Sarasota law firm embraces growth to achieve top tier status
For a while, the founders of what's now Bentley Goodrich Kison resisted big-time growth. Not anymore.
| 10:00 a.m. March 7, 2023
When attorneys Kevin Bruning and Morgan Bentley left Williams Parker Harrison Dietz and Getzen in 2011 to start their own law firm, they could hardly look past the fear to see they’d started building something solid. Growing from two to now almost 10 lawyers is no easy task, especially when doubt is at play.
“You have no idea if you’re going to have a single client the next day,” Bentley says.
It seems to have worked out well: the firm they founded, now Bentley Goodrich Kison — Bruning became a Twelfth Judicial Circuit Court judge in Sarasota in 2021 — has tripled revenue since 2016, while keeping a line on billable hour rates, meaning its generated more revenue without raising rates. The firm’s focus is on everything within commercial litigation, except for criminal and divorce. The firm had over $4 million in 2022 revenue, and Bentley projects it will be just under $5 million in 2023.
So how did they do it? Bentley says he didn’t really plan for any of it. "We've been lucky," he says.
What's not luck is how Bentley and the team have made a strategical and conscious decision to follow the unspoken rule of making nice with other law firms in the area. The result? Bentley Goodrich Kison is one of the first firms their peers think of when the other practices can’t help a client.
"If you're a transactional lawyer and you're referring a client to somebody, you don't want them to keep that client forever," he says. "When you're referring to a really big firm, that's a concern. When you're referring to a litigation only firm, you know they're not going to keep (the client)."
Another key to the success? Being active in the Sarasota County Bar Association, which Bentley says is a big, but close-knit, group.
"That's not the case in most places," he says, noting that in big cities like Miami, Tampa, Orlando and Jacksonville, that might be more difficult due to the bar associations being too big. "The idea of building rapport is impossible."
While many firms are active in bar associations, at Bentley Goodrich Kison it's almost a requirement for attorneys. "It's good to get along with our co-workers around the county," Bentley says.
Outside of having contacts to rely on in the bar, having 10 attorneys who come from different circles also has its advantages. Bentley says it creates a whole network of people the firm wouldn't have access to because they all know different people.
A chunk of the firm's growth can also be attributed to obtaining big clients, such as Sarasota Memorial Health Care System and the Florida Police Benevolent Association, both of which sort of sought out the firm.
All this growth is a long way from when the original duo started out more than a decade ago. Back then Bruning and Bentley bounced around. First was an empty bank building owned by their former employer, Williams Parker. Next was Bentley's dining room. They finally ended up in their current building, on Orange Avenue in downtown Sarasota.
The firm brought on Amanda Kison, a commercial litigation attorney with a focus on business and real estate disputes, around seven years ago. That's when, says Bentley, "it seemed like every month, we needed to hire someone else,” to keep up with the growth. Now the firm has 16-17 employees, including staff and attorneys.
At 10-12 litigation attorneys — No. 10 was scheduled to start March 1 — Bentley wonders if that might be a plateau for the firm's growth. "Between Tampa and Fort Myers, that would put us in the top tier," he says.
One of the biggest lessons Bentley has learned along the way is not saying 'yes' all the time. When first starting out, for example, Bentley says they got a lot of sales calls for services to help build a client base. "There's a tendency to say 'yes' to all of that," he says, adding there's an element to it where one might think, "What if I don't do it and I don't get clients?"
"It's easy to overspend."
That's a mistake that Bentley and Bruning did a lot in the early days. "We spent a lot on online marketing," he says.
Had they created a personal injury law firm, that marketing might have helped, as they got an influx of calls about low-level cases that weren't commercial litigation.
Looking ahead, Bentley expects the firm to get busier if there's a prolonged recession. Drawing from his experience during the the last one, in 2007-09, the number of foreclosures during that time led to a “tidal wave of litigation. I hope and pray that it doesn't happen again.”
In the meantime, the firm seeks additional lawyers and paralegals to help with work they have now. In the next few years, Bentley says they may also expand into some different practice areas.
“At some point, that’s what happens to law firms,” he says. “They start doing different things. We’ll address that three to four years from now.”