Johnson Pope increases real estate firepower with three major hires for Tampa office
It took a couple of children’s birthday parties to get David Singer to join Johnson Pope Bokor Ruppel & Burns.
Two years ago, Will Conroy, a partner at Johnson Pope, said he “started ratcheting up the pressure” on Singer at birthday party for the son of Tampa Bay Rays President Brian Auld. Conroy turned to Singer and said: “You should be with us.”
After another birthday party and a pitch at a New Year’s Eve bash, Singer decided the time was right. Singer, along with two other lawyers — Thomas Hunt, who is coming from Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, and Singer’s young associate, Matt Newton — are joining Johnson Pope’s land use and real estate and finance practice teams.
The three lateral hires showcase Johnson Pope’s ongoing growth strategy and its current focus on building its office in Tampa. The firm has been intent on attracting lawyers that will allow it to flex its muscle in the legal realms of land use and real estate. Law firms in Tampa Bay and elsewhere are ramping up their legal workforce as real estate projects boom in the area.
Singer has been a force in local politics and on transportation issues. Not only has he run for local office, he also served as campaign manager of Move Hillsborough Forward, the 2010 effort to pass a referendum for a penny sales tax that would have funded rail, bus and road projects.
“I’m based in St. Pete,” said Conroy, a partner who specializes in complex commercial real estate and corporate issues throughout the Southeast for clients ranging from developers and private equity funds to high-net-worth individuals and their family offices. “I joined the firm in 2013 and it had no St. Pete office then,” he said.
Conroy was the 40th lawyer hired by the firm and now there are more than 70. The firm has had explosive four-year growth, he said. Less than five years ago, the Tampa office alone had 10 lawyers and now there are 27.
“We have placed an emphasis on having a strong real estate practice,” said Guy Burns, Johnson Pope’s managing partner. “The addition of three great lawyers practicing land use and real estate law in our Tampa office will enhance our ability to serve our clients’ needs on both sides of the Bay and beyond.”
A year ago, the firm added nine lawyers to its Tampa office. The firm hired three partners from Akerman as well as four shareholders, an associate and an “of counsel” attorney from Allen Dell. At the time, Johnson Pope’s downtown Tampa office was relocating to the 31st floor of the SunTrust Financial Centre on East Jackson Street.
The hiring of Singer, Hunt and Newton is “another piece in the puzzle,” Conroy said. “We’re just rounding out that plan that we set out four years ago.” It’s all with an eye on such developments as Water Street Tampa, the expected decision of the Tampa Bay Rays in regards to Tropicana Field and other construction and new projects bubbling up in the region.
For Singer, the move from his own firm into Johnson Pope made sense.
“There is so much building going on that to have a firm that has a presence everywhere in the region is going to be very beneficial,” Singer said. “The combined growth of my practice and growth of the economy in this region made it clear I needed more resources to better serve my clients. I called Will and said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
The public and private sector have to work together in order for development to advance in the Tampa Bay region, Singer said. “The intersection of government and the private sector is where the work is going to be accomplished. The ability to interact successfully with government is going to produce results.”
Singer has clients in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and other surrounding counties. Johnson Pope, he said, “is a firm that is sophisticated enough to handle Fortune 1000 companies and small enough to handle small businesses.”
The Fortune 100 client “needs a little more diversity in terms of their legal services,” Singer said. In the area of land use, Singer can mine his experience in land use matters, particularly in when it comes to governmental areas. Large clients coming into Tampa Bay, he said, “need the relationships with the local governments so they can best acclimate to this local region for the first time.”
This year, Tampa will get a new leader as Mayor Bob Buckhorn leaves office, and there will also be four new city council members, Singer noted. For those real estate and development clients, Singer’s knowledge of the local government “can help clients make the transition in the middle of their projects.”
Consider this past weekend with Gasparilla and the NHL All-Star game. Singer was “on the phone with the city and some of clients to figure our logistics for Gasparilla. This year throw in the NHL game and there were significant concerns for traffic and parking.”
Meanwhile, the small business clients “needs lawyer who understands that starting out can be difficult and they need someone with the empathy and someone who will advocate on their behalf,” Singer said.
One other aspect of Johnson Pope that especially attracted Singer and Hunt to the firm was the flexibility it allows its attorneys when it comes to billing clients.
“It’s nice to have a lower rate structure,” said Hunt, a transactional specialist in his 12th year. He focuses on the leasing side for landlords, purchasers, developers and banks as well as on the loan side for real estate-based loans. He’s been a part of some major deals.
As for Singer, he will be a small law firm until Feb. 1. But, when he comes over to Johnson Pope, “my rate doesn’t change,” Singer said.
Conroy noted that Johnson Pope has a large group who “purposely left big law for a more entrepreneurial” setting that his firm is providing. “We believe clients hire lawyers,” Conroy said. “They hire David, the hire Tom, they hire Will. We give our lawyers the ability to assign their billing rates. We allow lawyers to charge their clients what is appropriate. There are recommendations. But there is no dogmatic approach to setting your billing rate.”
The policy on billing on Johnson Pope is in place because the firm is aware of the fierce competition not just among law firms but from automation or other related businesses such as LegalZoom or accounting firms.
“The best reaction to that is to give autonomy to our lawyers,” Conroy said. That could include a lower rate or a blended or fixed fee, he said. “To reject that notion is the wrong answer in today’s market.”
Tampa is emerging as national player, Singer said. Not making it to the finals of the Amazon second headquarters selection process shouldn’t be viewed as a negative, but more of an opportunity, he insisted. “They gave us a roadmap.”
“This community is no longer afraid to dream big,” Conroy said. There used to be a parochial divide between St. Pete, Clearwater and Tampa, he noted, but no longer.
Then, there is the baseball stadium.
“Baseball is a dual opportunity,” Conroy said. The real question is how to redevelop 85 acres of property. “That may not exist anywhere in the U.S. The canvas is literally blank. The land is owned free and clear.”
Additionally, Hunt noted, the “major roads are already in place.”
The opportunities, Conroy said, are “remarkable in their breadth and depth.”