2 min read February 2023 — Office Partner-in-Charge of Lippes Mathias LLP in Jacksonville, Christopher Walker, sat down with Invest: to discuss the shared strengths between the firm and the Northeast Florida market, how organic growth will define 2023 and the trends affecting Jacksonville’s professional services sector as a result of the pandemic.
What were Lippes Mathias LLP’s highlights over the last 12 months?
I am proud of the firm’s synergy with the City of Jacksonville. We are an entrepreneurial firm, and we are always looking for different ways to engage and provide business opportunities. I believe it is the same for Jacksonville; it’s such an entrepreneurial place to live. Its leadership is forward-thinking and wants to find new ways of generating investment and ROI in the Jacksonville market. Jacksonville doesn’t like to make decisions on the fly, like us; instead, we are intentional about investing in time and resources. Jacksonville has become an intentional city, and we are an intentional office.
What would you say Jacksonville needs to be successful long-term?
We have the intentionality; now I think we need to see more cohesion, with interplay in transportation, healthcare, affordable housing and professional services in how we talk about and plan for projects and goals. I work with private investors all the time; they want to know that this market is cohesive in a way that will benefit their investment down the road. For example, a county in Northeast Florida may be dealing with a significant budget gap due to infrastructure costs. It grew without cohesiveness, and that growth didn’t account for or generate enough funds for the extra infrastructure costs needed today; money to maintain and improve access to healthcare, housing, and public transportation. Ensuring there is not only a “strategic plan” but real progress in these areas are critical. On something like this matter, the region needs to be able to communicate with investors and the outside world about how we did it; it’s great to have a successful city and region, but if you can’t communicate how it was done and the vision and importance, investors won’t see the point in bringing their energy here. Fintechs and startups want to know what their options are and how they will benefit from choosing this market; let’s show them.
Where would you say investor confidence in Jacksonville is right now?
I would place it at a seven and a half out of 10 overall. Industrial is middle of the road at five or six out of ten because it lacks cohesiveness on industrial and business park locations, connected to the balance of the community infrastructure. Investors want to know where affordable housing, public transit and other resources for their talent pool will be in relation to these parks, and right now that doesn’t really exist. Fintech investments continue to trend upward, and more high-paying jobs are coming in.
How would you say demand for your practice areas in affordable housing has shifted lately?
That practice has skyrocketed. It accounted for less than 20% of our work five years ago. Today, it accounts for around 80% of our work. No matter how you slice it, it has to be a public-private partnership in order to achieve successful affordable housing. In order to do that, you need a lawyer that understands how true affordable housing works. We are not making the slightest dent in the need for affordable housing; I believe the most strategic investment opportunity right now in Jacksonville is affordable housing. There are a few groups already doing it, but we could use around 15 more working on our affordable housing structure.
What legislation or regulations are you watching at the moment?
The most recent legislation passed on insurance was a huge barrier for investment across Florida. The legislature took a step forward in dealing with insurance regulations, and it will be interesting to see how this legislation makes an impact on home ownership and general investment.
How is your firm preparing for or responding to a possible recessionary environment?
The perk of being a full-service firm is that we cover the entirety of the economic cycle. As the cycle moves, there will be loan facilities that don’t work and businesses that need to figure out how to bring in new equity, relocating or downsizing. We may see a potential downtick in the economy in the beginning to middle of 2023 with the ultimate result dependent on the Fed’s interest rate increases. It won’t be a bottom-out downtick, but more like a shallow curve. I just don’t see a potential downturn in work because of the investment opportunity in Jacksonville. Even in a recessionary cycle, Jacksonville has opportunity. I concur with the thought that billionaires are made in every recession, because that is when smart decisions can be made for the biggest ROI down the road.
What is your assessment of the professional services talent pool in Northeast Florida?
Jacksonville has evolved into a bonafide middle market destination in recent years, both in terms of the companies that want to do business here and the families choosing here as where they want to live. This shift has certainly had a positive impact on the professional services industry, and more specifically the legal industry, but I believe the benefits can be observed across the board. The demand for legal talent is skyrocketing, and as a firm we’ve found ourselves in a unique position where lawyers, particularly young lawyers, who would’ve otherwise chosen to migrate to larger markets are actively choosing to stay and establish their practices here in Northeast Florida because this is where they see the most opportunity for growth. This is a new phenomenon, and if it continues, which I expect it will, the professional services talent pool in Northeast Florida will only get deeper.
What are your priorities for 2023?
This firm started out with a small team. Now, we sit at 19 attorneys, having grown by 1,900% since opening, and demand for more is always there. Lippes will be intentional with its growth. We are expecting we will have to continue to grow our presence in Northeast Florida, and we want to, between the level of sophisticated companies continuing to move in with the existing sophisticated clients already here. We offer valuable legal services at what are usually a more competitive rate. I predict our growth in 2023 will be a 10% to 15% margin. We may be flat or negative in Q1 and Q2 with a ramp up toward the end of the year. We have 11 offices in our footprint with 165 attorneys, and we are growing quickly. Our type of growth is organic, not aggressive; talent and clients are coming to us, rather than us seeking them out. Traditional law firms are going to the wayside; today, it’s about flexibility and intentionality in client relationships. General counsel teams are moving away from the traditional billable hour; our team is able to offer alternative fee arrangements that don’t exceed budgets.
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