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Business Observer Friday, Aug. 27, 2004 17 years ago

Giving Back

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William J. Schifino Jr.: Hillsborough County Bar president, managing partner of Williams Schifino Mangione & Steady PA, father of three and community volunteer.

Giving Back

William J. Schifino Jr.: Hillsborough County Bar president, managing partner of Williams Schifino Mangione & Steady PA, father of three and community volunteer.

By David R. Corder

Associate Editor

William J. Schifino Jr. earned a flattering, though unusual, metaphoric comparison last year. The Tampa securities attorney had just won a six-day jury trial over an employment contract for RMS Titanic Inc., the company that owns the salvage rights to the wreck on the ocean floor. The verdict thrilled Arnie Geller, the company's president and CEO, who now compares Schifino to Sir Arthur Rostron, captain of the RMS Carpathia that rescued the Titanic's survivors.

"As the Carpathia saved the Titanic's survivors in 1912, that's what Bill Schifino did for our company," Geller says. "That lawsuit was for more than what this company could have withstood. ¦ He wound up saving the company."

The role of legal rescuer suits Schifino, 44.

It's a role he has played time and again and not just for prominent clients such as GunnAllen Financial Inc., the securities brokerage that has become one of the area's fastest growing financial services firm. In a sense, he assumed a similar role in 1991 when he and a group of attorneys spun off of Taub & Williams and formed Williams Schifino Mangione & Steady PA.

Then 31, Schifino earned the confidence of the attorneys who spun off Taub & Williams. As the firm's managing partner, he has executed a calculated growth strategy to elevate the full-service firm into the elite of the downtown Tampa firms. He and his fellow shareholders managed this by offering talented attorneys compensation packages linked to their production. What's more, he says, the law firm has achieved an enviable cost-per-lawyer ratio.

Every bit the rainmaker, Schifino also manages what appears to be a solid securities law practice that produces results for prominent local business people but under the cloak of confidential settlements. For instance, he is about to settle one securities dispute that could put about $3 million into a client's pocket. Soon, he hopes to secure about $10 million in securities settlement proceeds for another client.

In addition, Schifino serves this year as president of the Hillsborough County Bar Association. Ten years ago, he served as president of the group's Young Lawyers Division. Yet, despite the time constraints, Schifino seems to satisfy his clients with a sense of lasting commitment. So says Richard Frueh, GunnAllen's president and CEO.

"I've been working with Bill for over 10 years," says Frueh (pronounced free). "We're now close friends having worked together all those years, but I felt that way from the get-go.

"It's the one-on-one time he spends with you," Frueh adds. "It's so valuable to me. He gives me a lot of points to look at. But he's not afraid to make a recommendation."

Taste for law

Born in Washington, D.C., Schifino acquired a taste for the law from his father, William J. Schifino Sr., one of the Tampa Bay area's prolific transactional securities lawyers. Following a brief stop in Jacksonville, the elder Schifino relocated his family in 1966 to Tampa.

Over the years, the younger Schifino flourished at Tampa's Jesuit High School and then at Tulane University in New Orleans. By 1985 he had earned a law degree from the University of Florida Levin College of Law.

Meanwhile, the elder Schifino established a thriving practice in Tampa with another prolific public finance attorney, Frank Fleischer. Despite the opportunity, the younger Schifino decided not to join his father's firm.

"We decided early on it would be better if I didn't work for him, and that I establish my name and reputation independently," Schifino says. "That's why I went with Taub & Williams."

His father's legacy inspired the younger Schifino to work harder, he says.

"Certainly, not a week didn't go by where another lawyer, a judge or even a client wouldn't compliment me on my father, which of course made me very proud and still does," he says. "But it was never a competitiveness to fill his shoes."

Father and son joined together professionally about 16 months ago. The elder Schifino and Fleischer amicably dissolved their practice, and the father accepted a partnership with the son's firm. Tears welled in the younger Schifino's eyes as he talked about what that meant for him personally.

"The chance to work with my father, who is such a well-respected transactional securities attorney, well, to use an expression, it's priceless," he says. "His practice complements the services our law firm offers."

Over the first five years of his legal career, Schifino mostly represented the securities brokerage industry against unhappy consumers. But something happened in 1990, the year Taub & Williams made him a partner. Another attorney referred Beatrice and Otto Green to him and his future law partner, Robert V. Williams. The couple had lost their retirement savings when a broker churned about $250,000 of their savings over 10 months, leaving only about $10,000 in their account.

"When we sat down and listened to their story, it was so heartbreaking," he recalls. "We had no choice but to represent them. It was a great experience. We successfully represented them in an arbitration claim, winning back every penny they lost plus attorneys' fees."

Around the same time Schifino also found it increasingly difficult to work with one of Taub & Williams' clients, the in-house counsel for a large New York brokerage firm.

"Philosophically, I think I started to relate more to the interests of the consumer," he says. "It's the age-old adage of David vs. Goliath. Who would you rather represent? Some of us would rather be on David's side."

Time for change

This philosophical change in his practice happened about the same time as Schifino re-examined his career options at Taub & Williams. He talked with Williams about his concern, and the two decided to form their own firm. The two had forged a strong friendship since Schifino worked as Williams' law clerk. The reason for this re-examination was fundamental: fair compensation.

"We wanted to have a salary structure based on meritocracy and not years of service and ownership," Schifino says.

Six other attorneys decided to join Williams, Schifino and name partners Ralph P. Mangione and Scott I. Steady. Since then, the law firm has grown to 24 lawyers.

