Leading the Way: Bilzin Sumberg's Al Dotson on Success Through Community Engagement

Daily Business Review
Publication
January 14, 2022

What You Need to Know:

  • Bilzin Sumberg's holistic relationship with the broader South Florida community is central to the growing law firm's culture, said managing partner Al Dotson.
  • Real estate development continues to lead the firm's business, but the recent migration has also generated opportunities in transportation, entertainment, higher education, and technology.
  • Re-integrating the firm's workforce into the hybrid environment is among Dotson's top priorities for 2022.

In the words of Managing Partner Al Dotson, to be a Bilzin Sumberg Baena Price & Axelrod attorney is to be involved in shaping the Miami skyline through some of the most innovative deals that exist.

The nearly 100-lawyer, real estate development-focused law firm has grown alongside the city since its 1998 founding. Within the last year, it hired two corporate partners and three associates to service an influx of companies and investors, plus three tax attorneys to handle the newcomers’ financial affairs.

Dotson isn’t satisfied with merely cashing in on the latest migration. Instead, he wants to influence it directly, using the law firm’s corporate and real estate lawyers to put together market rate and affordable housing deals, helping higher education institutions expand to accommodate the growing population, and engaging the community with pro bono work and philanthropy.

In that way, Dotson’s approach to managing the single-office firm mirrors his personal investment in Miami, which includes 27 years on the Orange Bowl Committee.

In a recent interview, Dotson discussed Bilzin Sumberg’s success as a function of the firm’s engagement with the community and his plans to make the most of Miami’s inbound investment in 2022.

Which challenges are you most focused on going into 2022?

As a firm leader, as a business leader, we’re all focused on 2022 and managing and growing the business in the midst of different COVID outbreaks. For sure, that remains among the top items we continue to navigate. As a firm, our focus remains on the safety of our employees, service to our clients, and the continued growth of our business. So far, we’ve been able to do that.

As you probably know, our practice areas are very much aligned with the businesses that continue to fuel Florida’s economy, so growing the number of lawyers as well as practice areas and being able to provide seamless service to our clients—both existing and new clients—really is important to us.

Third, making sure that we remain focused on emerging opportunities, emerging industries, and how Bilzin Sumberg is positioned to manage our clients’ interests through those emerging trends.

How has the Omicron variant impacted your work?

Going into 2022, we maintain a focus on flexibility and the hybrid work environment. Our clients are for sure working in a hybrid manner. We are going to maintain that flexibility as we go into 2022, recognizing that our culture is our strength and the more we see each other, the more we interact with each other, and the stronger our culture grows.

And we will be really focused on finding ways to not just meet and work together, but also engage with the community safely. We have been investing in South Florida through the Bilzin Sumberg Cares program for almost two decades now and we’re going to do even more of that this year to make sure the community knows Bilzin Sumberg hasn’t forgotten about them. We will continue to do projects throughout the community as a firm. We’re going to really leverage our workforce to support not only our clients but the community in which we work.

What is the legal community’s responsibility to the rest of South Florida as the region grows and becomes more expensive to live in?

There’s two parts. People moving here and their impact on our community, let’s start with that. South Florida remains a magnet that attracts people from all parts of our country and all parts of the globe. Now, being a Florida-made and globally connected firm, we recognize that positions us to help those moving to our community navigate the South Florida business scene as well as the political scene and the philanthropic scene, and we plan to and are taking full advantage of that position to help those who are coming into town, either individually or bringing their business or industry to South Florida.

That creates an economic opportunity and to your point, we are experiencing a very high rate of growth in our real estate market. As a firm, we have been very active in the real estate market from the market rate housing to the affordable housing, and as a firm we decided that we would continue to expand our market-rate housing capabilities while growing our affordable housing focus. Bringing our expertise to help grow the affordable housing and workforce housing inventory through the work that we do is important to our overall community.

Thirdly, we have always recognized that we are blessed to be in this profession, and as a result of that, we are duty-bound to give back to this community in many ways, whether through our pro bono activities that support the Guardian ad Litem program, Voices for Children, and many other not-for-profit organizations. Or our direct engagement with community organizations through our volunteerism: We encourage our lawyers to be actively involved on boards of directors or as members of community organizations from Palm Beach on South.

And then with our financial contributions to the United Way and other organizations here in South Florida, we are actively involved in the continuum of giving and we do that through direct dollar donations, through making sure that we are practicing in areas that can address the needs of our community, and supporting our employees, lawyers, and staff in getting involved in causes that are important to them and that help build our community.

How do you create the Bilzin Sumberg culture?

I actually appreciate that question, I don’t think anyone has asked that. The answer is to work at Bilzin Sumberg is to understand that you will be involved in shaping the skyline of our community through some of the most innovative deals that exist, and we do that in an environment where we enjoy working with each other, never forgetting our responsibility to the community.

So it’s those three components that make up the Bilzin Sumberg culture that has led law firms in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and other cities calling Bilzin to represent their clients in Florida. It is what causes leaders in South Florida to call on Bilzin Sumberg attorneys and staff to help lead nonprofit organizations in our community. And it’s for sure what causes business leaders in South Florida to engage our firm for a variety of different issues that they are grappling with, whether it’s litigation or transactional.

And that’s all wrapped into our international positioning as a city and a community because we continue to expand our international inbound presence for those from Central and South America, Europe and Asia who are doing business in South Florida or in U.S., using Miami and South Florida as their port of entry. When you talk about the culture of Bilzin Sumberg, it has grown and matured in the same manner as South Florida has grown and matured. Our acceleration through COVID has mirrored the acceleration of interest in our community, and our growth over the past 20-plus years has also mirrored the growth of our community over the same two-decade period.

How are you measuring success this year?

The only way you can measure success is to first understand who you are, which goes back to our culture conversation, and to have a clear vision of what you’re trying to accomplish. That touches on recognizing the emerging and evolving opportunities taking place here in our community. The short answer is our ability as a law firm to continue—we’re going to measure success by growing our firm within the—I’m trying to avoid giving you exactly what we plan to do.

I’d rather say this: I want to be candid but I have to be guarded in part. My candid answer is that Bilzin Sumberg’s success in 2022 will be measured by our ability to re-integrate our workforce in this hybrid environment in a way that continues a focus on the culture we have developed over the past 20 to 25 years while improving and increasing our additional business metrics that people judge law firms by and expanding our practice areas to align with the emerging trends in South Florida.

I’ve got very specific things in mind. I look forward to having this conversation a year from now and you’ll say I see what you were talking about.

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Albert E. Dotson, Jr.
Managing Partner
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