Weiss, Handler & Cornwell: How One Law Firm Is Helping Navigate Legal Aspects of Land Use
Ask the lawyers at Weiss, Handler & Cornwell, one of the most prominent law firms in South Florida dealing with land use and complex commercial litigation, what one of the most important traits is for a lawyer. They need to understand the law and be experienced, but there’s something else.
“To listen to what people have on their mind. Not to be dismissive. To take in what other people say,” Henry Handler, a co-founding partner, said. “What other people say is very revealing. And it helps to prepare a pathway to get things resolved.”
A lot has been happening lately in terms of development, construction and land sales in South Florida from Boca Raton to West Palm Beach. But with less land available, more legal aspects are coming into play, making law firms even more crucial players in the region.
Weiss, Handler & Cornwell, for instance, recently succeeded with a class-action case involving water charges and got a favorable ruling for a developer in Lake Worth seeking to convert an old golf course to residential uses. “We defended development rights for the property owner,” William Cornwell, a founding partner, said.
The firm, in business for more than 35 years, was founded to represent condominium associations and country club communities, and expanded to handling property, development and entitlement rights, commercial litigation and much more.
Clients include individuals, businesses, nonprofits, local and national developers, condominium associations, government entities, homeowner associations, landlords, major tenants and municipalities. The firm also services clients relocating to Florida needing to review or create new estate planning documents and to purchase new homes or renovate existing ones.
“They may come to the table, thinking the sky is always blue, they only see their side, not the other side,” Cornwell said, noting Florida law requires pre-trial mediation for civil cases. “It’s all about business risk.”
They are experts regarding a wide range of codes, helping companies seeking appropriate approvals to proceed with construction or expansion. “All require some degree of experience and ability to analyze different aspects of a problem,” Handler said.
Cornwell spoke, near a box with a piece of door hardware from a case where they showed that leaks came from improper work.
“We proved the reason for the leak was that they employed this system that was not approved and not part of the design specs and plans,” Cornwell said.
The Law of the Land
Working with architects, engineers and planners, law firms are an integral part of the land use process. Weiss, Handler & Cornwell these days often gets involved early.
“It’s becoming a more significant challenge,” Handler said. “There are fewer large undeveloped tracts in Broward and Palm Beach counties.”
The firm has been helping clients become “more creative with infill projects between developed sites.” Abandoned or underused private golf courses are being reborn with residential uses.
“The transformation of one use to another requires vetting, background research and understanding the appetite of the governmental entity and the neighbors,” Cornwell said.
Experience, Experience, Experience
While location may be the focus of real estate, when it comes to getting approvals, litigation or at least legal advice may be part of the mix.
“What makes us different? It’s experience,” Cornwell said. “That and an absolute unwavering commitment to the client and the client’s cause.”
With most of its work in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties, the firm often gets involved from the start of projects, helping vet and proceed.
“It’s the legal aspects, which are aspects of any business or development decisions,” Handler said. “The way cases are often lost is the failure to analyze issues and plead them accurately at the beginning. We apply a lot of time, effort and energy at the front end.”
Handler said it’s important to understand a wide range of outcomes, aiming at the best and being aware of others. “We try to make clear to the clients from the beginning where cases can go, our best chances and biggest risks,” Handler said.
Knowing and Beating the Odds
That means attorneys being frank with clients regarding prospects, strategies and goals and not simply litigating for litigation’s sake.
“I have no interest in litigating something for the sake of merely litigating,” Cornwell said.
They recently prevailed in a case where a bank, they argued, improperly sold assets after a Florida resident’s death. “We got a jury to conclude the bank acted improperly and it was upheld on appeal,” Cornwell said.
Temperament also is key. Handler has an excerpt from Rudyard Kipling’s “If” on his wall, including exhortations to “keep your head when all about you are losing theirs.”
“It’s a reminder as to how to see it through successfully,” Handler said. “It is a guidepost by which I’ve tried to conduct my professional and personal life.”
Handler, who also is registered as a lobbyist for work in Palm Beach and Broward counties, said that status can help.
“The art of consensus and the art of advocacy are not substantially different,” Cornwell said. That can mean being flexible and finding that a final project is different than the initial proposal.
“Consensus can come in several forms,” Handler added, “but taking a position unilaterally from the beginning is, in my view, not the key to success.”
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