Like many of his generation, Kendall Coffey, co-founder of Coffey Burlington, PL, grew up with a strong respect for lawyers that was influenced by Atticus Finch, Perry Mason and other fictional attorneys. However, his pursuit of the law as a career was more a matter of fascination than certainty until entering law school. Once the flame was lit, it was no surprise that the high-achieving attorney—who graduated first in his class at the University of Florida — would go on to become a legal legend handling numerous notable cases that not only impacted Florida, but the entire country.
Prior to starting his firm with partner Robert Burlington in 1988, Coffey worked for 10 years in the litigation group at Greenberg Traurig. During the 1990s, he left Coffey Burlington to take on the esteemed public-sector role of U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, where his office handled thousands of federal criminal prosecutions as well as civil lawsuits. Upon returning to private practice, Coffey continued to make his mark, litigating some of the country’s most publicized and high-profile cases. He points to two cases in particular that he believes significantly impacted his legal career.
“Two cases that changed me were the Elian Gonzalez custody battle and the 2000 presidential election recount litigation,” Coffey says. “Through these cases, I came to truly appreciate the interplay of law, politics and the human condition.”
In the Gonzalez case, Coffey represented Elian and the Miami relatives who were seeking custody of the young boy after his mother died at sea during their escape from Cuba. During the Florida vote recount between George W. Bush and Al Gore, he was part of Gore’s legal team that challenged Bush’s victory. For his work on these milestone cases and other notable ones, he has received strong accolades within the legal community not only for his courtroom abilities but also for the strategic and communications skills he brings to his clients and cases.
Today, the seasoned attorney handles a variety of complex litigation matters at the state, federal and appellate levels related to governmental issues, business disputes, contracts and loan agreements, fraud and other concerns. He also writes extensively and influentially on legal topics and has appeared as a legal analyst on numerous international, national and local television networks serving to inform and sway public opinion, including CNN, Telemundo, FOX, MSNBC, Univision and more. In addition, the busy Coffey also lends his expertise to educating future lawyers by teaching classes on international litigation, corruption and other topics at the University of Miami School of Law, St. Thomas University School of Law and Florida International University School of Law. In addition, he taught legal writing at an American Bar Association conference in Haiti, a two-week course on international litigation in Kaliningrad, Russia, presented at a Moscow law school and is scheduled to teach for two weeks at a major law school in St. Petersburg, Russia.
While there are no doubt law students and younger attorneys in Florida and elsewhere who would emulate Coffey as one of their legal heroes, he also has his own influences within the legal profession. Coff ey doesn’t name specific individuals, but he does describe the kinds of qualities he finds inspirational in his peers. “There are different people with whom I came into contact with at different times,” he says. “The lawyers I came to know have different personality styles, but their core values are identical. They enjoy great respect and cordiality among colleagues and a relentless but entirely ethical determination to advocate for clients.”
CHANGING PROFESSIONAL LANDSCAPE
During the decades of his legal career he has seen a lot of changes in the profession, some positive and some less so. Asked how the legal community has evolved since he began practicing, Coffey notes that there are many chapters in the evolution.
“I had the extraordinary fortune to become a lawyer at the best possible time in the best possible city: Miami,” he says. “I was incredibly fortunate to be part of a community that was skyrocketing. Miami lawyers were becoming recognized as among the best in the country. In recent years, my good fortune has continued and I’ve been part of great national and international legal communities. I was in the right place at the right time and surrounded by the right people!”
“More recently, while our profession has become more competitive and there are new developments that make it more challenging, in many ways it is also more inspiring,” he continues. “While other societal changes, including in our government, are distressing and divisive for those of us who love our country—our profession, while certainly not perfect—has retained its core values.”
He also points out problems within the profession itself that he believes must be resolved. Among them, the lack of affordable legal services for the middle class.
“We still do not have an answer for representing the middle class,” he says. “Different models have been attempted to provide so-called ‘low bono.’ The system has not answered this challenge yet and this is one of the greatest unmet needs in the legal system and the world of law.”
What is Coffey most proud of accomplishing thus far in his career, and what does he hope for the future of his law firm?
“I am proud of being part of a law firm that holds the same values that I hold dear,” he says. “We are a high-energy, immensely talented and close-knit group. The firm is charitable and seeks to give back to the community. For the future, I hope to keep working with my partners to continue building on what we have already accomplished, including engaging with the community, growing our practice and mentoring new lawyers.”
Coffey also recently became a proud grandfather. About three months ago, his daughter gave birth to a daughter.
“I am relearning the basics of baby-care,” he laughs.