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Business Observer Friday, Jan. 2, 2004 14 years ago

Year Ahead

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An informal survey of Tampa Bay area law firms shows lawyers are optimistic about 2004. More hiring is expected.

Year Ahead

An informal survey of Tampa Bay area law firms shows lawyers are optimistic about 2004. More hiring is expected.

By Bob Andelman

Contributing Writer

What kind of year will 2004 be for the Gulf Coast's legal industry? Will it be better than the year just ended? Will there be more lawyers in the community in the coming months?

These are some of the questions GCBR asked a number of the area's largest and most prominent firms in an informal survey. What we heard back was a great deal of optimism. No one expects billings to go down, and many firms are hiring. Sounds like a good time to be a lawyer.

How was business in 2003 in terms of gross billings? Better or worse than expected?

David M. Silberstein, president, Kirk-Pinkerton, Sarasota (www.kirkpinkerton.com): "Gross billings (estimated at more than $6 million) were as expected during 2003."

Thomas A. Snow, president and CEO, Carlton Fields, Tampa (www.carltonfields.com): "It was an excellent year, about what we expected." (Billings were $85 million in 2003.)

James L. Ritchey, president, Williams, Parker, Harrison, Dietz & Getzen, Sarasota (www.williamsparker.com): "Receipts were up in 2003, as expected."

Byrd "Biff" Marshall, managing partner and president, GrayRobinson (www.gray-robinson.com): "Our billings for 2003 were approximately 10% more than we had budgeted for the year, so it has been a very good year for the firm and most of our practice areas."

Rhea F. Law, president and CEO, Fowler White Boggs Banker PA, Tampa (www.fowlerwhite.com): "Thanks to our wonderful clients we experienced significant growth in geographic locations and client base. 2003 was our best year ever in terms of gross billings and revenue."

What's expected in 2004?

Silberstein: "Billings are expected to increase during 2004 as a result of our recent internal growth and our addition of new clients."

Snow: "We expect a very positive year. We're expecting growth in our revenue in a range of maybe 8-9%."

Ritchey: "We expect an increase and continuing growth."

Marshall: "We expect some of the practice areas that were extremely busy in 2003, such as bankruptcy and some parts of litigation, to slow down. However, we expect other areas, such as real estate and the securities practice, to pick up significantly. Accordingly, we expect revenue to continue to increase in 2004 as they have in the last several years."

Law: "We are currently anticipating further significant growth in 2004."

Do you expect that any particular practice areas will see a surge in business?

Silberstein: "Kirk Pinkerton added during 200,3 and we are scheduled to add during 2004 new attorneys in our estate planning, real estate, and land use, governmental and zoning practice areas. We expect all of these to continue to grow over the years to come. We have also enjoyed tremendous growth in the Venice area with the addition of Roger Isphording's and Clif White's practices. At the same time, we just moved into our new office space on Venice Island in the Bank of Venice building. Due to growth in our practices Bradenton, we are looking to add new attorneys in Bradenton."

Snow: "The corporate and real estate side of the practice, that is, business transactions and securities, will increase. It's very cyclical; it runs with the economy. I think it will be a strong year for the economy. The law firms dominated by business transactions - which we're not - have sometimes dissolved. We're diversified so we can weather the economic storms. So now that the economy is coming back, I expect the business side will come back accordingly."

Ritchey: "1031 Exchanges."

Marshall: "Real estate is probably the practice area that has picked up most in the past six months, and more recently, we have seen increased business in our securities and technology areas."

Law: "We strive to anticipate our clients' needs and our outlook for some of those needs in 2004 include health care; corporate law especially as it relates to Sarbanes-Oxley and corporate compliance; computer, technology and intellectual property; environmental and land use; and estate planning."

Any new niches ahead for your firm? Sometimes, new areas pop up because of technological changes - will this affect you in 2004?

Silberstein: "The legal business is as dynamic as ever. New and better technology has increased client (knowledge) of their own legal matters, and permitted Kirk Pinkerton to deliver our legal work faster and more efficiently. We recently upgraded our computer system and are looking to add more bells and whistles to help our clients reach an even higher level of satisfaction."

