If Sarasota real estate attorney Evan Berlin switched specialties to trademark or patent law he might make a bundle, considering how many times he uses one line.
This is when one of his colleagues, from lawyers to paralegals, strolls into his office with a situation. “When people come in here and say ‘I have a problem,’ I turn it back on them and say ‘you don’t have a problem, you have a learning opportunity.’”
The eye-rolls come quickly because he says the line so much. Yet Berlin stresses: “I really mean it.”
That philosophy, of turning problems into opportunities, and just figuring it out, has been a calling card at the firm Berlin founded in 2003. That practice, now named Berlin Patten Ebling, has become one of the largest independent real estate law firms in the Sarasota-Bradenton region, handling some 5,000 real estate transactions in 2023. Firm officials decline to disclose revenue figures, only to say gross revenue is up threefold over 2022.
Focusing on transactions in commercial and residential real estate, the firm has 10 partners and 100 employees, including 30 brought on in the past year or so. Seven of those new hires are attorneys — a large number for a mid-sized firm, especially at a time when large law firms are consolidating, and in some cases, scaling back on a national level.
“We hire attorneys every year,” Berlin says. “That’s been one of our staples.”
“We look at growth like the mindset of developers, who look at things two or three or four years down the road,” Berlin adds. “We are not hiring necessarily for today.”
A few other staples at Berlin Patten Ebling run counter to the traditional law firm model, usually a top-down environment where partners are rainmakers and command the most attention. Not that partners aren’t important, or under pressure to perform at the firm. But Berlin, reflecting on the firm’s first two decades, says company culture has always been more important to him than stacking billable hours.
“Every individual in the firm has the ability to make us look really good and every individual in the firm has the ability to make us look really bad,” he says. “You check your ego at the door here. Paralegals are just as important as attorneys and in many cases, do more work than the attorneys.”
Berlin, 55, previously worked for two larger law firms, including Kirk-Pinkerton in Sarasota, and was also lead in-house counsel for a real estate investment trust.
Land use attorney Brenda Patten and real estate attorney Jamie Ebling joined the firm in 2009. Both name partners remain with the firm today; Patten has handled land use law for multiple large projects in the Sarasota-Bradenton region, while Ebling oversees the firm's marketing department and its Tampa and St. Petersburg offices.
Today the firm has six offices. In addition to its main office in Sarasota, there are locations in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Venice, Lakewood Ranch and Bonita Springs. The office is another important element of the firm’s business model: each location has been renovated to look the same, with a large room for training, entertaining clients and more. On a recent tour of the Sarasota office, the firm’s marketing director showed off the glossy and fancy bar in the area.
All six offices cost well into the millions of dollars to renovate — but Berlin says it’s worth it. “We saw tremendous value in doing this regardless of the cost,” he says. “We’ve been very good about putting money back in the firm.”
Another key to the firm’s model and success, says Berlin, is its bedrock response time rule: three hours. That’s the maximum amount of time an employee has, at any level, to get back to a client’s email, phone call, text, fax etc. Even if the answer is “I don’t know yet” Berlin says constant communication shows clients that their case — usually a property closing — is important to the firm. “This is a hard and fast rule,” he says. “Everyone here knows it. We even talk about it in job interviews.”
“This firm wouldn’t be where it was if it wasn’t for our responsiveness,” he adds.
Berlin says one big goal for 2024 and beyond is to look at ways the firm can diversify revenue sources outside of real estate, which is currently about 80% of revenues. That includes more business litigation, estate planning and other areas. Not that he plans to ditch real estate. He doesn’t, but he wants to create cushions for the firm during slow periods. “You will have your ups and downs,” he says, “but I love being a real estate lawyer in Florida.”
This story was updated to reflect the correct number of partners and the year the firm was founded.
Mark Gordon is the managing editor of the Business Observer. He has worked for the Business Observer since 2005. He previously worked for newspapers and magazines in upstate New York, suburban Philadelphia and Jacksonville.