Charlie Gray didn’t realize what a statewide juggernaut his law firm would become back in 1970.
That’s when he, Richard Adams, Gordon Harris and Richard Robinson joined their practices to become Gray, Adams, Harris & Robinson.
Now, GrayRobinson has 300 attorneys in 13 offices across Florida, representing “Fortune 500 companies, emerging businesses, lending institutions, local and state governments, developers, entrepreneurs and individuals across Florida, the nation and the world,” its website says.
“We’re looking ahead 20, 25 years,” says Gray, now chairman emeritus. “We have plenty of time to bring in and bring along the next generation. We’ve already got a plethora of great, quality lawyers.”
The culture has always been that of a small firm, but with a lot of lawyers. “We don’t need a lot of red tape bogging (our lawyers) down,” he adds.
“A banker long ago said, ‘Build your community and you’ll build your bank.’ I adopted that,” Gray says. “You not only want a firm that is excellent in practicing law, but provides a place for lawyers to enjoy the practice of law. You want to leave something behind. Our destiny is to build our community.”
Yet the firm’s heart remains in Orlando, where it began.
“GrayRobinson is an Orlando law firm that grew to be a meaningful part of 13 communities in this state,” says Mayanne Downs, an Orlando native soon to become the firm’s next managing shareholder. “You see in each office the reflection of the community.
“When you’re in the Miami office, it feels very much a reflection of the Miami community,” she says. “That comes from Charlie Gray’s focus on community involvement. But we will always be centered and focused on Orlando because that’s where our founder developed our philosophy.”
And 2016 has shaped up to be a big year in the firm’s continuing evolution:
— Downs, currently Orlando city attorney and past Florida Bar president (2010-11), will become the firm’s first woman president later this year and only the second managing shareholder in the last 20 years, succeeding Byrd F. “Biff” Marshall Jr. The changeover takes place Sept. 1.
Downs was statewide chair of the firm’s Litigation Department before stepping up. She’s been dubbed “Fifth Most Powerful Person in Orlando” by Orlando Magazine.
— Tim Cerio, a GrayRobinson alum, was Gov. Rick Scott’s general counsel before returning to the fold. He now focuses on administrative, health care and regulatory law with the firm.
Cerio, who first joined GrayRobinson in 2001, also was chief of staff and general counsel at the Florida Department of Health from 2005-07.
— Former Florida House Speaker Dean Cannon (2010-12), another GrayRobinson alum, brought his growing lobbying practice with the firm, making it homecoming, of sorts.
The combination “makes GrayRobinson’s government relations and lobbying practice the largest such practice in any law firm in Florida and one of the three largest groups of legislative lobbyists in the state overall,” the firm said in a news release.
— Jason Unger, managing partner of the Tallahassee office, was a college classmate and fellow Florida Blue Key member with both Cerio and Cannon and helped recruit them back to the firm.
Unger is currently vice-chair and slated to be chair of the state’s Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission, a body that will help decide the makeup of the court for years to come. (Justice James E.C. Perry faces mandatory retirement next January. And Justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy A. Quince, who make up the court’s long-standing liberal triumvirate, must leave the bench in early 2019.)
“We’re doing in 2016 what we’ve been doing for 20 years, capturing the very best talent we can find,” Downs says. “Our ability to recruit comes from our entrepreneurial spirit and our statewide platform.
“So a professional like Tim Cerio, for instance, is at the very top of our list of people who are extraordinarily good at what they do,” she says. “We have a history of sending people into the public sector and then having them come home.”
Cerio, a longtime motorcycle enthusiast, recently took some much needed time off to hit the road for the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota. He spoke from the road on his way there on his Harley-Davidson Softail Springer.
“My wife cuts me a lot of slack: I don’t play golf, I don’t have a lot of other hobbies, so this one of the things I love doing,” he says.
On his return to the firm, Cerio says he was a shareholder in the Tallahassee office before leaving to work for Gov. Scott the first time. He went back to the firm before getting another call from the governor to be his chief lawyer.
