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Firm's election bruises will heal

Published Nov. 7, 2002|Updated Sep. 4, 2005

When Democrat Bill McBride quit Holland & Knight last year to run for governor against in- cumbent Jeb Bush, the law firm was careful not to take sides.

It took a beating anyway.

One attack ad funded by the Florida Republican Party portrayed Holland & Knight as a "failing" law firm burdened by debt and forced to fire employees. Others accused former managing partner McBride and his cohorts of greedily padding their salaries with money stripped from powerless underlings. The image was a world away from McBride's boasts of free legal work for the poor and a guaranteed "living wage" for administrative employees.

"You hate to see your firm portrayed as a place that is uncaring with regard to its employees or in financial difficulty, particularly when neither of those are true," said Howell Melton Jr., executive partner at Holland's Orlando office and a McBride supporter. "There certainly is a concern that your competitors would use that, and your clients will see it and become concerned."

But if the 1,285-lawyer firm emerged from Tuesday's vote with some cuts and bruises, consultants, competitors and partners like Melton predict no lasting damage to the firm's reputation or its revenue.

"Trashing their so-called big-heartedness in those ads should not hurt their reputation at all among business and corporate America," said Marty Traber, a partner in the Tampa office of competitor Foley & Lardner and a McBride supporter. "I believe that boards of directors engage lawyers and law firms because of their competency in a specialty, not because of their social agenda. And I really believe Holland & Knight has extremely competent lawyers."

Ward Bower, a principal at Altman Weil Inc. of Newtown Square, Pa., agreed. "The kind of clients that go to major law firms are pretty sophisticated," said Bower, whose firm is a consultant to Holland & Knight. "I mean, Holland & Knight didn't run for governor; McBride did."

Like most corporate law firms, Holland & Knight has partners well-connected in both major political parties. Some partners in its Florida offices were active in the Bush campaign and are well-positioned to maintain contacts with the governor and his appointees.

"Our partners and employees were free to participate in the political process on their own behalf, of course," said Robert Feagin, McBride's successor as managing partner. "Many of them supported our former managing partner, Bill McBride; many others supported Gov. Bush."

The campaign led to some partisan bickering among Holland & Knight partners. Some Democrats are angry that the Bush campaign got ahold of unflattering, and they say misleading, information about the firm's financial circumstances. Republican partners are upset that McBride used a 1999 video clip in which Bush praised him. Holland & Knight produced and paid for the video, which was shown at a law firm dinner honoring McBride.

Mostly, however, the prevailing sentiment at Holland on Wednesday was relief that the campaign spotlight was finally shut off, said Melton, Holland's executive partner in Orlando.

Now that the campaign is over, one obvious question is whether McBride will return to his old law firm. "It hasn't come up," Feagin said. "Bill McBride certainly has many options and he hasn't discussed any with us. It would be pure speculation to say more."

But McBride campaign spokesman Alan Stonecipher said his conversation with the candidate Wednesday suggested a reunion was unlikely. "I don't think Holland & Knight is part of his future," Stonecipher said.

_ Scott Barancik can be reached at baranciksptimes.com or (727) 893-8751.

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