Tom Berman ’04 always knew he was going into law. That’s because his father, Ron ’80, had long praised the value of a law degree to Tom and his brother.
Ron knew first-hand the value of that degree. He earned his from University of Detroit and today, he chalks up his lifetime of business successes to it.
“I encouraged my children to go to law school because it’s the most versatile degree you can get,” he said. The father and son have had remarkably similar careers that extend beyond the fact that both have law degrees from Detroit Mercy.
Ron planned on being an attorney since he was in grade school. He earned his undergraduate degree from Michigan State then started at Cooley Law School before moving to Detroit and finishing his degree at University of Detroit Mercy School of Law.
“I was just married and we wanted to be in Detroit,” he remembered. “I always liked University of Detroit, it had a great reputation.” He particularly enjoyed the experience he had in the Urban Law Clinic and during an internship he had in family law. “I loved it. It was a great education.”
Upon graduation he started a solo practice, using as his guide the book “How to Go Directly Into Solo Law Practice Without Missing A Meal,” by Gerald Singer, published a few years before Ron graduated. It worked, he said, and he was off on a successful career. But the entrepreneurial part of him had an idea.
He imagined a place where several solo practitioners worked independently in the same office. Each attorney would have access to a law library, some support staff and a conference room. It was an idea that would be called the business incubator a decade later. Ron called them Legal Executive Suites and their success was immediate. He opened suites in Southfield, Birmingham, Mount Clemens and Lansing.
Before long, he found himself not only running the suites, but also some rental properties and several Century 21 realty franchises. “I found I didn’t really need the law practice anymore, though I was doing the work of a lawyer,” he said. “All the years I was in business I made the legal decisions and did legal work. You can’t forget your degree.”
As this empire grew, he needed some help, so he hired a 23-year-old named Dan Gilbert who suggested Ron think about getting into the mortgage business. It made sense to Ron and they founded Rock Financial in Ron’s first Executive Legal Suite.
“Our parents told us it was stupid,” he said. But something about it felt right. It was several years before the idea really took off, and then ultimately attracting the attention of Intuit, which bought Rock and gave it a new name, Quicken.
Ron had long left the company by then and moved to Florida where he works in venture capital. A serious car accident a few years ago left him in a coma for weeks and he spent two years working his way from a wheelchair to a walker to walking on his own.
Today, with his health problems mostly behind him, he is running for a seat in the Florida Senate. “I am the underdog, but I want to do it because this is something I think I’d be good at,” he said.
As Ron ran for office in Florida, his son Tom ran for a seat on the Oakland County Board of Commissioners. Already a member of the Keego Harbor City Council, he wanted to step up his involvement with civic leadership but didn’t necessarily want a career as a politician.
Tom is chief administrative officer and general counsel of Reverie, a sleep technology company and leader in the mattress and adjustable bed industry. Like his father, he ended up following a career path that was aided, though not defined by, his law degree.
“I’m a big Detroit guy,” he said. “I always knew I wanted to be in the area long-term, so going to law school locally made sense, because so many connections and networks can be made with other students who are going to work in the area and all the alumni who already do.” He looked at only two schools, and chose Detroit Mercy, in part because of his father’s positive experience.
Interestingly, both father and son named Patrick Keenan as their favorite professor. “He was so dynamic,” Tom said, “He made learning fun and was able to connect what we were learning to the real world.”
Tom, too, worked in the urban law clinic during law school as well as with the Wayne County Prosecutors office and the Misdemeanors Defenders Office at the 36th District Court helping run the domestic violence docket and wanted to be what he called “a big time criminal defense attorney.” But he knew that he had no desire to work at a law firm so, like his father, he struck out on his own. A year into his solo practice, a family friend introduced him to a senior attorney and the two created a partnership of a sort for several years, Tom learning from the more experienced lawyer who needed help, while also running his own solo practice.
Soon enough, Tom found himself wanting to make a bigger impact, and had a decision to make.
“I asked myself if I wanted to continue as is with only so many hours in the day, take my law practice to the next level, or do something else, so I started to explore the question ‘what does something else mean?’”
With an entrepreneurial spirit much like his father’s, he went to work on a trial basis as general counsel for Bedrock Detroit, a real estate company owned by Dan Gilbert, his father’s former partner. He kept a few clients, though, including Reverie, a sleep technology company formally based out of New York started by two of Tom’s high school friends he had represented for years as their outside general counsel. When Tom called to tell them he was going to step away from his law practice, they discussed joining forces and ultimately offered him a position they created just for him.
Tom accepted and was the catalyst for moving the company’s headquarters to Oakland County. Tom has since helped lead the company from 20 team members to more than 200 in less than four years.
He calls Reverie a “tech company that happens to be in the bedding industry,” and the office has the feel of just that, which Tom said is a great way to attract and retain the most innovative and creative team members.
Like his father, Tom has also faced health issues and lives with ulcerative colitis, which he says nearly took his life when he was a child. Today, Tom serves on the board of the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America’s Michigan chapter, following in his father’s footsteps as well as Leaders for Kids, an advisory board to Children’s Hospital.
He says he’s pleased at the way his career has gone, moreso because it’s been a nontraditional one. And if you ask him where he’ll be in five or ten years, he says he’s not sure. But he knows whatever he does, he will be someplace where he enjoys the work, is challenged and feels he’s making a difference.
And his father Ron is proud of that attitude.
“I supported my children in anything they wanted to do, but I wanted them to get a law degree first,” Ron said. “I think that did help steer them to the right path.”