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Business Observer Friday, May 10, 2013 5 years ago

Legal Eagles

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Evan Berlin built a large niche-driven real estate law firm in less than a decade. He now seeks to maintain the growth.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Local attorney Evan Berlin learned an object lesson about entrepreneurial independence from his father, Jeff Berlin, mere minutes before law school graduation.

It happened at the University of Florida, 20 years ago, while Berlin was literally putting on his cap and gown. Jeff Berlin approached his son and asked if he had his wallet. The younger Berlin said he did, and pulled it out. The elder Berlin then took out a pair of scissors from his pocket and cut up the credit card he had given his son. “That's when I knew I was on my own,” quips Berlin.

Berlin, though, says the lesson helped shape his career. That especially goes for when, at 35 years old in 2004, he decided to launch his own firm that specialized in real estate closings — not traditional solo work for young attorneys. Berlin had previously worked for two larger established firms, including Kirk-Pinkerton in Sarasota, and he also was the lead in-house counsel for a real estate investment trust.

But the constraints of a big firm, he decided, weren't for him. “I was young and cocky,” says Berlin. “I figured I could do this on my own.”

That firm, now Sarasota-based Berlin-Patten, has become one of the largest law firms in the Sarasota-Manatee region for closing work. It handles about 250-300 cases at any given time, more than double the workload from 2011.

The firm's closings, new orders and revenue, moreover, increased at least 30% in the 2013 first quarter over the same time frame last year, Berlin says. Berlin declines to release specific annual revenue figures. “It's been very strong growth,” Berlin says. “It's really exploded.”

That growth, adds Berlin, has begun to come from a resurgence in commercial real estate work. Residential real estate cases still represent about 65% of the firm's workload, but last year, says Berlin, that split was more like 80-20 residential over commercial. Says Berlin: “Investors are buying commercial property again.”

Berlin-Patten has offices in Lakewood Ranch and Venice, in addition to Sarasota. The firm has six attorneys, eight paralegals and a total of 25 employees. That's up from just Berlin in 2004. Brenda Patten, a fellow former Kirk-Pinkerton attorney, teamed up with Berlin in October 2009, and another attorney, Jamie Ebling, was named a partner last August.

The firm's niche in a competitive market, says Berlin and Jacqueline Abney, the business development coordinator, is its embrace of technology to connect and communicate with clients. In fact, the firm spent into the six-figures recently on a proprietary software program that sends out weekly communication updates to every client. The updates are detailed looks at a case.

“I want it to be meaningful communication, not something without substance,” Berlin says. “We always want to be ahead of the curve. We want to be on the front lines.”

The biggest internal challenge the firm now faces, says Berlin, is to not grow so fast that it dilutes personal attention to cases and clients. It's something most other fast-growth companies, in any industry, also face.

“We don't want to be the biggest firm in town,” says Berlin. “A lot of our clients like the fact that we are a small firm.”

Perky Firm
The days of law firms handing out perks slid downward along with the recession.

But at least one firm, Sarasota-based Berlin-Patten, has maintained the practice. For example, the firm's eight paralegals, six lawyers and business development coordinator all get smart phones and iPads. The firm recently added a full matching 401(k) plan to its benefits package, and founder Evan Berlin says he plans to introduce a profit-sharing program next year.

Berlin also takes the 25 employees out for quarterly celebration dinners and hosts weekly social events at local restaurants. Another significant reward: The firm takes all the employees on an annual trip. One recent sojourn was to the Bahamas, while coming up this year, around July 4, the firm will head to Mexico on a cruise.

One final perk is something employees have to really work for — but they say they enjoy it nonetheless. It's a treadmill desk, where employees can work and walk at the same time. Berlin bought one last year, and he plans to buy a second one due to heavy demand. The desk, including a phone, computer and monitors, cost about $3,500. Employees sign up for an hour at a time.

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