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Business Observer Friday, Sep. 26, 2003 14 years ago

Growth Spree

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One of Sarasota's largest law firms is hiring nine new attorneys. Is that an indication of an upward employment trend for other firms?

Growth Spree

One of Sarasota's largest law firms is hiring nine new attorneys. Is that an indication of an upward employment trend for other firms?

By David R. Corder

Associate Editor

Anthony J. Abate spends a lot of time these days reading resumes. The managing shareholder at Abel, Band, Russell, Collier, Pitchford & Gordon Chartered just supervised the hiring of eight new associates. Three more hires are pending. And this fall Abate and staff plan to hire two new graduates.

To accommodate the growth, Abate recently approved a 10,000-square-foot expansion to the Sarasota firm's 30,000-square-foot headquarters at 240 S. Pineapple Ave. in the Huntington Plaza. That's not a decision made lightly. Lease asking rates on 10,000 square feet in the Sarasota office tower would add about $200,000 a year to the firm's expenses.

Several reasons account for why one of Sarasota's largest law firms, with 35 attorneys, just becoming bigger, Abate says. Client demand is at the heart of it.

Growth at the Sarasota firm mirrors a recent trend throughout the Gulf Coast region, says Susan Etheridge, president of Tampa-based Professional Placement Services Inc. "Business is booming," she says of the of all the law firms seeking employment-placement services.

To meet demand, Etheridge and her staff are putting in overtime for the first time in a while. She attributes this wave of hiring to a renewed sense of optimism in the national economy. "People held off on hiring the first part of the year," she says. "But things seem to be moving in the economy, and law firms are hiring."

The region's law firms, big and small, particularly want attorneys with real estate and commercial litigation experience, Etheridge says. "Early on in the year it was slow in real estate," she says. "Now there are numerous positions available doing real estate work, both commercial and residential."

Elvin Phillips, director of administration at Sarasota's largest firm, Williams Parker Harrison Dietz & Getzen, says business is picking up. The firm recently hired a new attorney.

But the 44-member firm is in no hurry to hire more lawyers, Phillips says, adding, "As the need presents itself, we'll hire."

At Abel Band, founded in 1960 by Anthony J. Abel, four associates left the firm over the past few months. Three sought new opportunities in the Sarasota market. Alison H. Haskins joined Lutz Webb & Bobo PA. John W. West III jumped to Kirk-Pinkerton PA. Lisa Connelly took a job as in-house counsel at FCCI Insurance Group. Former associate Scott Alan Anthony Haas married a Thailand woman and moved to Southeast Asia.

Abel Band's new attorneys are Cindy J. Fuqua, Scott A La Porta, Richard Loudermilk, Paul D. Johnson, Stacey A. Prince, Zeina N. Salam, Wendy J. Smith and Christopher A. Staine.

In part, the firm's hiring spree comes from increased client demand for work in the area of employment law defense. "We coordinate it with our standard corporate practice," Abate says. "You can't have a corporate practice anymore without offering employment law counseling."

Much of the growing employment law practice focuses on federal regulatory issues such as the new wage and hour guidelines, the Americans with Disabilities Act and workplace harassment issues.

Another reason for the growth emerged with the hiring of Steven H. Denman a year ago. Denman, who focuses on public utilities regulation, is the reason the firm opened its first out-of-state office, in Denver. Abate says he expects to hire another attorney and a paralegal to assist Denman with the public utilities work.

Denman represents high-profile clients such as the owners of the five-star Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs and Colorado's Durango Mountain Resort.

Demand for new attorneys also comes from the firm's litigation and dispute resolution practice, which has expanded beyond a statewide practice under the direction of Ronald L. Collier, a shareholder who joined the firm in 1978. Abate estimates about 40% of the firm's business comes from that practice area, with corporate consultation and real estate practices accounting for another 30% each.

"In terms of growth of revenue, the growth of business in Sarasota caused it," Collier says. "The clientele has become increasingly sophisticated as the town has grown."

Real estate work accounts in part for the need to expand, Collier says. The firm has built on the condominium association law practice that Anthony Abel established at the firm's inception. The firm staffs nine real estate lawyers and 12 real estate paralegals.

"A lot of the condominiums you see dotting Sarasota Bay and the Gulf of Mexico we were fortunate enough to represent from the inception of the project to the closing of sales," Collier says.

In fact, Abate says, the law firm expects to hire two real estate lawyers out of the three the firm currently is recruiting. He says the need for those attorneys also follows current economic trends in Sarasota. "Sarasota is usually the last to see the effect of a down economy and the first to recover," he says. "A lot of what we're seeing is people (locally) anticipating an improved economy."

Besides corporate, litigation and real estate practice, the law firm intends to increase its presence in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Fort Myers through Mark D. Hildreth's practice. The firm is looking for an experienced bankruptcy lawyer to work with Hildreth on creditor's rights issues.

To meet clients' ever-expanding needs, the firm also expects growth from its domestic relations practice, as its corporate clients prefer the additional layer of confidentiality the firm may be able to provide them. "We found we refer a tremendous amount of domestic relations work," Collier says. "So we've hired a domestic relations attorney and paralegal."

Although it hires associates on qualifications and merit, Abate says, the law firm also has become an industry leader in the areas of diversification. The 35-member law firm currently has 12 shareholders. Four, or about one-third, of the shareholders are women. In fact, four of the eight new associates hired are women.

Such changes reflect much of the law firm's continual pursuit of a service-oriented and client-responsive business strategy, Abate says. "The legal profession has changed, and our ability to deliver services to clients has also changed," he says. "Now clients are expecting and deserving instant service. So you have to be prepared to meet client demand."

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