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Filling the gaps

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  • | 10:00 a.m. October 10, 2014
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When Orlando-based law firm GrayRobinson opened an office in Naples in 2004, it had a lone practitioner: former State Sen. Burt Saunders.

Today, the firm has grown the Naples office to 10 attorneys, including Saunders. They specialize in a wide range of areas from immigration to employment, municipal law, estate planning and corporate litigation.

Now the firm seeks to fill in areas between Naples and the Tampa Bay area, where it now has 50 attorneys in the high-profile SunTrust building in downtown Tampa. For example, GrayRobinson is scouting attorneys from Fort Myers to join the firm and possibly open an office there.

While Naples is known for sophisticated estate planning for high-net-worth people, a growing economy has sparked demand for a wide variety of other legal services. “The east coast of Florida is just discovering Naples,” says Carl Westman, the managing attorney of GrayRobinson's Naples office.

Indeed, few law firms with a significant statewide presence have offices in Naples or Fort Myers. Some have bypassed the area while others have established relationships with locally based firms.
“It's as much about the opportunity and the people as it is about the place,” says Byrd “Biff” Marshall Jr., president and managing director of the firm. For example, he says many of the firm's bank clients want attorneys to have a presence in all major markets, including Southwest Florida.

“There's an economic engine out there that nobody sees,” says Casey Wolff, an immigration attorney who recently joined GrayRobinson with law partner John Paulich III. Both men were longtime attorneys with their own firm, Paulich Slack & Wolff.

Westman explains the firm needed an immigration attorney who could assist wealthy international clients in Naples, among other related work. “We didn't have anyone on the west coast who did immigration work,” says Westman.

There are other practice areas that Westman says could be expanded in Naples, such as health care. “It's big business here,” he says. Hospitals, medical practices and medical manufacturers have proliferated in recent years.

Commercial real estate is another area GrayRobinson attorneys would like to expand. The economic recovery has reinvigorated the market for office buildings, warehouses and shops in Southwest Florida. “The real estate business has returned strongly,” Marshall says.

GrayRobinson's beachhead on the Gulf Coast came in 2000, when it merged with Tampa-based Shackleford, Farrior, Stallings & Evans.

Now GrayRobinson wants more coverage in the state. “We're looking and we have our eyes on a couple people,” in Fort Myers, says GrayRobinson attorney Michael Randolph. Randolph is a Fowler White alumnus, former Lee County Bar Association president and longtime Fort Myers attorney who joined GrayRobinson in 2010.

GrayRobinson's expansion strategy is to select individual attorneys who fit into the firm's culture, not entire firms. “It's a harder way to go,” Marshall acknowledges. “You have to spend more time recruiting and cherry picking.”

Follow Jean Gruss on Twitter @JeanGruss


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