He replaced Pete Antonacci, another GrayRobinson veteran, who became executive director of the South Florida Water Management District. Cerio remains legal counsel to Scott’s “Let’s Get to Work” committee, certain to play a role in whatever Scott does next politically.
“I loved public service,” he says. “You may take a hit financially, but it’s worth it and one of the things the firm believes in … I have a lot of great colleagues at the firm, so there’s a lot of deep relationships.
“And Dean coming back to the firm was certainly something that mattered a lot to me,” Cerio adds. “He’s one of my very best friends — we went to college together, we were fraternity brothers, I was in his wedding — and he’s one of the people that, frankly, recruited me to the firm back in 2001. There were just a lot of good reasons to go back. It was very much a coming home.”
Cannon’s return to GrayRobinson was a homecoming for him as well; he was with the firm from 1995 until 2007. He also followed the call of public service, serving in the House from 2004-12, serving the last two years as head of the chamber.
Cannon’s Capitol Insight lobbying firm joined with GrayRobinson in May, creating the third-largest influence shop in Florida, according to the state’s directory of registered lobbyists.
With that combination, GrayRobinson likely will be even more of a competitor with lobbying heavyweights for well-heeled, A-list clients needing representation before the Legislature and state agencies.
And Cannon, a lawyer since 1993, becomes GrayRobinson’s executive vice president and its statewide chairman of Government Affairs. It’s been a long way since his days as a fledgling associate.
“When I started at GrayRobinson, the firm had 33 lawyers, and I was inspired by Charlie Gray, who had been active in law and state politics before Disney, the University of Central Florida, or I-4 existed in Florida,” he says.
“Charlie was an example of a great lawyer, active in politics, who also believed in building his community,” he says. “He’s probably said it 100 times, ‘if you build your community, you build your law firm.’ And he built a truly great law firm.”
Cannon’s friend, then-state Rep. Jim Kallinger of Winter Park, decided not to seek re-election to the House in 2003, and Cannon thought about running for his seat.
“But I would not have been able to run if Charlie Gray and Biff Marshall had not said, ‘OK, we’re willing to give you the flexibility and support to run,’” he says. “Very few law firms would have been willing to do that, and their support literally made it possible for me to run for public office.”
By 2012, Cannon was term-limited and left the House, but knew he wanted to stay in Tallahassee in the influence business, and started Capitol Insight.
“Mayanne Downs and I had worked together when she was president of The Florida Bar and I was speaker, and Biff and Mayanne and I talked off-and-on about collaborating on legal stuff and looking for ways to work together,” he says.
“I kept in touch with people at the firm, Charlie and all the folks I’d previously worked with,” Cannon adds. “But I had some friends there I had known for decades, like Tim Cerio and Jason Unger, that I’d known since college.”
Unger says the two go back to the late 1980s at the University of Florida.
“He was certainly part of the reason that I joined GrayRobinson,” he says of Cannon. “When he was done with the speakership, we wanted him to come back. And we always left that door open. We always maintained a very close relationship through the years. It was always unsaid that we were interested in having Dean back.”
Cannon’s and Cerio’s return, with Downs’ ascension, make 2016 “a monumental year for us,” Unger says. “It’s change, but change in the good sense. Dean and his group coming in is a significant add-on to our depth, both in the lawyering and lobbying realm.”
What came into focus was Capitol Insight having, among other things, two former House speakers, a former campaign manager for Bill Nelson, a former agency secretary, and a former political consultant to the Republican National Committee and a national campaign, among others.
Capitol Insight’s bench is estimable in the influence biz:
— Larry Cretul, a former real estate broker, was speaker in 2009-10 and Marion County commissioner from 1994 to 2002.
— Rheb Harbison, former senior lobbyist with a national law firm before joining Capitol Insight, was director of legislative and communication policy and research for the Florida Supreme Court.
