Chinatown made John Sumberg a lawyer.
He was teaching. He was frustrated. He wanted to make a difference.
"This was the '60s, and this was about having an impact," he said. "So my interest in law was not to be a lawyer, which I really didn't understand particularly, but to have an impact."
Born in New York City, Sumberg grew up in Miami Shores. He went to a stunningly overcrowded public high school where, he said, "almost no education occurred."
He didn't let that stop him. He did "absolutely as best as you can do in that environment. I took every AP class you could take, and I learned everything you can learn," Sumberg said.
He was on the debate team and the tennis team. He served as international president of the Interact club, made valedictorian and won a Silver Knight award in general scholarship.
Still, he went off to Yale "completely unprepared," he said. "I had no idea what I wanted to do. I thought I was going to be a teacher."
That's how he wound up in New York's Chinatown in a teacher training program. It changed his life.
"What I learned from that experience was that entering any program at the ground level was crushing. And that there were so many levels above you that getting anything done was horrific," he said. "So I became interested at that moment in going to law school because I felt that it would give me a better ability to effect things."
It was a time of turmoil and change, a time of Woodstock (he went) and war (he didn't), and he got an experience in life and law that was, by any measure, historic.
Future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was in his law school class. Bill and Hillary Clinton were a year ahead. President Richard Nixon was facing impeachment, and Sumberg's administrative law professor was a Nixon attorney. In his second semester, he interned on the government's public corruption team in the Southern District of New York, working on former U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell's indictment. Sumberg's boss was Rudy Giuliani.
He also got something else, a love of skiing that continues to this day.
"I had never skied. In 1970, one of my buddies at Yale said, 'I'm going skiing. Want to come?' I said, 'Sure, but I don't know how to ski.' He said, 'No problem.' He loaned me a pair of boots and skis, took me up to the top of this mountain and said, 'Just watch me,' " Sumberg recalled. "He skied down and said, 'Just do this.' And I never saw him again that day. That was my ski lesson."
Real Estate Future
One thing he didn't get at Yale, though, was any training in the area of practice that became his specialty.
"Interestingly, I didn't even take a real estate law course in law school," he said. "I took courses by professor, and I didn't like that professor."
Still, the seed may have already been taking root.
Yale allowed undergraduates to create their own majors if they wanted. Sumberg devised one called "Study of the City." His senior thesis was about the chapter in James Joyce's "Ulysses" where a dozen characters explore Dublin from their respective viewpoints. It was, literally — and literarily — a "Study of the City."
"I think it has applied in a very serendipitous kind of way," he said. "As my career has unfolded and I've ended up in real estate, the thing that I love the most is advising and strategizing with clients on complex projects in the real estate arena. So the things that I've done in contributing to this community have very much been consistent with that."
He's been instrumental in reshaping the South Florida skyline. He was involved in the development of Mary Brickell Village, the Jade condominium, 1111 Lincoln Road and the legal battle to make SkyRise Miami a reality. He's also on the advisory board of the master's in real estate development and urbanism at the University of Miami, working to create a cross-discipline real estate center involving students and faculty from the law, engineering, business and architecture schools.
His philosophy of community involvement is part of the culture at the firm he founded with Brian Bilzin more than three decades ago.
They met at a Greater Miami Jewish Federation retreat. They skipped a seminar and sat down to get to know each other. By the time they finished, the groundwork had been laid for what would become Bilzin Sumberg.
"When we got along as well as we did, it just made sense," he said. "We actually decided in my recollection within an hour to merge, and the basis and terms on which we should merge."
It was very much the law firm equivalent of love at first sight, that continues in a solid marriage today.
"We've been together 35 years," Sumberg said. "I don't think we've had an argument."
This article is reprinted from the October 2016 issue of Daily Business Review. © 2016 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.
About Bilzin Sumberg
Bilzin Sumberg is a commercial law firm based in Florida. The Firm’s core practices include Business Finance & Restructuring, Corporate, Environmental, International, Land Development & Government Relations, Litigation, Real Estate, and Tax. For more information, please visit bilzin.com.