When Michelle Bernstein tells people that her law practice is headquartered in her East Memphis home, the usual response is an envious one that she gets to work in her pajamas.
(Photo: Lance Murphey)
But since she and her husband, Buddy, are the only two lawyers behind Bernstein Law Office, she’s quick to explain that her business day is just like everybody else’s.
“Since the practice is our livelihood and our clients depend on us, we have a very structured day,” Bernstein said. “We respect each other’s work space very much. And I dress for success every day, even in my house – jewelry, heels, everything – because you never know when you might be called on short notice to meet a client. And plus, it gives you a professional mindset.”
Bernstein Law Office offers legal services in the areas of commercial real estate, business transactions and probate law. Michelle’s practice focuses on leasing, with an emphasis in retail, while Buddy’s specialty leans more to the development side.
Since the duo re-formed the firm last year, Michelle Bernstein and Buddy Bernstein have each been recognized in Woodword/White’s Best Lawyers list for 2010, 2011 and 2012, and Bernstein Law Office as one of the best law firms in 2012.
When Bernstein was obtaining her undergraduate and law degrees from Indiana University at Bloomington, CRE wasn’t heavy on her mind.
“Real estate is a traditional legal subject matter, but the modern practice of commercial law has changed along with all of the business changes that we’ve undergone in the last 20 or 30 years,” she said. “As the business needs have maybe gotten more complex and challenging, so have the legal responses to that. Commercial real estate wasn’t necessarily something that when I was in law school I said, ‘OK, I think I’ll go into that.’ You still get the groundwork for that in law school, and then, as you serve your clients over the years, you acquire the skills to deal with the business realities of whatever’s going on in that industry.”
It was during her undergraduate days that Bernstein solidified her English skills, something that she puts to good use when writing a lease for a client. She also studied in Germanic languages and to this day has a passion for foreign languages and expanding her vocabulary.
“Some leases can have a lifespan of anywhere from five to 30 years, sometimes longer with a ground lease,” Bernstein said. “It’s a document that governs the parties’ conduct for a number of years, and so you kind of try to anticipate what might happen. The commas really matter.”
A well-drafted lease will have in it many of the eventualities that might come up, Bernstein said, informing the parties of what to do. The hope is to avoid conflict and litigation down the road.
But since going to court is a rarity, Bernstein Law Office can focus on other things, such as passing on the savings from a work-from-home office to her clients.
“Our goal is to get our client’s deal done within the timeframe that they want, in efficiency and also at a lower cost than they might pay elsewhere,” Bernstein said. “We can also prioritize our work; we have no committees. We can react quickly to our clients’ needs if someone calls us and says they have an emergency.”
Bernstein is honored to have been able to turn negatives into positives, especially in light of the sluggish CRE climate since it peaked in 2007. Since then, business transaction work has become a priority, she said.
“The decline in the general CRE industry was reflected in our practice, but it was more like a rebalance,” Bernstein said. “As the economy gets bad, some people lose their jobs, and what they do in reaction to that is to form businesses. We’ve found that it’s very rewarding to help people get started in their businesses.”
Bernstein also finds it rewarding to give back to her community and cultivate relationships whenever possible. She’s a founding member of Commercial Real Estate Women Memphis, a mock-trial coach at Rhodes College, a professional speaker, an affiliate member of the Memphis Area Association of Realtors’ Commercial Council and a volunteer attorney at the Community Legal Center.
To Bernstein, life is about relationships. Personally and professionally, she strives each day to live by the golden rule.
“Relationships are how you get business and how you keep business,” she said. “People want to do business with people they like and who know what they’re doing. You want to always treat people like you want to be treated. Show yourself to be dependable and never burn a bridge. You never know when people are going to show up in a different context. And never leave people on a sour note.”