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  • | 11:00 a.m. October 2, 2015
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Executive Summary
Firm. Henderson, Franklin, Starnes & Holt Industry. Law Key. Conservative growth pays off.

This is a challenging time for Russell Schropp.

The land-use attorney at Fort Myers law firm Henderson, Franklin, Starnes & Holt is finally witnessing the recovery in the real estate market. “My practice is booming,” he says. “Things have really picked up.”

But Schropp recently became the managing attorney in charge of the 56-attorney firm, the largest Fort Myers-based law firm. “It's a bit of a juggling act,” Schropp chuckles.

Schropp takes over from Denis Noah, who has led the 91-year-old firm through the toughest economic conditions in a generation. “The advice I gave him is you're never on vacation,” laughs Noah.

“Nobody outworks Denis,” counters Schropp, 59. While Noah served nine years as the managing partner, firm leaders at Henderson Franklin are elected every three years.

Henderson Franklin has an enviable track record in Southwest Florida because it avoided the strategies that hurt rival firms. It didn't take on many attorneys or build other offices beyond Southwest Florida and it diversified its practices to other areas such as employment, immigration and family law, balancing transactional and litigation work.

Henderson Franklin stuck to the five counties its attorneys know well: Charlotte, Collier, Glades, Hendry and Lee. Even during the downturn, it didn't overload on litigation work that has now started to decline. “I stayed with the land use,” Schropp says. “They weren't some of my best years,” he acknowledges.

But part of the secret to Henderson Franklin's success is what its lawyers are known for outside the firm. For example, Schropp coached Fort Myers Little League baseball for years and has been a leader with the Horizon Council, Lee County's economic development organization.

Indeed, you would be hard pressed to find any major nonprofit or community organization in the Fort Myers area that doesn't have a Henderson Franklin attorney involved in a leadership position. “We want attorneys who have a life outside the office,” Schropp says.

The firm doesn't disclose financial results, but Schropp says overall billings never declined more than 4% to 5% during the worst years, and its ranks only shrank by five attorneys. Now, billing growth has swung to about 5% annually, Schropp says.

Managing growth
In some ways, Schropp has the more enviable task of building the firm's practice in the economic recovery. But it won't be without its challenges.

“The biggest challenge that we face is figuring out what comes next,” says Noah. “Where will the next big practice area be? Who do we need to hire? Getting the right people is one of the biggest challenges.”

Noah says Schropp's management style is more relaxed. “I was probably a little more authoritarian and he's more laid back,” Noah says. “He works with people. He's got a very good manner about him.”

Schropp's more easygoing personality will come in handy when he's recruiting new attorneys. He recently returned from a recruiting trip to the University of Miami's law school, where the firm finds summer interns who may one day decide to work for Henderson Franklin. The firm has similar ventures with the law schools at the University of Florida and Florida State University.

Because of the economic recovery, Schropp says the firm has had to hire people to handle the increased caseload, particularly in real estate. “We just brought on two new real estate lawyers and one new land-use lawyer,” he says.

But there are other areas of law that need attention, too, given the Fort Myers area has become more economically diversified. For example, health care is one area Schropp says could benefit from additional focus.

While Henderson Franklin plans to grow the number of attorneys, don't expect the firm to move beyond its borders either with new offices or through acquisitions. “We don't look to do mergers,” says Schropp.

The firm has found success hiring people who left the area to go to law school and want to come back to Fort Myers. Henderson Franklin encourages its young attorneys to develop their practice without slaving away their weekends in the office like at a big city firm.

While many firms of similar size have expanded statewide, Henderson Franklin has chosen instead to join a network of local firms around the state that work closely with Tampa-based giant Holland & Knight, which has 1,100 lawyers in 22 offices. “It's been a very good source of referrals,” says Schropp. “We like being the regional go-to law firm.”

Adapting to the times
Many regional observers compare Fort Myers to where Tampa was a few decades ago. The similarities include an international airport, a state university, major road expansions and a pro-business local government.

Schropp has a unique perspective because he was a planner with the city of Tampa in the early 1980s, when Bob Martinez was mayor, before he became the state's governor. In fact, Schropp's first major project as a planner was Hyde Park, the successful upscale historic neighborhood in South Tampa.

Schropp became Henderson Franklin's first land-use attorney in 1984. “I got tired of dealing with lawyers who didn't know what they were doing,” he laughs, explaining why he left urban planning. “My practice area didn't exist in 1983.”

Into the future, Schropp says promising areas include developments such as Babcock Ranch, on the Charlotte-Lee county line. West Palm Beach developer Kitson & Partners' plans include 19,500 homes and 6 million square feet of commercial space on 18,000 acres there.

“It's going to move east and north,” says Schropp. “We are looking at an upswing.”

Coming home
Here's one indication how much Fort Myers has grown: Its most talented college graduates are finding opportunities in Lee County.

When Erin Houck-Toll, a fifth-generation Floridian born at Lee Memorial Hospital in Fort Myers, left home for college, her mom thought she would leave the small town forever. She envisioned her daughter in New York City or Boston, where opportunities abound for ambitious young lawyers.

Houck-Toll, now 38, got her undergraduate degree at Cornell University in upstate New York, then earned her law degree at Tulane University Law School and a master's degree in taxation at the University of Florida Levin College of Law.

But Fort Myers has changed since Houck-Toll left for college in the 1990s. “I love it here,” she says. “It's a small town but it it's big enough to have the cultural amenities.”

Certainly, Houck-Toll's career has blossomed since she returned to Fort Myers in 2005. Now a stockholder at Henderson, Franklin, she has dual certification from the Florida Bar in health and tax law. In fact, she's only one of three attorneys in Florida to hold both certifications.

Houck-Toll acknowledged that it's unlikely she would have accomplished the dual certifications at a larger firm, where she probably would have been pigeonholed into a single practice area. Although she was drawn to tax law in college, it was working on a medical practice case in Fort Myers that drew her interest in health law. “I'm very grateful,” she says.


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