— Cynthia Lorenzo, former director of Florida’s Agency for Workforce Innovation and Department of Economic Opportunity, also was former secretary of the Department of Juvenile Justice.
— Richard Reeves, former campaign manager for U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, is a veteran lobbyist who founded his own lobbying firm before joining Capitol Insight.
— Kirk Pepper, an expert political strategist, worked to elect officials ranging from local governments, to members of Congress, to president of the United States.
— Joseph Salzverg, a former campaign manager and political consultant, had been a legislative analyst for the Florida House of Representatives.
“That was a great concentration of leadership experience and talent, but limited to one location,” Cannon explains. “GrayRobinson had a very successful lobbying practice already, but also had 13 offices around the state and a powerhouse of a law firm, too, which was a lot of infrastructure. That would have been impossible to build on my own.”
“Now here it is, overnight, by combining forces,” he adds. “The more we talked about it, the more the advantages of combining teams became apparent. Neither one of us needed to do the deal, but we saw great potential benefits if we did. Now, we can see for sure it was the right thing to do.”
Unger says the merger is a means of “bringing back people that were part of the family, getting that talent back in.”
He’s quick to add: “I don’t look at things as us ‘being at the top.’ I look at it from the standpoint of having the best group of lawyers and lobbyists to represent our clients, whether they’re Florida clients, national clients or international clients.”
As of this year, for example, Cannon was registered to lobby on behalf of the City of Orlando, The Villages, PepsiCo and its Frito-Lay and Gatorade subsidiaries, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, and Monroe County, among others.
“As long we stick with our core mission of bringing in the best talent — whether it’s on the lawyering side, lobbying side — we’re moving the right direction,” Unger says.
The GrayRobinson team suffered a big loss last year, however.
The firm’s top influencer, Fred Leonhardt, died suddenly last October at the age of 65. The lobbying legend was personally registered to represent 46 clients last year, including the Orlando Magic and five Florida cities.
GrayRobinson lobbyist Chris Carmody says Leonhardt’s absence spurred him to work harder this past session. He was part of a team of lobbyists that helped score $15 million in the state budget for the Florida Advanced Manufacturing Research Center, an obscure but significant economic development initiative in Osceola County.
The funds will help it continue to target international businesses and investment to potentially establish a presence in east Central Florida.
Overall, “I can’t recall a session where we had so much success,” Carmody says.
He and fellow lobbyist Robert Stuart “were the boots on the ground. Session was probably the easiest part of a strange year where your boss and mentor passes away. We know what we need to do in Session. You need to deliver results. You don’t have time to think, ‘poor me, I don’t have a friend and mentor,’ you just get to work.”
Carmody realized he and Stuart had to make their own tough calls and “maybe we were more ready than we thought.”
“I’ll give Fred credit: He trained us well,” Carmody says. “He gave us a lot of good habits. He gave us a lot of good guidance.”
And Leonhardt’s management style echoed the GrayRobinson culture: “Fred had a large personality. He could never go into a room without someone saying, ‘oh, that’s Fred Leonhardt,’ but he made it a point to include Robert, myself and Chris Dawson (a young associate) in just about everything he did — with clients, with legislators. In high-level meetings, we were in the room; in low-level meetings, we were in the room.
“It’s still a strange year trying to come up with a new normal, but that new normal is getting to work,” Carmody says. “We’re already making preparations for next session.”
The relationships built inside the firm — among people who have skill sets — thrust it forward, Downs says, as opposed to other large firms that embrace “uniformity.”
“That’s not who we are,” she says. “We embrace who each lawyer is and we embrace the communities they reflect … this firm, I remember when I first interviewed in 1986, always had a remarkable commitment to its employees.
“On Sunday night, when you’re preparing for your week ahead, we want you to look forward to work, rather than dreading it,” Downs says.
Charlie Gray wouldn’t have it any other way.
“We did everything we could to build a great firm,” he says. “But I didn’t have any idea it would be as successful as it’s been.”