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Firm Puts Down Roots in Tampa (Tampa edition)

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  • | 6:00 p.m. December 5, 2003
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Firm Puts Down Roots in Tampa (Tampa edition)

Memphis-based Tate Lazarini & Beall is launching a new statewide securities law practice from Tampa. Managing partner Shepherd Tate picked local securities lawyer George Guerra to run it.

By David R. Corder

Associate Editor

Shepherd D. Tate and George Guerra cultivated a lasting professional relationship when they first met about five years ago. Over the years, the two lawyers jointly represented various broker-dealer firms in matters involving federal or state securities laws. The seeds of that relationship just bore new fruit.

Tate recently picked Guerra, 40, to supervise the expansion of Memphis-based Tate Lazarini & Beall PLC into Tampa as the launching pad for a new statewide practice focused mostly on securities law.

"We worked well with George in the past, and as far as we're concerned it's the perfect union," says Tate, 51. "We decided to open in Tampa principally because of George Guerra."

The admiration is mutual, says Guerra, who leaves the Tampa office of GrayRobinson PA after a little more than a year of work there. "When I first met Shep, I came to regard him as one of the best lawyers I know," he says. "He's smart, diligent, committed and passionate.

"So we talked over the past year or so about their desire to open a Florida office," Guerra adds. "Several months ago, we talked casually about the success of his firm, the growth of his firm and his clients' needs for representation in Florida."

But Tate didn't just stop by hiring Guerra. He also recruited GrayRobinson attorney Michael Bradford, a 1999 Vanderbilt University Law School graduate who also practices in the areas of securities litigation and dispute resolution. Both attorneys have established roots in Tampa.

"Tampa is an area where clients have the need for our services, and it's just a nice connection with clients needs and the right lawyers," Tate says. "We also were able to hire Mike Bradford, an excellent attorney who works along with George."

Citing confidentiality concerns, neither Tate nor Guerra would talk publicly about specific client needs. But public records reveal they have one client in common - Raymond James Financial Inc. and its subsidiaries Raymond James & Associates and Raymond James Financial Services.

Over the past four months, for instance, the Memphis law firm represented the parent or its subsidiaries in three of 14 arbitration matters before the National Association of Securities Dealers, the trade group federally charged with broker-dealer disciplinary actions and administrative investor disputes. In-house counsel at Raymond James handled four of the 14 matters. Six other firms elsewhere separately handled six other matters.

In one of the 14 matters, Guerra defended Raymond James & Associates in an NASD arbitration proceeding over actual and compensatory damages of about $1.2 million. William and Betty Halsey accused the St. Petersburg brokerage and broker-dealer Penn D. Frisby of mismanaging the couple's individual retirement accounts and making unsuitable mutual fund recommendations and purchases.

The NASD arbitration panel concluded in October that Frisby and Raymond James & Associates, jointly and severally, made unsuitable annuity investments. The panelists ordered the purchases rescinded. However, Guerra successfully persuaded the panel to dismiss the couple's claim for punitive damages.

In another arbitration matter settled last year, Guerra successfully defended the St. Petersburg company and both subsidiaries against a $426,037 claim that Valli Leigh Perisho filed in 1999 with the NASD. An arbitration panel dismissed all claims and ordered the co-respondents - the St. Petersburg companies, Robert Thomas Securities Inc. and broker-dealer Destry Witt - to pay a settlement of $9,500.

Besides its work for Raymond James, the Memphis law firm represents numerous other investment-banking and securities firms. Last December, the law firm successfully defended Morgan Keegan & Co. Inc. against a $71.8 million claim filed by John P. Miller, CEO of Master Graphics Inc., for compensatory, consequential and punitive damages. An arbitration panel dismissed all claims Miller filed related to his company's initial public offering.

The decision to expand into Tampa immediately increases the Memphis law firm's staff of attorneys to 11. Formed in 1997, according to its Internet Web site (, the firm touts its securities-related litigation and arbitration practice as one of the largest of its kind in the southeastern U.S.

"We do a lot of defense of sales-practices cases, a lot of customer claims, which is one of the principal reasons why clients wanted us to open up a Florida office," Tate says.

