Photo provided by Berger Singerman

Photo provided by Berger Singerman

Berger Singerman co-CEO and name partner Paul Singerman began a recent firm-sponsored event for clients and other business leaders in South Florida by summarizing recent doom-and-gloom news stories about the economy. Singerman suggested to the audience of approximately 200 attendees that the volatility suggested by the event's title - "Changing Directions: Redefining Your Business Path" - may be understated. Indeed, when fellow firm co-CEO James Berger spoke before the first panel, he suggested that perhaps everyone should just head "straight to the wine" set up for the post-event networking.

"Changing Directions" is the 6th annual BusinessTalk event on topical business and legal issues run by the Berger Singerman, which has offices in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton and Tallahassee. The firm had previously held the event at Sun Life Stadium by renting out two luxury suites at Florida Marlins baseball games. But interest in the event led the firm to find bigger space at the Design Center of the Americas, known as DCOTA, in Dania Beach, which hosted the event on the afternoon and evening of October 5. Berger Singerman itself has grown since the first event, from 50 to 75 attorneys.

The three panels boasted leaders from a range of industries, including real estate, insurance, banking, airlines, private equity and media. Despite the economic uncertainly, the panelists seemed to agree that opportunities still exist for companies and individuals who combine the right talent with a clear strategic focus. The last panel focused on opportunities in Latin and South America, and firm chairman MItchell Berger ended the formal presentations by urging people to "hang together to make South Florida the gateway to Latin America."

After the event, Lawdragon caught up with Singerman, one of the nation's leading restructuring and bankruptcy attorneys. Among other high profile matters, Singerman represents the Chapter 11 Trustee in the Rothstein, Rosenfeldt & Adler case, a law firm that went into bankruptcy after revelations of a massive Ponzi scheme run by Scott Rothstein. Singerman began his career in banking and lending work before taking on a bankruptcy focus when the economy soured in the mid-1980s.

Lawdragon: This event obviously takes a significant amount of resources. What is the rationale for doing this?

Paul Singerman: We chose to invest the resources in producing BusinessTalk 2011 in order to continue our efforts to keep our firm and our attorney team members top-of-mind with existing clients, our referral sources and our trading partners in the community. We also try to expose and reacquaint them to one another so they can do basic networking and advance their own business interests in a comfortable, enjoyable and stress-free environment.

LD: You told me earlier that Berger Singerman lawyers used to do most of the presentations at BusinessTalk, and now it's almost all non-firm presenters. Why the switch?

PS: The feedback was that our clients and trading partners and in-house counsel wanted to hear a more broad-based discussion of business issues. Also, for most business people, their legal issues are not profit centers. They don't like to think about the impact of the law on their businesses; usually, when they think of lawyers, it does not involve something that helps drive revenues. We are sensitive to that as business lawyers who represent entrepreneurs.

We kind of got out of the trap that some firms get into with marketing, which is thinking about what works for them and not thinking about what works for the people to whom they are presenting. So far, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

LD: Many of the panelists mentioned some of the big-picture economic problems while sounding confident about their own businesses. What lessons did you draw from the event?

PS: We heard very positive, dynamic and motivating messages from our guest panelists, and those panelists are market leaders. The lesson that we took and have tried to drive home with our team members is that, if you're a market leader, in almost any economic circumstance you're going to have the opportunity to work, grow and make money. If you're not a market leader or working hard to remain one, you've got a big problem.

LD: How has your firm stayed strong and continued to grow in this environment?

PS: We have had a clear vision of our business and our business growth plan. We have stayed very close to that vision and have not strayed into areas in which we didn't think we could make a difference, and where we didn't think we either had the right talent or could acquire the right talent. We have remained debt free through the entire downturn to today. We have also worked intensively on our firm culture in order to sustain our incredibly low attrition rate that has, in turn, made recruitment easier. We have attracted extraordinarily talented lawyers from larger firms who wished to be in a smaller, more collaborative and entrepreneurial environment and at a firm that had a more stable platform than some of the larger firms with debt.

We have a record very well known in the community for never laying off a single lawyer in firm history, and for making decisions that show our team members that we value them and are interested in being the best professional platform for them. We've made a statement to our attorney team members, and it's really simple: "If we fail to remain the best platform for your professional development, we don't deserve to keep you. If you give us 100 percent of your efforts, we'll give you 110 percent in support in every way."

LD: You could have grown faster. What is your strategy for growth?

PS: We have no piece of paper in any office of the firm that says by year-end 2011 we will have "X" amount of lawyers, by 2012 have "Y" lawyers, or that we will be in the following additional markets. Our approach to law firm growth is the opposite. We have nearly no regard for headcount growth; our goal is to always be three lawyers fewer than we need at any given time. We only want to grow for two reasons - to respond to present and future client needs and to exploit a talent opportunity that we think is in the best interests of the firm. We focus on client service and profitability, and we don't think there's a connection between either of those goals and headcount growth.

LD: How did you find yourself in the type of practice you have today?

PS: Before I started practicing law I was in business with my father. I took almost three years off between high school and college, then finished college in three years and took another year off between college and law school. During that time I started and grew a business with my father [an electronic security business] that we sold during my second year of law school. I interacted a lot with our lawyers and the lawyers for our business counterparties and had the distinct impression they had never run a business, met a payroll or been in the trenches of a middle-market business. I thought that I could add value as a business lawyer to clients, having been in their shoes.

Separate from that, I did not do a traditional clerkship that many law students do. In 1982 I took a semester off to work for the Miami Dade County Public Defender's Office. This was a very busy and difficult time in the office. The criminal justice system in South Florida was overburdened. As an intern I spent nearly every day in a courtroom for at least an hour or two. I took many depositions and tried three cases to trial. As my private practice later evolved out of lending into bankruptcy, I found that clients appreciated a business bankruptcy lawyer who could readily absorb financial data and business concepts, and who could also go to court and try cases. Bankruptcy lawyers often are business lawyers who don't go to court, or trial lawyers who are uncomfortable about the business aspects of what we do. It's a huge negotiation advantage for our clients if I'm able to say, "Well, if we don't get a deal the judge will have to decide."

That's why in addition to a very robust in-house CLE program on litigation skills, we teach in-house to our litigators and business restructuring lawyers financial analysis and valuation. Year in and year out, all the time we are teaching those two skill sets because we feel it distinguishes us in the market.

LD: What led you to leave Stroock & Stroock & Lavan in 1997?

PS: I left my former firm after practicing with it for 13 years and nine months in order to have my hand in a smaller and much more entrepreneurial business. I wanted a firm in which I could have my fingerprints on the growth, and one where I would have less conflict issues doing debtor work. My older brother was a terrific entrepreneur. He died when he was 47 years old in 1996, and he knew that I had an interest in leaving a large institutional law firm. In some of the discussions we had when he was ill, he said, "What are you waiting for? If you take a shot and screw up there will always be a large institutional firm to take you back." After he died, I took that advice very seriously and joined what was then Berger & Davis, and later became Berger, Davis & Singerman.