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Business Observer Friday, Nov. 14, 2003 15 years ago

Law Firm Breakup (Tampa edition)

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After 20 years together, the Salem Saxon firm splits in two. Most of the firm's lawyers remain with partner Bernice Saxon.

Law Firm Breakup (Tampa edition)

After 20 years together, the Salem Saxon firm splits in two. Most of the firm's lawyers remain with partner Bernice Saxon.

By Hali White

Legal Affairs Editor

In 1982, Bernice Saxon moved to Florida and joined forces with Richard Salem. The two built a successful Tampa law firm that eventually employed about 30 attorneys, plus support staff, with offices in Orlando, Tallahassee, Washington, D.C. and Costa Rica.

Now, two decades later, Saxon must regroup. Salem left the firm Nov. 1 with partner Terrell Sessums, former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, taking Tampa's lobbying contract with him. Saxon was not given much warning, she says.

"In essence, the decisions were made very quickly," she says.

Neither will comment in detail about the breakup.

Sessums, who was a partner in Salem Saxon, is more candid. The way he tells it, he returned from an out-of-town trip on a Friday afternoon (Oct. 31), unaware of any problems. By Saturday morning, resignation letters had been signed.

"By the time I had cleared messages and was ready to go (Friday), I learned things were coming unglued," Sessums says. "Decisions I was not directly a part of had not gone well."

Before his trip, Sessums says, there had been seemingly amicable discussions about some of the firm's lawyers becoming equity partners.

"There did not appear to be any particular dissension or I would have been a little more aware that all was not right in paradise," he says. "I was caught a little by surprise when this occurred. I'm not aware of anyone being personally angry or mean about it. I think the lawyers involved just concluded in the best interest of themselves, their families and their clients that it was time to dissolve (the firm)."

Saxon has since moved from 32nd floor offices in the Bank of America Plaza to the sixth floor of SouthTrust Plaza. Her new digs are old and worn, with dingy carpet and a paint job that shows its age. Boxes of files fill a makeshift lobby where sparseness is relieved only slightly by a few decorative trees.

But the show goes on. The German-born daughter of two Holocaust survivors, Saxon knows something about perseverance. Her front office staffers now work behind folding brown tables that substitute for desks until new ones arrive. Saxon expects remodeling already in progress to be complete within three months. Computers and phones are up and running.

The overall mood - at least in the front office - is one of surprising cheer. Clients have been supportive, Saxon says.

Saxon, now managing partner of Saxon, Gilmore, Carraway, Gibbons, Lash & Wilcox PA, is left with 20 attorneys, plus 27 support staff. The firm still is among the largest in the Tampa Bay area. Named equity partners include Ricardo Gilmore, J. Frazier Carraway, John Gibbons, Thomas Lash and John Wilcox. Saxon, who specializes in corporate transactions and real estate, plans to have "measured growth" in the firm's core practice groups, which include environmental/water law; real estate/land use; finance/public housing; creditors' rights and international law.

Saxon grew up in Ohio, where she earned both her undergraduate degree in psychology and her law degree from the University of Toledo. She worked in her parents' bakery from an early age, and continued to help with the family business through her first years as a practicing attorney. In 1981, she and her husband, a real estate developer, moved to Florida to be near her parents, who lived in Clearwater. Saxon intended to join a big firm until she met Salem, who pitched the idea of a partnership. It seemed like a good fit, she says. Of his former law partner, Salem says simply, "She was, is, a bright and gifted attorney with many fine attributes. She was a good partner and we had a good working relationship in our former firm."

The organization of Salem's new firm is less clear. Salem says the name of his new firm is Salem Sessums PA; that he is managing partner; and Sessums is an equity partner.

Not so, says Sessums. He considers himself of counsel, and is seriously considering taking a six-month sabbatical beginning in January to concentrate on various nonprofit commitments. He joined forces with Salem because he didn't want the "adventure" of starting a new firm, he says. He says he told Salem he was not enough of a "long timer" to be a named partner.

"I made it clear that I didn't want to be involved in ownership or assume any debts or liabilities," Sessums says.

Salem says his firm employs six attorneys and about 10 support staff. A few work from the firm's Tampa office - still located on the 32nd floor of the Bank of America building - while some are in Washington, D.C. Salem admits the Tampa space is now much too big, so he may sublet. He also has one associate in Orlando and one in San Jose, Costa Rica, he says.

In addition to the $60,000-a-year contract to lobby federal money for Tampa, Salem's new firm - whatever its name - represents about 20 clients who were formerly with Salem Saxon PA. Salem describes his new practice as transnational business with an emphasis on government advocacy.

Salem says he may decide to merge with another firm, or strengthen ties with existing affiliates, including a 90-attorney firm based in Minneapolis, a 30-attorney firm in New York City and a six-attorney firm in Palm Harbor.

"We're going to take our time," says Salem, a graduate of Duke Law School and an active participant in the International Bar Association Section on Business Law.

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