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In rare merger, Tampa's biggest law firm seeks to grow — carefully

After the merger, Gary Sasso, the chief executive officer of the Tampa-based Carlton Fields law firm, will head the newly created Carlton Fields Jorden Burt firm.

Times files (2009)

After the merger, Gary Sasso, the chief executive officer of the Tampa-based Carlton Fields law firm, will head the newly created Carlton Fields Jorden Burt firm.

Tampa's largest law firm goes well beyond the boutique niche but has no plans to turn into a sprawling big box legal business.

That's one reason 300-attorney Carlton Fields on Tuesday announced a rare and carefully chosen merger with 70-attorney Jorden Burt, a firm with offices in Miami, Washington, D.C., and Hartford, Conn.

"You have some law firms that are very large now with thousands of lawyers, and then there are smaller firms highly focused in a few areas," says Carlton Fields chief executive officer Gary Sasso.

After 26 years at Carlton Fields, with the past seven as CEO, Sasso wants enough size to show clients the firm has muscle to handle big cases. But Sasso also wants to keep the intensity of personalized service that comes with a more intimate size. That business model has kept his law firm growing, recently approaching $170 million in revenues and seven offices, during some of the roughest years for the legal industry.

Branded "midsized" in many service industries can be a perilous identity. If 112-year-old Carlton Fields gets bigger, it may land on the radar of giant law firms eager to absorb talent and reward the partners of targeted law firms with rich premiums to sell.

In an interview, Sasso and Jorden Burt managing partner Jim Jorden say they both rejected recent opportunities to combine their firms with larger ones.

But the two attorneys did spend the last couple of years talking to each other, ultimately realizing their firms boast like cultures that could do more together than apart.

Their merger should be completed in early 2014. Initially, the firm will be called Carlton Fields Jorden Burt to make sure people know the firms will be recognized as one entity. Later, the name will contract, presumably to Carlton Fields, which Sasso will continue to lead.

Both firms focus on the defense of national class actions and other high-stakes litigation. Jorden Burt focuses on financial services and insurance, while Carlton Fields services range from health care, white collar defense and government investigations to corporate, tax, real estate, and the telecommunications fields.

A Miami native, Sasso, 60, earned an economics degree and then a doctorate in law from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He later clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Byron White.

Don't let the highbrow resume fool you. Recently asked to name his favorite legal movie, Sasso picked the court trial comedy My Cousin Vinny. Sasso chose it because Vinny could ask all the right questions on cross examination but get all the wrong answers and end up proving the prosecution's case. That, Sasso said, is a big lesson all trial lawyers need to know.

Sasso also continues to spend considerable time working with area economic development groups pushing for better mass transit options and helping raise funds for the United Way.

I asked Jorden, at 72, how long he planned to remain active in the merged firm. He answered in his own way, explaining he has major trials scheduled next spring and summer and is heading to Hartford later this month for one of the several half marathons he runs each year.

Case closed.

Contact Robert Trigaux at trigaux@tampabay.com.

In rare merger, Tampa's biggest law firm seeks to grow — carefully 10/08/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 8, 2013 6:56pm]
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