Friday, March 7, 2014

Merger Mania Hits Tampa Law Firms, Reflects National Trend

By John F. Kynes

To merge, or not to merge? That question seems to be on the minds of managing partners at an increasing number of law firms across the country these days.

This includes Tampa, where it was first reported in January that the prominent 97-lawyer firm Fowler White Boggs was in merger talks with the 450-lawyer Pittsburgh-based firm Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney. No deal was final as the Lawyer went to print, but the talk of a combination does seem to reflect a national trend.

There were 88 law firm mergers and acquisitions announced in the U.S. in 2013, according a recent report by the legal research firm Altman Weil. The total number of mergers is up 47 percent from 2012.

This is the largest number of law firm combinations recorded in the seven years Altman Weil has been compiling statistics.

“The surge in 2013 numbers was driven by a boom in acquisitions of small firms,” said Altman Weil principal Ward Bower. “These kinds of deals are smart, low-risk moves to enter new markets and acquire new clients, and we expect the trend to continue in 2014.”

Of the 88 law firm mergers reported in 2013, 82 percent were acquisition of firms with 20 or fewer lawyers, according to the report. The South was the most active geographic region for combinations in 2013, representing 25 percent of all recorded deals.

Rhea Law, Fowler White’s chief executive officer, told the Tampa Bay Times in January that the firm regularly gets “many inquiries” from firms wanting to expand in Florida. “These inquiries have increased during 2013 because of the recovering economy and Florida’s attractiveness for business growth and economic development,” Law said. “We have had serious discussions with Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney over the last few months because of similarities in culture, practices, commitment to clients, as well as their existing presence and desire to grow in Florida.”

Meanwhile, Carlton Fields, which was founded in 1901 and is Tampa’s largest firm with 111 local lawyers and government consultants, announced in January that it had finalized its merger with Jorden Burt LLP. The firm now operates as Carlton Fields Jorden Burt, P.A., and consists of more than 370 lawyers and consultants spread out over 10 offices.

“We believe this combination positions us exceptionally well to meet the evolving needs of our clients in this country and abroad,” Gary Sasso said in a statement. Sasso will serve as president and CEO of the combined firm. 

Jim Burt, founder and managing partner of Jorden Burt, said of the merger: “Both firms waited a long time to make a move like this, and we feel quite confident that this is the right decision and the right time.”

This merger comes on the heels of another high-profile combination in 2012 between Tampa’s 23-attorney Williams Schifino Mangione & Steady, P.A., and Birmingham, Ala.-based Burr & Forman LLP. The combined firm, which now operates as Burr & Forman, has 55 attorneys across Florida and 277 overall across nine offices in five Southeastern states.

“Our entire firm is excited about the opportunities this combination provides us,” William J. Schifino Jr. said in a statement at the time of the merger. Schifino, who is a former Hillsborough County Bar Association president, now serves as Burr & Forman’s Tampa office managing partner. “After discussions with our clients, we determined that they would best be served if we joined forces with a Southeastern powerhouse that offers full-service legal support with a wider geographic market presence,” Schifino said.

No one can say for sure whether the surge of merger activity will continue at its current pace, but close observers say it is likely the legal markets in Tampa and Florida will remain attractive to out-of-state firms looking to grow as the economy improves. In any case, it should be interesting to see what deals transpire.

See you around the Chet.