Saturday, November 25, 2017
Business

Merger for Fowler White Boggs? Deeper bench needed, says Rhea Law

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As sophisticated health care, biotechnology and other complex businesses relocate or expand in Florida's improving economy, successful legal firms here need deeper bench strength to serve such corporate clients. That, in a nutshell, is what's driving current merger talks between Fowler White Boggs, a prominent 97-attorney law firm in Tampa, and the 450-attorney Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney firm in Pittsburgh.

So says Rhea Law, longtime Fowler White chief executive officer. Not only is Law a force in regional economic development circles and an influential board member at the University of South Florida. She's also a race car enthusiast. Law likes the fast lane.

The Tampa Bay Times caught up with Law one recent morning. While merger talks between the two law firms are ongoing (no deal has been announced), Law spoke about why Fowler White Boggs wants to become a bigger player. She spoke to Tampa Bay Times staff writer Robert Trigaux. The following are excerpts edited for space.

Why pursue a merger with another law firm now?

We have done some hard things over the last several years that caused our firm to contract. But now we are building it back up with a regional strategy. Unintentionally and intentionally, we have attracted interest from other law firms. The legal industry is full of change, and in our firm's retreats we agreed that to best serve our clients we need an expansion strategy now that the Florida economy is coming back.

So the old days of legal work in Florida are going away?

Look at the businesses being attracted here by Enterprise Florida, the governor's office and our own economic development efforts. We are focusing on high-tech and biomedical industries. Look at the MediFuture initiative (to make Tampa Bay a cutting-edge health care region) and the new USF Heart Institute. We need to be prepared to provide the services they need.

When I started practicing law, I had more work than I could handle and never would have thought of marketing. It was unheard of back then. It's not true now. There is a lot of competition. We need to show what we can do for our clients.

So size matters?

Depth matters. It's not how many people you have but what you can offer. I've always gone on the premise that we need a critical mass to serve our communities. Buchanan Ingersoll is small in Florida, so we bring some strength to them here, and their expertise complements ours.

Some attorneys say practicing law is tougher now and too cutthroat. Do you sense that?

It is changing. But it is no less rewarding and maybe more so. Now it is more complicated, so when you solve a problem for a client there is a greater feeling of success and fulfillment.

If this deal happens, what does the Tampa firm get out of it?

In a combined firm, we are dominant in Florida, and they (Buchanan) are dominant in the Northeast. This would be like a barbell-shaped firm operating in some of the country's largest states. What this is all about is being better. If it were not, we would not do it.

Any idea when we might hear more news on this possible merger?

Nothing yet. We are working on our due diligence. There's more to come.

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