Trial lawyers and corporate attorneys have not mixed at most law firms for decades. But they have worked legal pad by legal pad at venerable Fowler White in Tampa. Until now. Robert Banker is leading a band of trial lawyers to a new firm while Rhea Law remains chairwoman of Fowler White.
Like all trial attorneys, Robert Banker enjoys the rush of getting in front of a jury.
After winning a case, he likes getting back to the firm and celebrating with staff and partners.
It's not exactly that way with corporate attorneys. They quietly do deliberate work for large clients every day, sometimes working on five- or even 20-year projects and contracts. Reactions are more measured.
That difference in tasks has spilled over into corporate culture at 65-year-old Fowler White Gillen Banker Boggs, one of the Gulf Coast's biggest and most prominent law firms.
“I think some lawyers want to run the firm more as a family, than a corporation,” says Banker, senior partner at Fowler White. “We (trial lawyers) do a lot of paperwork, directed to the courtroom. It's a different culture. I can't identify what it is, other than to say, we go out, we win a case. There's a celebration. It's hard to celebrate over filing a tax return.”
In the world of law firms, these two types of practices — trial and corporate — usually don't work side by side.
But they coexisted for years at Fowler White. Until now.
Come Nov. 1, Banker will lead about 60 lawyers, out of about 200 at the firm, to form a new law firm for trial law in Tampa. The new firm will be called Banker Lopez Gassler. Fowler White will now be know as Fowler White Boggs.
Rhea Law, chairwoman and chief executive of Fowler White, and John Emmanuel, the firm's president, both called the decision collegial and a win-win for everyone involved.
The two firms will even refer business to each other and use the same office building in downtown Tampa.
“Someone asked me the other day, if I was happy and I said yes,” Law says. “These people are our friends and will continue to be. I think the amicable nature is testament to our long history.”
Law and Banker say the decision did not have anything to do with money.
“It had nothing to do with bonuses certainly or salaries,” Banker says. “That was not a driving issue. Money just wasn't an issue and still isn't. It is just a difference of cultures.”
Banker adds: “This is not that exceptional, when you get down to it. It is very hard for trial lawyers and corporate lawyers to mix. They have different goals. We are more flamboyant.”
Even now, Banker is still a little puzzled why things happened.
“For reasons unknown to me, corporate lawyers don't mix well with trial lawyers,” Banker says. “Most large firms don't have trial lawyers.”
Many refer to the work as insurance defense. But that's not entirely true. These attorneys also represent airlines, airline manufacturers and other companies.
The split at Fowler White is more personal for Banker because he is a name partner and a board member who has been with the firm since 1961. He's used the same office for 30 years.
“No doubt it hurts me to leave the firm,” he says. “I used to work with Cody Fowler and Morris White. They were trial lawyers. There's not any bitterness. We think we can have more fun and do it our way. They feel their way is the best.”
After some of the firm's younger trial lawyers came to Banker, he went to Law and had a long meeting. He realized it was time for the trial lawyers to leave the firm. It was not Banker's idea to leave.
“It was a monumental decision for us,” he says. “I am starting a law firm with 150 people. Sixty attorneys are leaving the firm.”
But they won't be going far. The new firm will actually remain in the same office building in downtown Tampa. Some will remain on the 16th floor, where Banker is located.
“A lot of the younger lawyers wanted to go out and do their own thing,” Banker says. “My feeling is that they should have the right to do that.”
It was a clear choice.
“Once they came to me, I said, 'Fine,'” he says. “I have nothing against Fowler White. Hell, my name has been in the firm name for a long, long time. But there is a culture difference between trial lawyers and corporate lawyers. The firm wanted to go with its culture. We wish them well.”
Banker does not plan to move the firm out of the building. “We'd rather stay in the same building. It is a monumental task to move. Plus, I like the office.”
Banker says trial lawyers know they face risk, but enjoy it.
“Trial lawyers can't be too smart,” he says. “If you're really good, you still lose 20% of your cases. But, we like it.”
Some think trial lawyers deal with less sophisticated clients.
“I'm not sure I agree,” says Banker. Some of his clients include Lear Jet, Delta Airlines and Hospital Corp. of America.
Trial work foundation
A native of Memphis, Tenn., Banker joined Fowler White in 1961, after graduating from law school at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. The firm was a good training ground for trial lawyers defending clients being sued. Trial work became the foundation of the firm.
“Fowler White for 30 years was known as a go-to trial firm,” Banker says. “We handled medical malpractice, products liability. We still have that reputation.”
But as the firm grew along the Gulf Coast, it took on corporate clients for corporate legal work, like preparing property for development and doing contracts. Trial work went from being the biggest part of the firm's business to the smaller part.
Because the two kinds of legal work are so different, many firms split off that business years ago. Fowler White didn't.
“A number of them split off this work,” Law says. “Holland & Knight had insurance components. It shed them 10 to15 years ago. There are benefits on both sides. But it had to be done right.”
There are also potential conflicts, with attorneys potentially representing insurance companies and attorneys at the same firm representing the insured.
“We were late in the process of making the change,” Law says. “It's not the same culture, governance or business model and that causes conflicts for each other. They are more successful dealing with insurance clients. We are successful dealing with corporate clients.”
After the split Nov. 1, Banker Lopez will occupy the 15th and 16th floors in the same building in downtown Tampa — the silver-colored Mac Building at 501 E. Kennedy Blvd. — as Fowler White uses. Fowler White will use floors 10, 14, 17, 18 and 19.
Banker Lopez will also have offices in St. Petersburg, Fort Myers and Tallahassee. It is thinking of opening a small office in Fort Lauderdale. Fowler White has offices in the same cities and also has locations in Orlando and Jacksonville.
And Banker Lopez may grow. Banker says he's not interested being a big firm, but he is getting telephone calls from attorneys that want to join him.
“There are possibilities,” he says. “Yes, we are hearing from others, from good people, from all around the state. Right now, I've got enough.”
Banker expects both firms to grow.
“I think both firms will do quite well,” he says. “The lawyers are too good not to do well.”
Land-use continues to be an important part of corporate work. While clients are not selling property, they have large, 20- to 30-year projects. One of its clients is developer Newland Communities.
“They have a momentum of their own, so a two- to thee-year movement doesn't affect the plans for the project,” Law says. “We're getting entitlements for the next surge. We're spending our time getting set up. We'll be ready.”
Fowler White closed offices in Naples and Bonita Springs last year, but it said they were small, storefront offices and they decided not to renew their lease there and instead consolidated staff into the Fort Myers office. Because the different lawyers handle different clients, there should be no conflicts when the firms split.
“It makes for a very clean break,” Law says. “We're not fussing with each other over clients, like you see with other law firms ... This is the epitome of a win-win.”
The economy is forcing a number of law firms to look at their costs. Some have closed offices and cut salaries. The main impact on Fowler White is that some clients are taking longer to pay.
“We are more cognizant of pay arrangements,” Law says. “We are partners with clients, certainly working with them and will continue to do that.”