"From the inception of the firm, we have compensated both shareholders and associates based on their performance, not based on their names on the door," Schifino says. "We strive to do quality legal work but also to create a quality place to work. It's all about teamwork here."

The law firm's operating strategy, which relies on the collective input of the shareholders, also focuses on cost controls.

"We don't want to make the mistakes that others have before us," he says. "One of the critical issues we address is keeping our costs at a minimum."

To do so, the firm maintains strict control on its cost-per-lawyer ratio.

"There are firms where cost per lawyer exceeds $180,000," he says. "Ours is presently below $100,000. It's right where it should be. In fact, we may bring in a little additional administrative support, which may raise it a little, but that's fine."

Such performance puts the firm on the positive side of the scale in terms of cost per lawyer, confirms Russ Riley, vice president of Tampa-based Administrative Partners Inc. API consults with law firms throughout Florida on management and technology issues.

"Typically the average in the bay area is $100,000 to $120,000 per lawyer," Riley says.

Each year on Father's Day, the firm's attorneys, their spouses and companions, meet at the Colony Beach & Tennis Resort on Longboat Key for a few days. They golf, play tennis, swim, sunbathe and enjoy a beach barbeque. But the shareholders also schedule a little bit of strategic planning.

This year, Dustin A. Cole, president of Longwood-based Attorneys Master Class and a frequent lecturer at American Bar Association gatherings, attended the event. Cole teaches law firm management and marketing skills. His advice had an impact on the shareholders: The firm is now redesigning its marketing material.

"If there was one golden nugget it was that marketing should be second nature and an everyday part of a lawyer's life to succeed and become more profitable," Schifino says. "Growth does not necessarily equate with profitability."

Carrying the day

The business sense that Schifino projects as managing partner is noticed by his clients. Frueh saw it nearly 10 years ago when he retained Schifino to defend him against a noncompete action filed by Chatfield Dean & Co. Inc., a Denver-based securities brokerage.

Frueh and several other brokers had spun off Chatfield Dean in the late 1980s to form GunnAllen. But Frueh and his associates labored under restrictive language in the employment contracts they signed when they originally joined the brokerage. The brokerage sued Frueh, GunnAllen and its brokers in 1995 when the Tampa brokerage acquired another brokerage.

The civil action in Hillsborough County Circuit Court threatened GunnAllen's existence, Schifino says. Not only did Frueh and GunnAllen face pressure from Chatfield Dean but also the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

"They were trying to do whatever they could to shut them down," Schifino says.

It took nearly four years of legal wrangling and a three-week jury trial to quash Chatfield Dean's legal challenge.

Schifino coordinated Freuh's legal strategy with other lawyers hired to represent GunnAllen and the other brokers. During trial, Frueh says, Schifino emerged as a dominant force.

"We had three sets of counsel working on the same issue," Frueh recalls. "Bill represented me, one represented the company and another represented the brokers. They were all very qualified, but Bill obviously was the junior of all of (the lawyers). But he ended up doing all the talking. I was impressed by that even though he was the junior statesman in terms of seniority. He was the one who carried the day."

Since then, GunnAllen has grown from a small boutique-type brokerage to a major force in the securities industry. It staffs around 1,000 brokers in 40 states at 200 separate locations. Frueh attributes part of that success to Schifino.

"The thing that makes Bill successful at what he does is he loves the work," Frueh says. "That always shines through. When you're really passionate about what you do it gives you a good feeling."

That's how Arnie Geller sees it. "I hope I never get sued again, but if I do I want Bill Schifino representing me," he says. "He's great."

In RMS Titanic lawsuit, G. Michael Harris accused Geller and the company of violating an employment contract. In turn, the company accused Harris of misappropriating company money. A jury absolved the company of wrongdoing and found cause that Harris misappropriated about $70,000.

Harris and his lawyers appealed the verdict, but Schifino recommended that Geller offer Harris a confidential settlement.

"From a business standpoint, we analyzed what all the costs were going to be to defend against an appeal," Geller says. "It made good business sense to settle for less than to defend the appeal.

Schifino says, "I get absolutely passionate when I talk about my experiences with clients. I love what I do for a living."

That's why he maintains such a rigorous workload, while serving the local bar association. He has adopted strict time-management practices and relies on shareholders and associates to fill gaps.

Schifino's altruistic commitment extends beyond the time he devotes to the association. He has extended his commitment to his children's youth sports leagues, the state's guardian ad litem program. He even finds time to serve as a director for a local Boys & Girls Club.

"The reason I became involved (in the bar association) was to give back to my profession," he says. "At the time, I didn't really think of it as a way to find referrals. That wasn't even an issue. It was just a great way to meet other lawyers, many of who remain friends even now."

"I'm just a big believer that we have an obligation as lawyers to give back to our profession and our community," he adds.

That commitment showed early in his career, says Tampa attorney Marsha G. Rydberg, a former bar association president who worked with Schifino at Taub & Williams. He credits her with inspiring him to contribute his time.

"Bill is a natural leader," she says. "He's bright, has a lot of energy, and he's also a guy who really cares.

"I was very active in bar work, and he was a young associate who came to work with our firm," she adds. "I had a chance to work closely with him on one large, complex case, and I was just impressed with his legal ability."

But Rydberg also noticed then Schifino had another talent: the persuasiveness of his convictions.

"He could say things in such a way that people want to do what he's suggesting they should do," she says.

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