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Amid tougher legal competition, Tampa's Fowler White Boggs law firm entertains a merger

Rhea Law

Fowler White Boggs, a prominent Tampa law firm, is deep into merger talks with the far larger law firm of Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney in Pittsburgh.

This is no done deal. But if it happens, the 97-lawyer Fowler White firm and 450-lawyer Buchanan Ingersoll firm will reach most of the Northeast and Florida.

A merger would further highlight three trends in the legal community.

First, law firms are merging more often as cost pressures push them to get bigger and spread expenses over more clients.

Last year, 88 mergers of U.S. law firms occurred, a 47 percent jump from 2012 and the highest number of law firm combinations recorded in the seven years that legal research firm Altman Weil MergerLine has compiled such data.

Second, firms like Buchanan Ingersoll that serve Midwest clients increasingly eye Florida as a growth state where they want a strong presence.

And third, law firms find themselves squeezed by corporate clients paring down the number of law firms they use. To remain competitive, firms like Fowler White need to offer a legal footprint that can match the geographic reach of larger clients.

Fowler White CEO Rhea Law, one of the bay area's most influential business leaders, said in a statement that her firm gets "many inquiries" in the normal course of business 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," she 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."

Buchanan Ingersoll CEO John A. "Jack" Barbour calls Florida a "growth state and an important market" for the firm and its clients.

In 2008, Fowler White's practice split with 64 of its lawyers creating a new Tampa law firm, Banker Lopez Gassler. That spinoff left Fowler White with about 130 lawyers. It is smaller now.

While Fowler White remains a Florida-only firm, it pursues larger-sized corporate clients. In addition to its Tampa office, its biggest, the firm operates out of Tallahassee, Fort Myers, Jacksonville and Fort Lauderdale.

In Florida, a merger would add Buchanan Ingersoll's three in-state offices, including Miami, to the mix.

Fowler White is not the only Tampa law firm to consider bulking up. Last year, Tampa's largest law firm, the 300-lawyer Carlton Fields, said it would purchase the smaller Jorden Burt firm with offices in Miami, Washington, D.C., and Hartford, Conn. That merger — completed earlier this month — brings the new Carlton Fields Jorden Burt firm to 370 lawyers and lobbyists.

If Fowler White cuts a deal with Buchanan Ingersoll, a firm more than four times its size, are we really talking about a merger or an acquisition? Let's leave that prickly answer to the lawyers.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@tampabay.com.

>>fast facts

Law firms at a glance

Fowler White Boggs, Tampa

CEO: Rhea Law

Lawyers: 97

Geographic reach: Florida, five offices

Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, Pittsburgh

CEO: John A. "Jack" Barbour

Lawyers: 450

Geographic reach: Eight states — in Northeast, California, Washington, D.C., with three offices in Florida

Amid tougher legal competition, Tampa's Fowler White Boggs law firm entertains a merger 01/08/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 8, 2014 9:14pm]

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