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Business Observer Friday, Mar. 6, 2020 6 months ago

People power: Staff diversity fuels law firm's financial strength

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Founded in 1910, one of Florida’s oldest business law firms survives and thrives thanks to an advisory-focused approach to client relationships. Another key? Clearing the way for women.
by: Brian Hartz Tampa Bay Editor

By its own admission, Shutts & Bowen isn’t the priciest or most prestigious law firm around, nor is it the loudest in terms of marketing and advertising. But when it comes to longevity and profitability, it's ahead of the pack. 

Shutts & Bowen’s origins date back to 1910 — when it was founded in Miami by Frank Shutts, an Indiana lawyer who would go on to become Henry Flagler’s attorney. That makes it one of the oldest continually operating law firms in Florida. 

Today, the firm is on a two-decades roll of record-setting revenue gains and net profits, a level of consistency difficult to achieve in any industry, let alone law, which can have volatile swings in pay structures. In 2019, Shutts & Bowen posted revenue of $183 million, a 6.5% increase over 2018. Its net profits increased 8%, to $83 million. 

“We're a big bunch of independent contractors, if you think about it, right?” says Shutts & Bowen partner Amanda Buffinton, who specializes in construction law. “And we overthink and we overanalyze and then we argue around things.” 

Put in those terms, a law firm does sound like a difficult business to operate. Yet Alan Higbee, managing partner of Shutts & Bowen’s Tampa office, says there’s no secret formula. 

“We just have really good lawyers, and they are all good businesspeople, as well, who attract very good clients,” he says. “We’re not the most expensive firm in town, by any means. We just try to be of value to major institutional clients and I think that’s very attractive to them. We don’t lose many clients; we keep adding on.” 

Amanda Buffinton. Courtesy photo.

But with the legal industry under threat from online resources such as RocketLawyer.com and LegalZoom.com, how does a firm like Shutts & Bowen, with revenue heavily based on transactional business law, cultivate the long-term client relationships that drive sustained growth and profitability? 

Higbee, 62, who founded Shutts & Bowen’s Tampa office in 2006, says the key lies in getting to know a client’s business, inside and out, so well that you put yourself in their shoes and see real and potential problems and issues from their point of view. 

“We try to be a partner of our clients,” he says. “We’re not trying to get rich off of any particular transaction or what have you. We want to treat them like we would want to be treated if we were on the other side. And if you do that, you build long-term relationships, so that when they do well, you do well.”

LADIES FIRST

If there is a secret to Shutts & Bowen’s financial success, it might lie in its diverse cohort of attorneys. The Miami-based firm — which also has offices in Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville, Orlando, Sarasota, Tallahassee and West Palm Beach — has won acclaim for ranking among the top 50 law firms nationwide in the number of new female partners. In 2019, more than half of the firm’s new partners, of both the equity and non-equity variety, were women. 

Kristin Morris. Courtesy photo.

Kristin Morris, who has been with Shutts & Bowen since 2015, was one of the women promoted to non-equity partner last year. “Shutts,” she says, “has offered a really good environment to springboard and help women attorneys.” 

Morris, 35, says one of the firm’s strengths in this area is a mentorship program that pairs up more experienced female attorneys with their younger counterparts. She and her mentor, Olga Pina, go out for lunch or do some sort of out-of-office social activity once a month in an effort to foster open discussion about the issues and struggles that can affect women in the legal industry. 

Both Morris and Buffinton, 42, have two young children, and they say work-life balance can be particularly difficult for female attorneys, but that Shutts & Bowen seeks to do whatever it takes to position women for success. It’s a policy that makes good business sense, considering how much the demographics of the legal industry have shifted in recent years. According to American Bar Association statistics, for example, more women than men were enrolled in U.S. law schools in 2018 — the third year in a row the fairer sex enjoyed that status. In Florida that year, 55% of all law school students were women. 

“We’re in a different generation now,” Buffinton says. “But with law, I always feel like it’s a little bit behind corporate America, a little bit more archaic. But you're going to see more and more women climbing and becoming equity owners and management.” 

‘We try to be a partner of our clients. We’re not trying to get rich off of any particular transaction or what have you’ Alan Higbee, Shutts & Bowen

Giving female lawyers the tools and support to succeed is a savvy strategy, too, because more women are finding their way into corporate boardrooms and C-suites, Higbee says. “We have a diverse client base and so we really need a diverse group of lawyers here; we’ve been successful in doing that, it’s made us stronger and because of that, we pay attention to it. It’s important.” 

Also, the partnership gender gap is closing — quickly. Of the 33 partners at Shutts & Bowen’s Tampa office, 20 are male and 13 are female. Of the firm’s 12 associates, half are male and half are female. 

Having that balance “brings different ways to look at things,” Higbee says, “different ways to solve problems. If you agree all the time, then there’s probably something wrong.” 

Shutts & Bowen also encourages its female attorneys to practice in areas of the law related to industries that have traditionally been male dominant. Buffinton, for example, specializes in construction law. 

“For most of my career, at every deposition, for the most part, you're sitting around a room, including the witness, that’s full of men, very few women, but it's getting better,” she says. “But that’s construction, when you think about it. It’s a very ‘male’ sort of industry.” 

GENERATIONAL CHANGE

Shutts & Bowen has allocated substantial resources to business law, particularly in practice areas such as real estate, construction, taxation, mergers and acquisitions and intellectual property. One of the areas seeing the most rapid evolution, Higbee says, is employment law, because for the first time in the history of the United States, five distinct generations — traditionalists, baby boomers, Gen X, millennials and Gen Z — are working alongside each other at many companies. 

For Higbee, there’s “no question” generational differences are a root cause of many of the lawsuits filed against employers. “The generations work differently, their lifestyles are different, their adaptation to technology is different.”

Communication, or lack thereof, lies at the heart of many employer-employee legal disputes. Boomers, for example, like to sit down and have face-to-face discussions, while younger generations prefer to exchange ideas over instant messaging apps. That divide represents much more than just a matter of personal preference, Higbee says. 

“It’s so easy for people in those different generations to misunderstand each other when they’re communicating in a totally different way,” he explains. “In some cases, somebody is not comfortable with how someone else is communicating. We see a ton of that.”

The problem has become so acute Shutts & Bowen has taken to proactively working with clients, encouraging them to hold training and workshops designed to foster intergenerational understanding. The firm itself will also host seminars for clients. “You’ll have a better workplace because of it,” Higbee says. “It really does help.” 

Some conflicts, of course, cannot be resolved solely with education. Employers, Higbee says, should try to get in front of potential lawsuits and head them off. “Provide mechanisms for people to seek help,” he says, “someone to talk to about it. Your folks who are in HR positions, they have to understand the gap in communications.” 

But no matter the cause, employer-employee issues are going to arise. The key question is what happens next. “If you’re a substantial employer and you don’t have some employment issues, you haven’t been around very long," he says. "There are an awful lot of lawyers in this world, and an awful lot of them are plaintiff’s lawyers who work in employment law.” 

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