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Business Observer Friday, Oct. 4, 2019 2 weeks ago

Plant a flag: Venerable East Coast law firm charts a course for Gulf growth

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Not content to bank on its legacy and pedigree, Gunster embraces a strategy of rapid expansion. Will its cerebral approach to messaging help it win the war for young legal talent?
by: Brian Hartz Tampa Bay Editor

Gunster, a full-service law firm headquartered in West Palm Beach, has expanded faster than perhaps any other Florida law firm in recent years, and the Tampa Bay region has been its top target for growth.

Not only has the firm added more depth to its bench, it’s done so with big, sweeping moves, with groups of lawyers joining the firm en masse. In August 2018, eight attorneys — including five shareholders — made the leap to Gunster’s Tampa office, which was founded in 2011 by a similar wave of new hires.

One of them was Bill Schifino Jr., who has since taken over as the firm’s managing shareholder in Tampa. Schifino, 59, whose practice is focused on business litigation, has grown the office even more: Now, thanks to another hiring spree this year, it has 12 shareholders and eight associates.

“Our goal is to serve the business community,” he says, “but you can’t be a statewide player without having a strong, vibrant foothold in the bay area market.”

Having assets in place is an excellent start, but Schifino says Gunster faces the challenge of making its brand known in Tampa Bay — not an easy task, even for one of the largest and longest-established firms in Florida. Schifino, who served as president of the Florida Bar for the 2016-2017 term, says marketing will be a challenge he intends to address.

“Part of my responsibility is to ensure we have a team effort in Tampa to get out and brand and market the name,” he says.

THOUGHT LEADERSHIP

For a law firm, one way to cut through the noise — and annoying commercials — is to position its attorneys as experts in their field. Bruce Lamb, for example, heads Gunster’s health care practice and played a key role in organizing The Future of Health Care in Florida Summit, an industry event that takes place Nov. 1 at the Guidewell Innovation Center in Orlando.

“We’ll have some fantastic speakers from government and the health care industry,” says Lamb, 63, a founding member of Gunster’s Tampa office. “I see a lot of law firms that, for programs like this, the speakers and panelists are primarily lawyers from the firm. We don't do it that way. The speakers that we have are health care providers, executives, governmental people who are in the health care arena. The only role that we play is making introductions and perhaps moderating a panel, but we don't try to dominate it.”

“If you get engaged and you're out there moving the needle, people will be looking to hear more about you. It’s a tried-and-true process.” Bill Schifino Jr., managing shareholder of Gunster’s Tampa office.

Gunster’s government affairs law and lobbying practice stages a similar summit, held annually since 2016, called the Women in Energy Leadership Forum. Speakers have included Gulf Power CFO Robin Boren; Carolyn Gosselin, senior vice president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce; Stephanie Pendleton, senior vice president of Bank of America Merrill Lynch; and former Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam.

Such highly targeted events, Lamb says, can be much more effective than plastering a billboard or bus with a gaudy advertisement.

“It’s a great way to build your profile and provide a service to your clients and to the public, generally,” he says.

Schifino agrees, saying, “If you get engaged and you're out there moving the needle, people will be looking to hear more about you. It’s a tried-and-true process.”

TALENT SEARCH

Both Schifino and Lamb say the other big hurdle posed by Gunster’s desire for growth is finding the ideal lawyers, with the desired expertise, to add to its team.

“Every law firm is facing this challenge right now,” Schifino says, citing the low unemployment rate. “It’s a very tight employment market. Fortunately, for Gunster, we tend to attract talent, but it’s about making sure we have the right team players.”

The operative word, for Gunster, is “team.” Lamb, speaking of the health care practice, says the firm takes a deliberate, methodical approach to cultivating the young legal talent that it hires. It exposes new associates to a wide variety of types of topics and work in the field, in hopes that they’ll settle into a specialty area that suits and motivates them.

“People just naturally find a place where they're very comfortable and have an interest,” he says. “And so we try to accommodate that as much as we can. It's really the natural progression in most people's careers to find a niche.”

But a crucial difference that sets Gunster apart, according to Lamb, is how its leadership ensures that client efficiency is a No. 1 priority. That means partners and associates don’t hoard all of a particular client’s work for themselves if they don’t have the capacity for it. Instead, they pass it off to another attorney who might be able to be more responsive.

“That’s not to knock other firms,” Lamb says, “but there are firms where one partner has a client and they don’t want to share the work. And so they kind of try to do everything for the client. We try to be as efficient as possible. If there is a different attorney that can be more efficient economically or time-wise, I give [the work] to that person. And similarly, they might give me something that's more in my area. That way, we are very responsive and economically efficient for clients.”

BRIGHT FUTURE

Schifino has big goals for Gunster’s Tampa office. He wants to rapidly increase the number of attorneys from 20 to somewhere between 35 and 40. And he knows a thing or two about spurring organic growth at a law firm, having founded and run Williams, Schifino, Mangione and Steady, P.A., from 1991 to 2012, when it merged with Alabama-based Burr & Forman.

Schifino says he’ll draw on that experience to guide Gunster as it looks to raise its profile not only in Tampa, but other Gulf Coast markets such as Fort Myers, which he says would be a “great market” for the firm — which already has a total of 418 full-time employees, including 197 attorneys, statewide.

“Part of my focus, too, is not only to find folks in Tampa, but to see what opportunities are available up and down the west coast and all the way over to Orlando,” he says. “I’ve spoken to some lawyers in those marketplaces and would love to find the right match.”

Bruce Lamb has been a mainstay in Gunster's health care practice since joining the law firm's Tampa office as a founding shareholder in 2011. Courtesy photo.

Privately held Gunster declines to disclose its revenues, but with 3.4% employment growth from 2016 to 2017, followed by a 6.5% uptick in personnel from 2017 to 2018, it’s certainly winning the battle for talent.

“My goal is to double our footprint, and I've done it before,” Schifino adds. “I had my own firm for many years and then I built up a nice office for Forman. I’ve always had a deep friendship with Gunster and am looking forward to the opportunity to do it here.”

Even with all of his experience, if Schifino still needs advice, he need do nothing more than walk down the hall and consult with his father, Bill Schifino Sr., who, at 86, continues to practice corporate law at Gunster. The elder Schifino has led a storied career, working in the SEC’s corporate finance division in Washington, D.C., before relocating to Tampa in 1966 and establishing his own firm.

“My father still comes into work every day,” Schifino says. When it comes to that kind of longevity, “I don’t know if I’ll beat Dad, but I’ve certainly got a lot of miles left on the slope.”

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