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Anticipating economic boom in St. Petersburg, major Clearwater law firm expands south to be part of it

Covering the economic buzz in St. Petersburg has not been, shall we say, a full-time job here in recent years.

Maybe it's time it should be.

On the heels of a column this past week focusing on downtown St. Pete's increasing bustle comes today's column — this time exploring a law firm's keen interest to raise its profile in this southern Pinellas County city.

Clearwater's powerhouse law firm — Johnson, Pope, Bokor, Ruppel & Burns — is quickly pouring resources into a downtown office in St. Petersburg where it's had little influence before.

Why now? "North county is now built out and we see the pendulum swinging back to St. Petersburg," says Guy Burns, Johnson Pope managing partner.

"The next 10 years will be exciting times in the development of St. Petersburg. We are doing what we can to put ourselves in its path here."

The timing seems opportune, given that other law firms seem to be shrinking in size or even exiting St. Petersburg. Carlton Fields, the largest law firm based in the Tampa Bay area, recently decided to pull the plug on its downtown St. Petersburg office and will consolidate the handful of its St. Pete lawyers in its Tampa headquarters on West Shore's Boy Scout Boulevard.

And giant Holland Knight exited St. Pete about eight years ago, with some of those attorneys moving to the St. Pete office of rival Tampa firm Trenam Kemker.

To claim its stake in the St. Pete market, Johnson Pope is merging with a small, well-regarded, five-person firm that has practiced law in St. Petersburg for decades. That firm — Bronstein, Carlson, Gleim, Shasteen & Smith PA — will bring its tax, estate planning, corporate and health care expertise to a deal that should close by August. Bronstein Carlson will add its muscle to several lawyers, including real estate attorney Will Conroy, in Johnson Pope's new St. Pete office now being remodeled in the Synovus Bank building at 333 Third Ave. N.

Adding a handful of senior attorneys may not sound like a big event given the larger consolidation and expansion of such Tampa-based law firms as Fowler White (now part of a Pittsburgh firm) or Carlton Fields (recently acquiring the smaller Jordan Burt firm).

Burns, 66, argues that Johnson Pope is different from larger firms that vie for pieces of big corporate legal business. He sees an opportunity to grow from a Clearwater and Pinellas organization to a regional player. By year-end, Johnson Pope should have close to 50 lawyers, up from 35 or so today, with operations split among long-established offices in Clearwater and Tampa, and now St. Petersburg.

That's why Burns called Bronstein (they worked at the same firm back in the 1980s) for many years about bringing his small firm into the Johnson Pope fold. To succeed in St. Pete, the firm needs established lawyers there.

"We can't just hang out a Johnson Pope shingle," Burns acknowledges.

Ultimately, says Burns, an active litigator who works in Tampa: "We're looking at a three-legged stool with a couple dozen lawyers in each city." Even then his firm, which recently celebrated its 40th birthday, will pride itself on individual attention.

That style is why the Bronstein Carlson firm looked at six different suitors and chose to merge with Johnson Pope, Bronstein says. As the small St. Pete firm's attorneys get older, it wants to be sure its client base is well cared for when retirement comes. (That's not soon, Bronstein, 65, says.) Plus, Bronstein won assurances that Johnson Pope would operate an office in St. Petersburg, something other firms could not guarantee.

Like Burns, Bronstein says the economic rebound in St. Petersburg is palpable after a deep recession.

"It was totally dead in 2008 and 2009," says Bronstein. "We were talking to people about how to save their current business. Now people are starting to talk about starting new businesses. These are people of means and many are serial entrepreneurs."

Burns also anticipates big opportunities in health care, and in what he calls "rejuvenated real estate development" and the corporate tax work that tends to go with it. That would be especially true if the Tampa Bay Rays choose to move to a new stadium and the Tropicana Field area becomes ripe for a major facelift.

A less bullish take on St. Petersburg's legal market comes from senior attorney Dave Punzak, whose Carlton Fields office in St. Pete will shut down when the lease ends in September. Punzak, who recently chaired St. Petersburg's Chamber of Commerce, sees St. Pete humming as well as it ever has in the past 30 years. But he does not see the accompanying legal work here. Long gone are the St. Petersburg banks like Florida Federal or Park Bank that were big enough to carry good-sized law firms. And Florida Power, the St. Petersburg-based power company that helped feed multiple law firms, was gobbled up years ago by North Carolina's Progress Energy (and it, in turn, by Duke Energy).

Still, Punzak says Carlton Fields will continue to service St. Petersburg area clients from the firm's Tampa office.

Perhaps this is a case of looking at St. Petersburg's economy through very different lenses.

Burns sees a generational shift of power among St. Petersburg lawyers, with those long in control starting to retire. That's an opportunity, he says, for lawyers in their 30s and 40s to step up and carve out strong careers. That generational handoff already took place in Tampa, he notes.

And selling St. Petersburg to younger lawyers, which used to be near impossible, is now easy, he says. "It used to be South Tampa. Now for the first time, young lawyers see St. Pete as a great place to raise a family."

Burns may be on to something, especially if Johnson Pope really wants to be a regional player among law firms. Without St. Pete, it could be tough to balance a two-legged stool.

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

Anticipating economic boom in St. Petersburg, major Clearwater law firm expands south to be part of it 05/30/14 [Last modified: Friday, May 30, 2014 6:16pm]
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