last decade.
"We haven’t had a down cycle in a long time," he said. "The minute you believe it won’t go down, it does."