Am Law 200 firm Burr & Forman said Friday that it is expanding its reach in the Southeast by combining with 23-lawyer Tampa firm Williams Schifino Mangione & Steady.

The tie-up, which takes effect Monday, will give Birmingham, Alabama–based Burr & Forman nine offices—and its third in Florida—while increasing the firm’s head count to 277 attorneys. Commercial litigation associate Christy Nash will join the Williams Schifino attorneys in Tampa immediately, while financial services litigation associate Laura Westerman will relocate there in November. The Williams Schifino attorneys joining Burr & Forman include 14 partners.

Burr & Forman had gross revenue of $109.5 million in 2011, placing the firm at Number 187 on The American Lawyer‘s most recent Am Law 200 ranking. Managing partner William Lee Thuston says the move into Tampa is in line with the firm’s broader strategy. 

“We’re still in the midst of a strategic plan we started putting together in 2005 to expand ourselves into the Southeast, and we have a good, solid middle-market law firm presence throughout the Southeast,” says Thuston. “We had already moved into Orlando and, more recently into Fort Lauderdale. And Tampa, being the business center that it is in Florida, is the natural progression of that.” (The Orlando office opened in 2009 and the Fort Lauderdale location launched in April.)

The combination is the latest in a region of the country that has felt a hum of law firm merger activity in the past year. The Am Law Daily reported earlier this week that Birmingham-based Balch & Bingham is moving into the Florida market by merging with a six-attorney Jacksonville firm months after acquiring a seven-lawyer firm in Birmingham. In a story published earlier this year, The Am Law Daily reported on a series of Southeast tie-ups, involving, among others, Memphis-based Baker Donelson and Winston-Salem, North Carolina–based Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice

Thuston said in a firm statement announcing the addition of Williams Schifino that client demand was a key factor in the firm’s decision to expand into the Tampa market. Without naming specific companies, Thuston tells The Am Law Daily he expects the move to specifically benefit Burr & Forman’s work on behalf of banking and financial industry clients. Williams Schifino is a multidisciplinary firm, with focus on practice areas such as finance, real estate, business, and litigation.

William Schifino Jr.—who was Williams Schifino’s managing director and will serve as managing partner of Burr & Forman’s Tampa office—says the two firms mesh well in terms of practice areas, “particularly in the financial services industry.”

Thuston says his firm approached Williams Schifino about a potential tie-up last year—after considering “a short list of firms in Tampa”—at the urging of several Burr & Forman lawyers who had worked on various matters with Williams Schifino attorneys. “We have a lot of similarity and crossover of clients, and so it just seemed like a natural fit for us to begin talks with them,” says Thuston, adding that the two firms began to discuss joining forces in earnest in the spring of 2011. “We’re all a little slow and deliberate about these things, but we spent a lot of time getting to know each other, the firms, and how they operate. We decided it was the right thing to do, and it is the right thing to do.”

Schifino says his firm had received other overtures in the past, but only began to seriously consider combining with a larger firm a few years ago. “We had been approached by a few statewide firms that we had some extensive discussions with. We talked to some other Southeast firms, we talked to some national firms,” says Schifino, adding that Burr & Forman was the suitor that best met his firm’s criteria for a partner: a broad footprint and overlapping practice areas. “We were engaged in conversations, but nothing that got as far as we are now, certainly, with Burr & Forman.” 

Thuston and Schifino say their respective firms have had strategic discussions regarding growth of the Tampa office. “We absolutely are going to grow this office as we begin to expand our client base here that we have from other relationships, and to expand the Williams Schifino relationships elsewhere also,” Thuston says.

One area that may be ripe for growth in Tampa is the admiralty and maritime practice. Thuston says Burr & Forman has been growing in that realm since opening its Mobile, Alabama, office in 2008. He notes that the maritime industry is especially active at the moment due to the planned 2015 expansion of the Panama Canal, which is expected to increase shipping traffic at ports along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, including Tampa.

“I have come to appreciate that practice a lot more as I’ve learned more about it,” he says. “And since we are there and so established with that practice, absolutely that is one of the first things we’re going to do, is to move those shipping relationships that we have in Mobile down here into the Tampa Bay area.”

Burr & Forman has no immediate plans to open other offices, Thuston insists—with a caveat: “Having said that, if another client-driven opportunity presents itself, we will look at it.”