‘To Do Well, You Must Do Good’
South Florida legal Guide - 2010 Edition
If you watched the HBO movie “Recount” about the 2000 Presidential election lawsuits in Florida, you would have seen a fictionalized version of Mitchell Berger in a starring role. Throughout the month-long legal battle, the real-life Berger was in the trenches fighting for every vote for his long-time friend Al Gore.
“My role was to coordinate and offer strategy with all the 40 to 50 actions taking place in Florida,” recalls Berger, founder and chairman, Berger Singerman, Fort Lauderdale. “Our goal was to attain a statewide recount. It wasn’t pretty, but we got there, before the U.S. Supreme Court shut it down.”
A highly respected litigator who handles complex cases in many fields, Berger has also been active in political circles and public policy groups for more than three decades. “Politics is a passion for me, like other people play golf,” Berger says. “I have a deep and abiding interest in our political system, and that has often assisted me in my legal practice.”
At age 19, Berger became a field director for Jimmy Carter’s 1976 presidential campaign, and later served on Bill Clinton’s 1992 transition team. In 1985 he helped Gore win a seat in the House of Representatives and later in the Senate. “Al Gore is a Benjamin Franklin for our times,” Berger says. “While never attaining the presidency, he has looked clearly at the future our country. He had the foresight to see we needed a broadband infrastructure for the Internet, and he has certainly sounded a warning about our planet’s energy and environmental issues.”
In turn, Gore has high praise for his friend and counsel. Commenting for the South Florida Legal Guide, he said, “Mitchell is a dedicated legal professional who has become a wise and trusted advisor and a skilled strategist.”
Taking on complex cases
Born in New York in 1956, Berger became interested in both law and public policy at an early age. After earning a bachelor’s degree at Lafayette College, where he was a varsity swimmer, Berger focused on law as a career. While earning his juris doctor at Temple University in the late 1970s, he worked part-time in the Carter administration, helping the U.S. Department of Transportation reorganize the New York Central and Penn Central railroad lines into Conrail, the predecessor to today’s Amtrak.
In 1980, Berger clerked for Florida Supreme Court Justice Alan C. Sundberg, and then moved to Tennessee, his parents’ home state, opening Berger & Berger in Chattanooga later that year. He rapidly grew his practice, taking on a variety of cases from commercial leasing to personal injury matters. His clients included a group of investors with substantial land holdings in Aventura, and Berger found himself commuting from one state to the other.
“They put me on a retainer if I would move to Florida,” Berger recalls. “I came to Fort Lauderdale and founded this firm on August 15, 1985 as a solo practitioner. My brother, James Berger, joined me one year later. Paul Singerman joined us a few years after that. As we prepare to celebrate our 25th anniversary in 2010, our firm is 64 lawyers strong with offices in four cities and still growing.”
Today, Berger focuses his practice on complex business litigation, including contracts, securities, antitrust and environmental matters. He represented Banco Espirito Santo International in a $522 million lawsuit against accounting firm BDO Seidman in 2004, served as special master in the $40 million class action lawsuit involving International Precious Metals Corporation, and recently settled an antitrust matter for $75 million.
On a regional and national level, he has represented AT&T, AOL Time Warner, Waste Management, Rinker Materials, Mastec, Econolodges of America, The Broadstone Group, Related Companies, McGladrey & Pullen, Terranova, Valley Drug Company and HCA.
“For me, the more complex the case, the better,” Berger says. “If I’m handling related cases in two or three courtrooms at the same time, it’s like playing a game of chess. How you move one piece might affect the other cases as well. That’s where the challenge comes in.”
Belief in the rule of law
Throughout his life, Berger has been an ardent advocate of the rule of law. “From the First Amendment guarantees of freedom of assembly and freedom of speech, we protect rights that are decided by dictators or mob rule in other countries,” he says. “When we settled the 2000 election in the courts, it again demonstrated the rule of law versus the rule of force. And every day, lawyers and judges must keep on reinforcing the legitimacy of the law. That’s what makes our system a constitutional democracy.”
At his law firm, Berger has sought to instill those principles in younger lawyers, through informal mentoring and coaching programs. He and his wife Hope Ruslin-Berger have also passed those ideals to their four children, Meredith, Scott, Amanda and Alex. In fact, Meredith Berger is now an attorney herself, serving as a policy advisor to Alex Sink, the state’s chief financial officer, in Tallahassee.
“One of the things I enjoy about practicing law in Broward is that this county is very community based,” Berger says. “There are many small businesses and people feel connected to each other. It’s a good place to call home.”
Berger has served on a long list of federal and state boards and commissions, ranging from the U.S. Small Business Agency Advisory Board to the Governor’s Commission for a Sustainable South Florida, Florida Keys Advisory Board, and the Environmental Regulation Commission. He was chairman of the national Student Loan Marketing Association and a board member for the South Florida Water Management District. Since 2006, he’s been on the board of trustees for Nova Southeastern University. He also received the Humanitarian Tree of Life Award from the City of Hope.
Reflecting on his career, Berger says, “At the end of the day, I want to try to leave the world a little better than I found it. I want our firm to continue to prosper and to be a community leader as well. I strongly believe that in law, as in other professions, to do well, you have to do good.”
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