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What Exactly Do Real Estate Lawyers Do?

South Florida

If you're in Miami real estate, you surely know Bilzin Sumberg. But if you're a non-lawyer, you may think of them just vaguely as an undifferentiated lump of smart people who "do whatever lawyers do." We at Bisnow, however, work closely with them, and could argue lawyers keep the rest of us in business. This may be a stretch, but we think you'll appreciate lawyers a bit more after reading this slice of their life.

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Bilzin Sumberg is 100 lawyers, about 30 of whom do real estate. The others do related subjects: tax, trusts and estates, litigation, corporate regulation and transactions, and bankruptcy (useful in recessions). Like other red-blooded commercial law firms, they're on Brickell.

Pictured above is one of the two guys who started the firm. Brian Bilzin grew up in Long Island’s Levittown, was a ’70 law grad at Michigan, practiced in Manhattan for the firm Rubin Baum, got a socio-economic promotion and started raising a family in Great Neck. Although intending to be a tax lawyer, he did litigation for famed NYC and Florida developer Steve Muss (who built five Seacoast towers, then bought the Fontainebleau), and started commuting every two or three weeks to Florida.

One day in 1979 Muss asked, "How would you like to be a deal lawyer?" Brian said it sounded great but pointed out he had never done it. Muss, characteristically, replied, "Don't worry!" Brian tried it, loved it and was coaxed to try living in Florida; after three months, he didn’t want to leave, and in 1981, opened a Miami office for his firm.

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A year later, Brian was on a retreat with the young leadership cabinet of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, and another Miami lawyer named John Sumberg, above, known for his directness, walked up and said (as Brian tells it): "You have a firm and I have a firm, and I think we should put them together. Oh, and by the way, hello."

Soon, John and three colleagues joined Brian. In 1998, enamored of real estate law, Brian, John and 36 other lawyers broke off from the firm and hung out their own shingle. Over the years, they brought on land use guru Stanley Price and 16 of his colleagues from a Pittsburgh firm, and restructuring expert Scott Baena and 12 of his colleagues from NYC’s Strook.

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John’s practice is wide-ranging and shows how real estate lawyers can change the world—or at least whole neighborhoods. Two decades ago, Mary Brickell Village was an assemblage of 25 parcels of all sizes on vacant land around the MetroMover. To execute the vision of French developer Constructa, John and his team spent 10 years doing zoning and entitlements, arranging feasibility studies and design variances, negotiating with adjacent landowners and working out leases with tenants.

Above all, they strategized on financing (building restaurants and retail boutiques in a sketchy area didn’t impress banks). They created partnerships to raise money from around the world, and came up with the idea of selling equity for air rights for condos over a planned Publix, navigating their client through a legal minefield. When the Village opened in 2006, it was the first serious retail in the Brickell area, introducing a vitality that’s led to today’s boom.

Aptly, John is equal parts methodical counselor and daredevil. A native of Miami Shores, he learned patience on the Yale tennis team—but somewhere along the way he also learned heliskiing. That combination of risk-taking and mellowness was also foreshadowed in 1969, when John went with buddies to Woodstock. Due to the crowds, they parked miles away and although they had tickets, didn’t need them since the 400,000 attendees quickly crashed the fence. But rather than carouse, he took the discipline he would later put to use as a lawyer and for three days and nights sat on a blanket and listened to music.

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Al Dotson has been with the firm 18 years honing his P3 (public-private partnership) skills to solve “impossible” problems. For example, after Hurricane Andrew in ‘92, the Cutler Ridge Mall in South Miami needed to forestall an exodus of businesses and residents. The county wanted to provide rebuilding incentives through an enterprise zone, but only the legislature could create one, and there wasn’t time.

Al realized an existing zone could be extended, and with the county commission behind him, he drew a one-inch-wide extension up the center of US 1 from Florida City to the mall. As a result, both builders and tenants got tax abatements, and stores like Sears, Penney’s, and Lord & Taylor returned.

Similarly, years later, the Miami Dolphins tried twice to redo their stadium but were thwarted getting incentives. Al helped team management conceive and enact a new “marquee event” package that allowed revenue-sharing from activities in the stadium like college football championships and the World Cup. Not only did the stadium get its makeover, but as a result, just weeks ago got awarded the 2020 Super Bowl. 

