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Business Observer Friday, Oct. 12, 2012 5 years ago

Partner Up

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A prominent Gulf Coast law firm senses opportunity in a match with a larger, $100 million-plus practice from Alabama.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Tampa attorney William Schifino Jr. grew convinced over the past few years that the 23-lawyer firm that bears his name needed a boost.

Schifino aimed high, and he accomplished his mission: The practice, Williams Schifino Mangione & Steady, recently teamed up with Birmingham, Ala.-based Burr & Forman — a firm with more than 10 times as many attorneys. Both firms call the move, announced Oct. 1, a combination. Financial terms of the arrangement weren't released.

“It was client driven in many respects,” says Schifino, now the Tampa office managing partner for Burr & Forman. “We knew we had a common core value system. We learned we were a lot like each other.”

With a broad focus that includes securities, construction, family and real estate law, Williams Schifino had done well through the recession, Schifino says. But a large portion of the firm's clients, mostly from Tampa and the Gulf Coast, began to do more business outside the region, in many cases to combat the recession. The firm sought to follow the clients.

Schifino's hunt for a partner, meanwhile, coincided with the same decision at Burr & Forman, a 277-attorney firm spread through nine offices in five Southeastern states. Burr & Forman, with $109.5 million in revenues last year according to American Lawyer magazine, was executing a strategy to grow in the Southeast initially conceived in 2005. Tampa, after Orlando in 2009 and Fort Lauderdale earlier this year, was Burr & Forman's next target.

Still, even though the firms knew of each other, and had worked in conjunction on some cases, a combination never came up. That changed one night early this year when Schifino had a steak dinner at Fleming's in Tampa with Burr & Forman attorney Gene Price, who heads the firm's strategic growth committee.

“We had a need for a larger platform of services,” says Schifino. “It would have taken us 50 years to expand to all the places Burr & Forman is in.”

The match-up process was slow by design, says Schifino and Burr & Forman Chief Marketing Officer Erin Meszaros. Both firms wanted to check the other out from a culture perspective, not just study the books. “We had a long courtship,” says Schifino. “We didn't run to the altar.”

Adds Meszaros: “Strategically, for clients and the attorneys, it's just a great fit.”

Burr & Forman was founded in 1905. It opened its first office outside Birmingham in 1995, in Atlanta. Then, in 2005, says Meszaros, Burr & Forman hired a legal industry consultant who helped the partners narrow the firm's future to two choices: It could maintain its local prominence, and focus all resources on Birmingham, or it could grow into a Southeast powerhouse. It chose the powerhouse route.

The recession, moreover, didn't prevent Burr & Forman from executing the strategy. New offices include Montgomery and Mobile Ala.; Jackson, Miss.; and Nashville.

That bold recession approach impressed Schifino and his colleagues. Schifino co-founded the firm in 1991, during another economic slowdown. “We didn't have a lot of money in the bank,” says Schifino. “We missed a few paychecks at the start.”

But now that the firm is under the Burr & Forman name, Schifino will focus on future growth opportunities, both in new clients and new attorneys. The firm hopes to at least double its local lawyer count within a few years.

Plus, a key benefit for Schifino is he can give up some of the administrative duties he held prior to the combination. He no longer oversees finance, marketing and human resources because Burr & Forman has departments for those tasks. “My passion is not to manage,” says Schifino. “My passion is to practice law.”

Growth Strategy
Large law firm mergers have mostly subsided on a national level since the recession.

There have been three notable ones on the Gulf Coast since 2009, when Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick partnered with Sarasota-based Abel Band, a prominent local practice with 30 attorneys. Gunster, a West Palm Beach-based firm, and Adams and Reese, out of New Orleans, are two of the others that recently expanded locally.

The latest entry to the Gulf Coast law scene is Birmingham, Ala.-based Burr & Forman — a 277-attorney firm that has spent the past decade expanding across the Southeast. Here are the firm's locations:

1. 1905: Birmingham, Ala.
2. 1995: Atlanta
3. 2000: Montgomery, Ala.
4. 2003: Jackson, Miss.
5. 2006: Nashville
6. 2008: Mobile, Ala.
7. 2009: Orlando
8. 2012: Fort Lauderdale
9. 2012: Tampa

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