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On the horizon: firms anticipate growth, investment, GO Zone interest

Like other business and professional groups, law firms greeted 2008 with plans for an active year. The Mississippi Business Journal caught up with a couple of them over the recent holiday season and asked about expectations for the coming months.

“It’s a very busy time for us with big development projects,” said Steve Wilson, managing partner of Phelps Dunbar. “We prepared by looking at each of our different practice areas and forecasting growth areas.”

The firm, which has 280 attorneys from Texas to Florida, brought the heads of all the groups together mid-year in 2007 to make assessments and start creating a budget for the next year, determining where the work will come from and how much of it there will be. The results were presented to the partners for a vote but will be tweaked all along.

On the move

Tommy Shepherd, CEO of Watkins Ludlam Winter & Stennis, said the most exciting development for his firm in 2008 will be moving into new offices in the Pinnacle Building and being part of downtown Jackson’s revitalization.

“We plan to move into the Pinnacle in the fourth quarter and will occupy 55,000 to 60,000 square feet on the top two-and-a-half floors,” he said. “We expect a really good growth year and look forward to adding more lawyers.”

The firm currently has 80 lawyers in its Jackson, Gulfport and Olive Branch offices. Just since August 2007, it grew by 10%. That is partly due to getting the Gulfport office moved back into the renovated Hancock Bank building with space for additional personnel.

“We added attorneys there with advanced tax degrees and are pleased that we will be growing our practice in government and business because of that,” Shepherd said. “The redevelopment prospects on the Coast will grow in the next few years. We expect the pace to pick up with the GO Zone incentives continuing there, and we expect construction litigation to increase.”

Major projects

Wilson outlined major development projects the Phelps Dunbar firm will be involved with this year. It, along with a Houston, Texas, law firm, represent the Royal Bank of Scotland, which is lending $870 million for the Gulf Liquid Gas Terminal in Pascagoula. The Butler Snow firm and other out-of-state firms are also involved with the project.

“We will spend a lot of time in the first quarter on this project,” he said. “It’s a big transaction through the Mississippi Development Authority and the Mississippi Business Finance Corporation along with the Royal Bank of Scotland.”

In North Mississippi, Phelps Dunbar is working with an Ohio company that is developing a titanium sponge manufacturing facility in Monroe County and with Samuel ManuTech, a company that will make steel beams and sheeting in Iuka. In the central part of the state, the firm is working with the Bunge-Ergon ethanol plant in Vicksburg.

“We handle work all over the state,” Wilson said. “A lot of foreign investors see opportunities in the United States, Southeast and Mississippi. Mississippi has a chance to get a fair shake because of our good business environment and the added GO Zone incentives.”

Looming deadline

He said the firm is seeing a fair amount of interest in the GO Zone legislation as the close of the act’s window of opportunity looms ahead. “We’ll see some activity to get in under the wire,” he said. “We will also see continued investment in Mississippi by companies that do natural gas production in strategic locations.”

Shepherd expects the Watkins Ludlam firm’s Olive Branch office to be a continuing base of growth. “We look to represent commercial development there with small and large business owners,” he said.

The firm’s Jackson office recently formed a healthcare practice group to expand its work with hospitals to include federal regulatory issues. Terrace Harris, a healthcare regulatory attorney, heads that group.

“He brings that expertise to the table, and we’re pleased to be able to provide that key component to our other healthcare components,” Shepherd said.

Shepherd predicts a tighter credit crunch this year. The firm advises business clients of the availability of credit and how to get it with reasonable terms and conditions.

“The conditions and restrictions are tighter, and we will experience a period of more tightening,” he said. “It’s difficult to find money at a reasonable price, which can make the way you run your business tough. If you can find cheap money, get it quick.”

Wilson expects increased interest in voter identification, led by Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, a partner at Phelps Dunbar. “It affects how businesses look at Mississippi because we will be seen as a more progressive state,” he said. “I also think we’ll see changes in the limited liability act and partnership act to get us more in line with the rest of the country.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

About Lynn Lofton

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