Snow: "There is an emerging area of the law called 'electronic discovery' that is driven by technology. It's an area in which we have developed expertise. We are visiting with clients to discuss ways we can serve the client with this expertise. Every big corporation in the U.S. is beginning to deal with the issue. We've invested in technology very steadily."

Ritchey: "Our firm provides a full range of legal services but found in order to meet and exceed its clients needs, (we must) expand our services to develop certain 'niche' practices.

"One such niche is 1031 exchanges. A 1031 exchange is a transaction under which a person can sell investment or business real estate and acquire new real estate without paying capital gains tax on property sold. Under IRS regulations, this is permitted only if a qualified intermediary holds the money from the sale in escrow.

"As client demands for these transactions increased, our firm responded by opening The Tax Deferred Exchange Co. The company is exclusively managed and operated by Williams Parker attorneys. It is uniquely designed so that it can serve as a qualified intermediary for the law firm's client - including clients seeking tax advice or other representation from the law firm in the same transaction. To confirm this ability, the company obtained a private letter ruling from the IRS, the first of its kind."

Marshall: "After the technology crash, the securities and technology practices, slowed significantly. We expect these areas to increase significantly in the near future. New niches for the firm include some areas of environmental law, such as water law. We expect these practice areas, due to the fact that we are located all over the state of Florida, to grow significantly in 2004 and we will be adding additional lawyers to assist with this growth."

Law: "Internet law is a burgeoning field. Recently, we have successfully represented our clients over use and trespass issues."

Do you plan to hire new associates in 2004 as part of expansion?

Silberstein: "Kirk Pinkerton has one new associate starting in May, 2004, in our land use practice. We will also continue to operate our successful summer associate (clerk) program this summer. We may also hire one or more additional associates in 2004 as the opportunities arise."

Snow: "As many good ones as we can find. Our recent group of associates from law school is both large and excellent. It's been a buyers market when the economy is down so we've attracted some excellent new associates, and I don't think it will change."

Ritchey: "We have already hired one to arrive in the spring and we hope to hire one more."

Marshall: "Yes, we anticipate hiring both associates directly out of school, associates with some experience, as well as partners with experience."

Law: "We currently have approximately 200 attorneys and anticipate hiring new attorneys (associates as well as lateral attorneys) in 2004 who will help us meet the needs of our clients statewide."

Will you grow in other ways, such as mergers or acquisitions?

Silberstein: "We are open to new opportunities to grow by mergers and acquisitions, just as we have successfully completed the merger of Isphording's and White's practices in Venice into Kirk Pinkerton."

Snow: "Sure. We're actively talking to lateral attorneys and have been, on a continual basis, for a number of years. We continue to look for opportunities to grow both inside and outside the state."

Ritchey: "Nothing is planned."

Marshall: "Yes, we anticipate that we will add additional offices to our law firm sometime during 2004."

Law: "Our goal is to attain statewide presence through quality mergers, lateral hires that bring targeted business, and recruitment of new lawyers. We are actively looking at other markets in Florida for expansion. In fact, we will be making an announcement on a new location in early 2004 - stay tuned!"

Finally, if you could change one thing about the perception of your firm in 2004, what would it be?

Silberstein: "Kirk Pinkerton looks forward to continue our efforts through our three offices - Sarasota, Bradenton, and Venice - to perform quality legal work on a regional basis."

Snow: "Nothing. Frankly, I'm not aware of any misperception about Carlton Fields. Carlton Fields has been around for over 100 years. I think both the national and local marketplace, among lawyers certainly, holds the firm in high regard. I wouldn't want to change that. We have been who we are for long enough that there is pretty good awareness of what the firm's core practices are."

Ritchey: "While the firm is proud of its long-standing reputation in Sarasota County, it also has a strong regional practice with clients in the counties of Charlotte, Manatee, DeSoto and Hardee."

Marshall: "We would like our firm to be perceived more as a statewide firm, as we now have seven offices throughout the state and receive work from almost every region of the state. We've also had a recent name change, as one of our named partners left the firm, and we will need to emphasize the new name - GrayRobinson."

Law: "Our clients know that we are a full-service law firm that can meet just about any legal need they have. We hope they will also perceive us as one that can partner with them to achieve their business goals."

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