In fact, NASD statistics show an increase in the number of investor arbitration claims filed over the past several years. New arbitration claims increased by 20% through just the 10 months ended Oct. 30, compared with the same time period last year. The number of claims increased by about 34% during calendar year 2002 over 2001.

"The statistics published by the NASD, which handles the bulk of securities-related arbitrations, show that customer claims have increased significantly, which is predictable due to the market drop," Tate says.

Such a trend could translate into rapid growth for the Florida practice, Tate acknowledges. "We are expecting it to," he says. "We didn't go into this expecting to have an office of a certain size. We went into it to have lawyers who meet the needs of our clients. We expect, however, due to the association with George and Mike that the office will grow significantly in the near term.

"We also have two lawyers here in Memphis who are licensed to practice law in Florida - Rebecca Davis and Shea Hicks," Tate adds. "They may be going down on a short-term basis to work with George and Mike."

Such growth also could translate into increased competition for other professionals in the market - a market dominated by a few, including Guerra, Frederick Schrils of GrayRobinson, Burton Wiand of Fowler White Boggs Banker and Frances Curran, a Clearwater solo practitioner. Not only did Guerra work closely with Schrils, he also spent four years working with Wiand at Fowler White.

"It's a fairly limited practice," says Curran, who counts Guerra as a friend as well as competitor. "There are also firms in other parts of the state that practice here. In many ways, it's almost a national practice."

This increased competition also comes as Curran has seen an increase in demand for his services. "Yes, I've seen an increase in my practice over the past three years," he says. "I would note that the attorneys on the other side have seen these increases in their practices, too.

"Obviously, as Tate Lazarini grows locally that's another firm in this market, and George is an excellent lawyer," Curran says. "So, I'm certain he'll grow that practice."

As he closes down his practice at GrayRobinson, Guerra has embarked on all those duties required as a senior executive. He's negotiating a deal to lease high profile, Class A office space in downtown Tampa. He also is focused on recruiting support staff - an administrative assistant to help with day-to-day operations and paralegals. There are plans to talk with graduating law school students.

Despite the added responsibilities, Guerra says he has been working to this point in his career since entering the legal profession in 1991.

"I have been in private practice and worked in an in-house legal department," Guerra says. "For at least the last seven to eight years, I've worked with younger lawyers and developed in some ways my own model. I'm fortunate, because in many ways Tate Lazarini fits that model.

"That entrepreneurial challenge is exciting for me," he adds, "Except for Tate Lazarini and Beall, who are great guys, I could have spent my whole life here at GrayRobinson."

Soldier to lawyer

After high school, Michael Bradford entered the U.S. Army.

The Tampa native served four years in the armed services and then returned home, where he earned a bachelor's degree in 1995 from the University of South Florida. About three years later, he earned a law degree from the Vanderbilt University School of Law.

Following law school, Bradford joined the Tampa law firm of Shackleford Farrior Stallings & Evans PA. The firm is now known as GrayRobinson PA.

Bradford practices appellate law, litigation and dispute resolution, securities litigation and general securities law.

Banker to lawyer

George Guerra's interest in financial matters developed early in his career. It didn't start out that way, though.

Born in St. Louis, Guerra moved with his family in 1970 to the Tampa Bay area. He later earned a bachelor's degree in Asian studies at Boston College.

Following college, though, Guerra decided to capitalize on an opportunity to enter the SunBank management-training program. He first worked in the bank's international department and then moved into the domestic corporate section.

About three years later, he decided to change careers. In 1991, he earned a law degree from the Stetson University College of Law. Through a job fair, he found a commercial litigation job at San Jose, Calif.-based Hoge Fenton Jones & Appel.

Meanwhile in 1994, he and his wife of 12 years, Lia, celebrated the birth of their first child, Melissa. The couple decided to return to Tampa to be closer to family. The couple's second child, George Jr., was born about seven months ago.

In Tampa, Guerra found work at Fowler White Boggs Banker, where he worked with Burton Wiand, one of the region's top securities lawyers.

While at a conference in Phoenix, Guerra met an in-house counsel at Raymond James & Associates. After four years at Fowler White, Guerra joined the St. Petersburg-based investment banking and securities firm as a senior trial attorney.

Four years later, in July of last year, Guerra joined the Tampa office of GrayRobinson PA, where he worked closely with Frederick Schrils, another one of the region's top securities lawyers.


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