by Michele Newbern Gillis
Brenda Ezell, a commercial real estate attorney with the Edwards Cohen law firm since April 2007, isn’t a newbie to her legal field.
Prior to joining Edwards Cohen, Ezell handled land use and real estate issues for three years with the Office of General Counsel. Before that, she practiced commercial real estate for three and a half years at Rogers Towers.
She also has experience with enforcement work with the Internal Revenue Service for seven years. Before the IRS, she was an Army legal specialist in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps for three years active service and five years in the Army Reserve.
But despite her pedigree, Ezell said she sometimes faces preconceived notions of what a commercial real estate attorney should be, or at least look like, from a predominantly male client base.
“When I did closings, people didn’t think I was the closing attorney. They would think I was a paralegal or just helping the attorney,” said Ezell. “They would sit there waiting for the man to walk in, and I would say with a smile, ‘Sorry, guys. It’s just me.’”
But through hard work and proving herself to her clients, Ezell has found success in her career. She currently represents big box retailers, shopping center developers, commercial lenders, and condominium developers in securing entitlements and purchase and sale agreements.
Ezell, a member of the Commercial Real Estate Women of Jacksonville and the Florida and Jacksonville Bar Associations, says that in the coming years she expects to see more women find similar success in commercial real estate law.
“I think there is a tremendous amount of opportunity for growth and development and for women to be even more involved in commercial real estate,” she said. “I think the new businesses coming in at the ports are going to change the dynamics of commercial real estate. There are a lot of foreigners coming who aren’t invested in the ‘good ol’ boy’ system, and that will change things a lot for commercial real estate women.”
Ezell, who hails from Detroit and moved to Jacksonville in 1988 to be closer to family, has seen plenty of change already, much of which led her into her chosen career path.
“When I moved to Jacksonville, Phillips Highway didn’t go past Baymeadows Road. It was really undeveloped so it really interested me when I saw things start to grow,” said Ezell.
“Initially, I wanted to help people fight for their rights, but as I started studying and practicing in school, I decided I liked real estate,” she said. “It was just fascinating with the whole constitutionality of your right to own property and do what you want with your property.”
After earning her bachelor’s degree in business administration from Jacksonville University and her law degree from the University of Florida, Ezell entered practice and began to become inspired, particularly from commercial real estate attorneys Joe O’Shields and Bill Scheu at Rogers Towers.
“They were great mentors. Joe gave me cases, and helped me prepare documents and do the closing,” she said. “Personally, he also got me interested in community service. He showed me that as a commercial real estate attorney, you can offer your services to the community and help people.
“Bill taught me about commercial transactions and how to put the big picture together from the time someone is interested in a property all the way through the closing,” Ezell continued.
Ezell said the best advice she’s received is to always make herself available to clients, return calls promptly and treat every client with equal importance, no matter how big the deal is. The last bit of advice has proven important during the slowdown of the last two years.
She said since retail follows rooftops, “I think it will take about two to three years before we are back to full swing.”
Ezell said she will stick to the guidance she received and her habits of commitment and hard work, even if the boom returns.
“I always try to answer my phone on the first ring and not let my secretary be the filter,” she said.
“You build up a trust level so people know they can rely on you and that you are not going to mess anything up.”