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Prominent land-use lawyer Ed Armstrong plans to leave longtime firm

CLEARWATER — One of Pinellas County's most successful and high-profile lawyers is leaving the firm where he has worked for 30 years to open a small Pinellas outpost of Tampa-based Hill Ward Henderson.

Ed Armstrong, 55, went to work at Johnson, Pope, Bokor, Ruppel & Burns right out of law school and is now a shareholder in the firm, which is considered the biggest law firm based in Pinellas with 38 attorneys in Clearwater and Tampa.

But on Monday, Armstrong announced that around May 1, he will go to work for Hill Ward Henderson in a two-lawyer office the firm will open in the Clearwater area. Joining him in the office will be another Johnson Pope lawyer, Katie Cole, whom Armstrong mentored.

At Johnson Pope, Armstrong built a reputation as a winning land-use attorney, specializing in the kinds of cases that required interaction with or approval by government officials.

He has represented many of the bay area's most successful developers, including JMC Communities, Ocean Properties, Ryland Homes, David Mack, Nickel Plate Properties, and others who developed Walmarts, grocery stores, shopping centers and residential communities.

Other high-profile clients have included the Tampa Bay Rays, Westfield Countryside mall and the Church of Scientology.

He also established a reputation in another arena: politics. A Republican, Armstrong, of Dunedin, became known as a local rainmaker. Candidates for city, county and even state offices, especially in mid- and North Pinellas, often make an early visit to Armstrong seeking advice and his approval, knowing campaign cash from his associates could follow.

Armstrong declined to say why he has decided to leave Johnson Pope, saying only that "it's a great law firm and will continue to be a great law firm."

However, Johnson Pope managing partner Guy Burns said it was an "economic decision."

"I think he determined, for whatever reason, that his financial circumstances would be better there than here," Burns said.

Armstrong reeled in many of the firm's clients through the years, but Burns said the parting will be amicable and the firm will be fine. He called Armstrong "a good friend" who will be missed.

"I think a lawyer of that stature would be missed wherever he was," Burns said.

Jim Robbins, 53, the managing shareholder at Hill Ward Henderson, said Armstrong contacted them first. He said his firm is looking forward to having "two really fine lawyers" in their first Pinellas office.

Hill Ward is bigger than Johnson Pope, with around 90 lawyers and more than 220 employees. Robbins said he expects Armstrong and Cole to continue practicing land-use law and governmental relations.

Armstrong's and Cole's clients soon will receive a letter offering them the option of staying with Johnson Pope or following the two lawyers to their new firm.

Diane Steinle can be reached at (727) 445-4152 or dsteinle@tampabay.com.

Prominent land-use lawyer Ed Armstrong plans to leave longtime firm 03/04/13 [Last modified: Monday, March 4, 2013 11:35pm]
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