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Business Observer Thursday, Mar. 12, 2009 12 years ago

New Start

For lawyers that rely on businesses as clients, a recession would seem like an odd time to launch a new firm. Autonomy, however, is the first goal.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

For lawyers that rely on businesses as clients, a recession would seem like an odd time to launch a new firm. Autonomy, however, is the first goal.

The recession has been especially hard on some of the Gulf Coast's biggest law firms — dealing many a blistering one-two punch.

First, firms are seeing less work and clients as small businesses look for ways to pare costs down to the absolute necessities. And for the work that does come in, the challenge of getting paid has only been heightened during the recession.

The double punch has resulted in a law firm contraction period. Big firms such as Tampa-based Holland & Knight and global giant DLA Piper, which has a large office in Tampa, have let go of hundreds of attorneys this year. Some lawyers, both locally and outside Florida, have begun referring to Feb.12, when more than 700 lawyers were laid off across the country, as 'Black Thursday.'

But Joe Najmy and Steven Thompson, two longtime Sarasota-Bradenton area attorneys, see it differently.

The pair recently left their old firm, Bradenton-based Porges, Hamlin, Knowles, Prouty, Thompson & Najmy, P.A., to start their own firm. Along with four other attorneys, Najmy and Thompson bill their firm as the first full-service law firm to be launched in Manatee County in 10 years.

“It has been a relatively smooth transition, considering how bad the economy is,” says Stephen Thompson, who specializes in land use, zoning and homeowners' and condo association law. “There is still work out there.”

Najmy adds that starting his own firm is about more than a market dip, no matter how long or pronounced it is. “At the end of the day, we are also businessman,” says Najmy. “And businessmen like to have as much autonomy as possible.”

The attorneys predict that that autonomy will lead to growth. Najmy says the firm should reach $1.5 million in revenues in 2009 and $2.5 million in 2010. Thompson says the plan is to eventually grow the firm's reach north to Hillsborough and Pasco counties and south to Charlotte County. Polk County is on the to-do list as well.

Still, as businessmen, the attorneys are running into some of the hurdles facing other small businesses, such as obtaining financing. That was an issue late last year, when Thompson says he went to a few large regional banks in the St. Petersburg area for a loan.

The bankers told Thompson they liked his and Najmy's ideas and thought the firm had a good chance at being successful. But the bankers turned down the loan anyway.

Thompson said he and his partners were ultimately able to obtain financing from the Sarasota-branch of Birmingham, Ala.-based Superior Bank. They opened the practice in February, with one office in Lakewood Ranch and another one in Bradenton.

Najmy and Thompson, the two name partners on the firm, have diverse backgrounds in law.

Najmy is a Brooklyn native who moved to Florida with his family in the 1970s. Najmy's dad bought an auto-body shop in Bradenton after moving his family to the area.

Instead of joining his dad's business, however, Najmy pursued a career in accounting and after that, law. He worked as a CPA in Sarasota for four years before earning his law degree from Florida State.

Najmy worked for Fowler & White in Tampa before joining the Porges' led firm. Najmy's specialty at his new practice varies from wills, trust and estate tax planning to general business counsel, such as guiding small businesses through the employee stock ownership process.

Thompson, meanwhile, has a niche in representing homeowners' associations up and down the Gulf Coast. He built up a client list at Porges that included more than 250 HOA's and condo associations; he said he is not sure how many of those clients will join him at the new firm.

A Connecticut native, Thompson earned his law degree from the University of Florida. He worked in urban planning outside Orlando and later served as the director of development for Palmer Ranch, a master-planned community in Sarasota County.

Thompson and Najmy say they will try to build their practice by breaking down the idea that meeting with a lawyer is an excruciating experience.

“I get clients who come in here and it's like they are one step away from root canal,” says Najmy. “It's so painful for them to start the process.”

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