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Business Observer Friday, Mar. 8, 2019 8 months ago

Smooth and steady: Law firm works the system to bring big projects to life

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It might lack sizzle, but government legal work has fueled five decades of success for a trend-setting Tampa firm.
by: Brian Hartz Tampa Bay Editor

Tampa-based law firm Bryant Miller Olive will celebrate 50 years in business in 2020.

Longevity aside, the firm’s most impressive quality might be how it’s managed to coax sustained success from operating mostly in the fixed-fee world of government and public-private partnership (P3) law. “It’s not the sexiest thing,” admits managing shareholder Grace Dunlap, 62, who joined the firm in 1993.

But transactional law — especially the type that deals in complex financing for public projects like schools, convention centers and sports stadiums — can be a great fit for attorneys who understand the ways in which business and government intersect. And because these are clients, namely governments, that consistently pay their legal fees, there’s little financial risk involved.

“It’s hard to compete with somebody who’s got as much as experience as we have.” Grace Dunlap, managing shareholder of Bryant Miller Olive, a Tampa-based law firm.

Although the firm handles major deals, Dunlap characterizes Bryant Miller Olive as a “boutique” firm that focus on on judicious, appropriately paced growth. “We’re not a giant firm with a lot of overhead,” she says. “A lot of law firms like that feel like they have to grow more and more and more. We don’t have a lot of growth for growth’s sake. We hire, very carefully, really smart people.”

New hires and newly appointed shareholders have been on the rise at privately held Bryant Miller Olive, which declines to disclose revenue. The firm also has offices in Atlanta, Jacksonville, Miami, Orlando, Tallahassee and Washington, D.C.

Dunlap says governments involved in projects that require public bond financing like to do business with locally based legal teams as much as possible, hence the far-flung nature of the firm’s offices. About 10 attorneys are based in Tampa, whose growth has been a major revenue driver.

“We’ve prospered along with the area,” Dunlap says, citing bond counsel service for projects like the $71 million Bayside Bridge in northern Pinellas County; the $66 million expansion of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium; and $81 million in renovations to the Toronto Blue Jays’ spring training facility in Dunedin.

Government bond work, though, isn’t as simple as it sounds. It helps to be interested in transactional law, of course, but the intricacies of the job can take years, even decades, to master. That provides a solid barrier to entry for other firms. “It’s hard to compete with somebody who’s got as much as experience as we have,” Dunlap says.

That’s because Bryant Miller Olive got into government and P3 law at a time when it was mostly being practiced by big firms in New York. The firm’s founder, former Florida Gov. Farris Bryant, “had the vision to look at the situation and say, ‘I don’t think these local governments need to go to New York to find help with their transactions. I think we can develop this expertise.’”

Landing in a niche has been nice, too, for Dunlap, who says she struggled with the direction of her career after finishing law school. A single mother at the time, she was teaching scuba diving to make ends meet when a position opened up at Bryant Miller Olive. 

It was a good career move, and not a stepping stone, given Dunlap says it’s a myth government and P3 lawyers don’t make good money. “The type of work we do,"  she says, "especially the issues we work on for local government, they pay well."

That steady government pay works well for the firm, she adds, “because then we can devote all the resources we want to the project and don’t have to worry about formulas like a lot of law firms; they have all of these formulas to determine whether a case will be profitable.”

Dunlap says Bryant Miller Olive has long been a proponent of fixed-fee payment arrangements with clients, a trend that’s caught on recently in business law. “We were an early adopter … but a lot of firms are coming to the realization” that fixed-fee billing can be a viable business model. “Clients want that.”

It’s a sharp contrast to what Dunlap calls the leverage model, in which firms “put more and more warm bodies on the file, so they can increase their receivables.”

Government and P3 law also provides a high degree of certainty about expectations.

“When we’re doing private sector work representing a business or individual, when you send them an invoice, we joke that it’s just a suggestion,” she says, “because they almost always try to take some of your time off of it.”

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