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Here’s what you need to know about Suzanne Amaducci-Adams: She’s nuts about boats and will sail anything, from her 16-foot-tall wooden Beetle Cat in the Bass River of Cape Cod to a 50-foot wooden schooner off Nantucket. And she’s built a legal practice around that passion: helping clients buy, sell, finance and build marinas all over Florida and the US.

For example, she’s long worked with Miami’s Christoph family to help them refinance, rejuvenate and re-tenant their iconic marina at the foot of MacArthur Causeway. She also helped them acquire Coconut Grove’s Bayshore Marina (the one with Monty’s restaurant) in 2004 and sell it last year after a compete renovation. She assisted when they bought Conch Harbor Marina in Key West in 1999, converting a dirt parking lot into a major mixed-use complex of retail, restaurants and office, and “condominiumizing” the boat slips. They sold the Marina at the top of the market in 2007, including the slips, which set a Florida record of $10k per linear foot.  

Suzanne credits Bob Christoph with realizing marinas “are not just parking spaces for boats,” and developing campuses around them featuring services and amenities desired by boat owners. In her latest effort, she’s repping the family in a redevelopment of Virginia Key Marina on Key Biscayne, a planned ultra-high-end venue with European flair being designed by Architectonica and Pinifarina, the firm that styles the Ferrari.

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Jim Shindell, who with Suzanne heads the firm's real estate practice, grew up in Fort Lauderdale with a dad who built single-family homes, thus getting jobs every summer “doing what the lowest laborers didn’t want to do”—digging ditches, hauling trash, and standing in canals pulling out lily pods. From that, he says, he came to admire (or maybe yearn for) the work of developers—having the vision to see things others don’t, and the willingness to take the risk to make them happen.

His specialty became real estate finance, meaning he’s worked on projects like Ugo Colombo’s replacement of the old Dupont Plaza office building with the Epic condos, the Mansions at Acqualina negotiation of a $160M construction loan, LeFrak and Swerdlow's 185-acre ground lease for Biscayne Landing in North Miami, and (currently) the financing for stations of All Aboard Florida.

Of his three kids, he thinks his eldest, a 22-year-old son working with City Year in Boston, might be interested in real estate—and he encourages him. “But I’m not sure I’ll encourage him to do it as a lawyer,” he says, smiling. 

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In the early 2000s, Cleveland native Adam Lustig helped developer Robert Wennett negotiate an ingenious business solution so he could create a building everyone in Miami has come to know and city experts from around the world flock to visit: the spectacular parking structure at 1111 Lincoln Road. SunTrust operated a bank on the ground floor in the office building on one of the four parcels Wennett wanted, and had rights to veto additional development on the adjacent parcel.

Adam successfully negotiated to move SunTrust out of its dated space, build it a modern bank branch on another parcel, and deed the parcel to SunTrust. In return, Wennett not only got the right to build his garage but to put residential units on top of the new bank branch. And today, everyone can park, party or even film TV commercials in the garage.

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Back to Brian: In the early 2000s, the Fontainebleau wanted to expand its room count, and Brian’s lawyering allowed Steve Muss to make a deal with developer Jeff Soffer to put up two condo towers (the Tresor and the Sorrento) with cross-easements. The process was so successful that eventually Steve sold the hotel to Jeff, who did a half-billion dollar renovation and still owns it today.

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A last word about Brian. He’s in good company with a lot of clever people who have also lived in Great Neck, NY: W.C. Fields, Francis Ford Coppola, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Whitey Ford, Talia Shire, Eugene O’Neill, Fanny Brice, the Marx Brothers, Paul Newman, Alfred P. Sloan, Walter Chrysler, Oscar Hammerstein and Sid Caesar. But Brian is smarter than them all. Not only is he a great lawyer, but he’s the only one of these Great Neckers who had the brains to move to Miami. (P.S.: For young people reading this, no, that is not a picture of Brian.)

Related Topics: Bilzin Sumberg, Brian Bilzin