The Naples and Fort Myers markets for legal services could be a challenging place for any new entrant.
Orlando-based law firm GrayRobinson took a bold step eight years ago: It opened an office in Naples.
Turns out few of the large statewide Florida firms have any presence in Fort Myers or Naples. Only two other large statewide firms have a presence here: Fowler White and Akerman Senterfitt.
As the economy recovers, there's speculation more statewide firms are scouting Southwest Florida for future expansion. But they'll have to contend with some well-entrenched competitors and the misperception that there's little corporate work in the area.
“I tell people I've never done any real estate or estate planning,” jokes Burt Saunders, the former state senator who opened the Naples office of Orlando-based GrayRobinson. For example, Saunders mostly handles municipal cases.
But some in legal circles believe that more statewide firms will scout opportunities in Southwest Florida because of changing demographics and increased business activity. “I think there's going to be a greater provision of sophisticated legal services,” says Robert Bulloch, the managing partner for the Naples office of Quarles & Brady.
While large, Florida-based firms might have a dominant presence in many Florida cities, Midwest-based firms have traditionally filled that role in Southwest Florida.
Quarles & Brady has its roots in Milwaukee, but it followed clients to Naples because they needed estate-planning services when they wintered here. Now, the firm has 20 attorneys in Naples who provide a wide range of legal services beyond estate planning, including corporate representation.
Retirees who move to Florida don't just need estate-planning services. “They don't want to step out of the game,” says Paul Heuerman, the partner in charge of the Naples office of Roetzel & Andress, an Ohio firm that now has 25 lawyers in Naples and 10 in Fort Myers. “They're actively investing, doing business. Clients started investing in the community.”
One reason few large Florida firms have ventured here is that longtime firms in Fort Myers and Naples dominate the area.
For example, Henderson Franklin will be celebrating the firm's 90th anniversary in Fort Myers next year. It hasn't had expansionist plans, preferring to stick to Lee and surrounding counties, a territory its lawyers know intimately. “We know what's going on in Lee County, we know people we can call,” says Denis Noah, managing stockholder and president, who has been with the firm for 33 years.
“When you're statewide, it's harder to invest in the community with your time, effort and money,” Noah reasons.
In addition, there's a misperception that Naples only has opportunities for estate-planning lawyers, says Richard Grant, president of Grant Fridkin Pearson in Naples. The firm's corporate clients include Barron Collier, DeAngelis Diamond Construction and Chicago Title Insurance.
Interestingly, Grant's firm started in 1995 when he and several other attorneys split off from a statewide Miami-based firm called Mershon, Sawyer. Grant had moved to Naples as part of the firm's expansion to Southwest Florida in 1979.
“The thing that motivates branch officing within a state is because of a common core of clientele who might be based in different communities,” says Grant.
Any firm that wanted to expand in a meaningful way in Naples and Fort Myers would have to consider buying an existing firm. “Over the years, since we started our firm, I can't count the number of larger firms who wanted us to be a part of them,” says Grant. “We have yet to find one that made sense to us.”
Noah says it may be a while before new competition considers Fort Myers. “We have been approached over the years, but not recently,” he says. “My view is that if we really are in a recovery, and it seems that way, it's going to be a little while before we see competition from new law firms in this area. We're not at the levels we were in 2005 and 2006 as far as the work goes.”
Henderson Franklin is part of a group called the Florida Law Network, which refers clients in a loose-knit alliance with other firms. For example, Noah says the firm refers cases to Holland & Knight, one of the largest statewide firms, that is also part of the group.
Brad Kimbro, the executive partner of the Tampa Bay region for Holland & Knight, says the firm's referral relationship with Henderson Franklin is beneficial because it doesn't have to open an office in Fort Myers. For example, Holland & Knight might refer zoning cases in Lee County to Henderson Franklin and the Fort Myers firm might refer specialized municipal-bond business to Holland & Knight.
Together with its eight offices in Florida, the Florida Law Network allows Holland & Knight coverage of the whole state, from Pensacola to Key West. “We're constantly evaluating where we want offices,” Kimbro says. But, he adds, “everything we do is client-driven and we don't have near-term plans to open an office [in Fort Myers].”
One of the few statewide firms that has a meaningful presence in Southwest Florida is Fowler White. The Tampa-based firm established an office in Fort Myers 30 years ago after it realized there was enough insurance-defense work to warrant it.
The insurance-defense work eventually led to more commercial business. “They recruited me to start the commercial practice in 1994,” says Joseph Coleman, who is now president of Fowler White and travels to the firm's various offices around the state.
Coleman's strategy to grow Fowler White's presence in Fort Myers has been to recruit young lawyers who plan to stay in the area. “My formula has been to look for young guys and gals who were raised in Southwest Florida,” he says. “It's still a small town, so I like to recruit young people who have ties to the community.”
With competitors like Henderson Franklin, Coleman acknowledges that any firm contemplating entering the market would have to take them into account. “We've seen more nationals and regionals move into Naples than Fort Myers,” Coleman says.
Akerman Senterfitt, based in Miami, opened an office in Naples in February 2011. To lead the office, Akerman hired Jonathan Gopman, formerly of Cummings & Lockwood, and John Clough, formerly with Cheffy Passidomo. The firm now has eight attorneys in Naples; none was available for comment.
However, in response to emailed questions, the firm says it has found clients that are well-established businesses. “In Naples, we focused on securing experienced attorneys with skills in wealth preservation, tax planning, litigation and real estate, which fits in well with the needs of many of our clients in this market,” the firm says in a statement.