IR Global Spotlight – Why Patricia Hernandez believes law is about providing a personalized service: for big and not-so-big clients

When Patricia Hernandez established Miami-based Avila Law 15 years ago with seven colleagues, they were eager to set up a legal practice unlike any other.   

Collectively, they had years of experience at big law firms in Florida and across the U.S., but they dreamed about getting back to their roots: offering small firm prices and a more personalised experience provided by lawyers with big firm sophistication. Patricia and her co-founders initially focused on mid-market clients who felt priced out of the larger law firms – though this ethos ultimately helped them attract
Fortune 500 clients, as well.

“The firm comprises five specialized practice areas”, Patricia says. “I practice within the corporate and financial services groups. We also have a commercial litigation practice; a real estate group, which includes a zoning practice; and an immigration practice.”

Avila Law’s 15th anniversary

Last year Patricia and her colleagues celebrated Avila Law’s 15th anniversary – and she’s proud of what they’ve achieved in that time. “We’ve been successful because we are committed to providing first-class service at unmatched value,” she adds. “Clients come to us because they know they can get very solid, practical advice; and that is what drives our firm – providing that level of service for our clients.”

Along with her busy role as managing partner of the firm, Patricia is focused on the firm’s M&A and regulatory compliance practice. She counsels banks, financial institutions, and money service businesses on a number of regulatory challenges, including anti-money laundering and sanctions compliance. “A large portion of my practice is regulatory,” she admits, “but I also often represent clients throughout M&A deals of all types, particularly on the financial services side. I also enjoy and often lead speaking engagements, particularly those providing updates on compliance.”

International M&A deals

Patricia’s work also includes a number of cross-border M&A deals: “The firm does a lot of international work. Miami is the gateway to Latin America, so we often see many deals come through our city, both from Latin American and European businesses, particularly from Spain and Italy.”

Patricia takes pride in getting to know her clients. She likes to understand what they do on a daily basis and how they manage and run their operations – especially because due to her role as managing partner, she often deals with very similar issues at Avila Law. Some of the work Patricia enjoys the most is advising clients in crisis situations: “That’s the type of work that I really like to sink my teeth into – it usually means a lot of advisory work and finding creative solutions to very complex problems. Much of my day-to-day practice consists of giving
practical advice to clients with respect to a particular situation or specific goal. It’s not always negative – sometimes they’re great situations where they’re launching a new product or expanding their business.”

Finding solutions to intractable problems

Nevertheless, Patricia is most proud when she helps to resolve what seem like intractable problems for her clients: “I talk to them about how to deal with potentially challenging situations, where they may be facing a regulatory issue going forward; how to address the problem; recognize what’s happened; and counsel them throughout the implementation of preventative or corrective measures. “I can teach them, and that’s the advisory part that I really enjoy.”

Many of Patricia’s clients are financial institutions – in Florida, other U.S. states and overseas – and a lot of overseas fintech businesses that want to bring their services to the U.S.”
“They often come in with this desire to launch their products and sometimes I’m the one who has to say, ‘hold on, we have to look at the regulatory aspects of this because it’s not as easy as you think.’ They might need financial services licenses in the U.S. that are state-specific, which means they must worry about 50 or more separate licenses.

“Something might be regulated in Florida but not regulated in New York, so you must go through that process and figure out the right way to move forward. A client might want to launch an innovative payment system. In this case, they would likely need licenses in all 50 states because that’s a money transmission type product.”

Furthermore, clients are often unaware that extra levels of compliance will come at a cost: “They might have to implement an anti-money laundering program and hire a compliance officer, which may significantly increase their start-up costs to get their business up and running in the U.S. market. It’s important for business owners to find attorneys who really understand the process and implications of what they are trying to accomplish.”

Lessons learned from the financial crisis

Patricia credits much of Avila Law’s success in helping clients in corporate and financial sectors to the experience that she and her colleagues gleaned during the financial crisis of 2008 – the year after the law firm was established. She believes the financial crisis helped to develop the business into the legal firm that clients know today.

“The financial crisis actually helped us for two reasons,” she says. “One is that clients were leaving the big law firms because they could no longer afford their fees, so they started looking for alternatives that could provide more flexibility. The other aspect that really helped us is that we have one of the top bank and financial services regulatory practices in the state. At the time, there
were significant financial crises, with many banks in serious trouble. They had many regulatory issues, and we were able to step in and help.”

She admits Avila Law was very successful during that initial period: “We did a lot of financial services regulatory work to deal with banks failing or being under enforcement actions. We were very active in that area, and all the work that we did further solidified the firm’s banking and regulatory practice.”

Avila Law – a minority certified law firm

According to Patricia, along with offering clients its experience in regulatory and compliance issues – as well as its alternative fee structures for a more personalized service – Avila Law also wanted to take advantage of its status as a Hispanic-owned law firm.

“We’ve received a lot of opportunities during the past 15 years from big businesses that allocate parts of their legal budgets for minority certified law firms and other types of vendors,” she says. “We realized once we set up that this could be a big opportunity and source of business for us. We are also very involved in NAMWOLF (the National Association of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms) and the Hispanic National Bar Association.

Some years ago, the American Bar Association, in conjunction with the general counsels of Fortune 500 companies, signed a pact to focus legal spending on minority certified firms and minority partners at larger firms.”

The value of the IR Global network

Being part of the IR Global network has been invaluable for the firm: “It is valuable in two ways. I see it as a significant value outbound. I often need to find qualified lawyers in different jurisdictions, and the lawyers within the IR Global network have been of the highest quality. I’ve been able to work with great professionals to provide the right assistance for my clients. I also see
a good amount of work coming into the firm from other IR Global firms. “It’s worth noting that the networking opportunities and the ability to connect with lawyers all over the world really is a big driving force, and another reason why I continue to renew the membership in IR Global.”

“There’s real value in being able to find the right attorney quickly and easily with the right experience and qualifications in a particular jurisdiction. I’ve referred work to Australia, Italy, France, Mexico, Venezuela, and other parts of the U.S.”

Championing women’s roles

When she’s not managing the firm and steering clients through M&A deals and complex regulatory problems, Patricia spends a lot of her time working with organisations that champion women’s roles in business: “I’ve always been very involved in women’s organizations locally and in the banking area, in particular. Women make up a significant percentage, or even
the majority of the employees of financial institutions, but a very small percentage of C suite.

“As a young lawyer, I remember I used to go to events where I was the only woman, and by far the youngest in the room. I have served on boards, attended several meetings, and served on various organizations where I’m the only woman; and though, personally, it never affected me, I recognize it can be daunting to a young woman starting her professional career.”

“I’m passionate about mentoring younger women and helping them develop the confidence to stand out and speak up. I like to invite them to join me at various events, introduce them to more experienced men and women in their professions, and push them to find an organization where they may grow and lend their talents.”

Away from her busy practice, Patricia’s life has not been without its difficulties in recent years balancing being the principal carer for her elderly parents and being with her teenage son who has battled leukemia over the last year. “I can’t even begin to tell you how much I have balanced over the last year,” Patricia admits. “Thank God, he’s doing very well now, going back to college this semester. His fight brought perspective to my life.”