Business booster: Attorney specializes in economic development

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 By Sheila Pursglove

Legal News

In 2012, attorney Lisa Berden helped give a boost to American jobs by closing one of the largest new markets tax credits deals, involving five community development entities.

“They provide loans to projects in low income communities, so it was like getting financing from five different ‘banks’ at once,” she explains. “It was very complex, but also rewarding as the client is now operating a newly built plant that might have otherwise gone to Mexico or Brazil.”  

A senior attorney with Miller Canfield in Troy, Berden has a varied practice that focuses on real estate, economic development, nonprofit and charitable organizations and federal, state and local tax issues. 

“Economic development is great because you’re helping a project to happen, or to happen faster than it otherwise might,” she says. 

A specialist in finding and negotiating incentives for job creation and retention, brick and mortar expansion, and for particular industries such as automotive or alternative energy, she makes sure clients are in full compliance in order to receive the full package of incentives awarded to them. She also negotiates construction contracts and commercial leases for clients across the country.

Her work for nonprofit and charitable organizations includes drafting and filing applications for tax-exempt status, and analyzing and advising on such matters as unrelated business income tax, lobbying issues, governance, private inurement, state law compliance, and sales, use and employment taxes. She executes nonprofit mergers and dissolutions and is experienced in obtaining private letter rulings from the IRS.

“Charitable organizations work is enjoyable because you’re helping organizations whose whole mission is to help others,” she says.

While her tax work is complex, she enjoys working through the complexity to find a resolution.

“It’s like a giant crossword puzzle of statutes, and I love crossword puzzles,” she says.

Berden is a member of the American Bar Association, State Bar of Michigan, and Commercial Real Estate Women Detroit (CREW Detroit), and also teaches at the Institute of Continuing Legal Education in Ann Arbor (ICLE).

“I enjoy giving back to the profession – assisting new lawyers, or experienced lawyers new to a particular area, in understanding a particular discipline helps the profession as a whole, and ICLE students are always so appreciative,” she says. “I’m lucky to be where I am in life and that’s due to support, mentoring and education. I see it as part of my job to provide those things to new lawyers, new associates to the firm, and women new to the commercial real estate industry.” 

She is also a frequent speaker to entrepreneurial support programs, and notes that programs like Hatch Detroit have made a real difference to the local economy.

“I’m friends with a few finalists, and even if their businesses did not eventually win, the marketing buzz received certainly helped,” she says. “There are lots of downtown stores that carry items you will not find at a mall store. The Avenue of Fashion on Livernois is returning, and West Village is becoming a hot spot, thanks to several pop-up programs. It really is an exciting time for the city, as retail is moving into the neighborhoods. Detroit is finally making a visible comeback, but it’s been going on for years. It’s a slow process, but it seems we’ve reached a tipping point where everyone, locals and those around the world, want to see the city succeed.”

For the past three years, Berden has served on the Programs Committee for CREW and currently chairs the committee.

“CREW Detroit has been a fantastic way to get to know other women in the commercial real estate arena,” she says. “We’ve been able to organize some fabulous programs due to the extraordinary women who serve on the committee, and it provides a way to vet someone’s style of working before making a referral or hiring them for a project. Our Membership, Impact Awards, and Golf committees also provide amazing programs, many of which are available to non-members as well. We also have several behind-the-scenes committees whose work is equally, if not more, important. There are so many ways to get involved that the drawback is that there are many accomplished women who are members that I haven’t met yet.”  

Berden didn’t start out on a legal career path. After receiving her undergrad degree in English and political science from Michigan State University, she earned her Provisional Teaching Certificate from Central Michigan University before teaching American Literature, British Literature, and Freshman Literature and Composition at Bishop Foley Catholic High School in Madison Heights for two years.

“Part of what drew me to teaching was that it was the only profession I was around growing up, and part of it was that I used to play ‘school’ with my younger sister a lot, and I loved seeing the light bulb on her face when she got a concept,” Berden says. “I also loved books – I even made my own library where my cousins could check out my books. It wasn’t very busy since I lived in the middle of nowhere.”  

Her teaching was a good foundation for her work as an attorney.

“Teaching is really what the best lawyers do, whether it’s teaching a client, or a judge or jury,” she explains. “I still love it when I explain a concept to a client and they ‘get it.’ My job as a lawyer is to do that, not to use big words and archaic terms. The best lawyers are the ones that can take really complex ideas and explain them in a way that makes them appear simple, and to give the client the tools to make the best business decisions that can be made based on their business’ needs.”

After earning her law degree, cum laude, from Wayne State University Law School, where she was assistant editor of the Law Review, and served on the Student Board of Governors, Berden clerked for Justice Marilyn Kelly of the Michigan Supreme Court.

“Justice Kelly is an amazing role model – I was so lucky she chose me to assist her as her elbow clerk for two years,” she says. “There is so much to appreciate about being a clerk at that level, but I think the best thing was the exposure to every type of state law case there is.  Right out of law school, I had to learn about criminal law, state tax law, contracts, negligence, and eminent domain, as well as topics like the public trust doctrine, separation of powers, standing, and preemption in very real circumstances. Many of those cases still stick in my memory, ten years later.”  

Berden, who grew up in the woods outside Cheboygan, has made her home in the Motor City for the past decade, recently moving from Clawson to Bloomfield Township, where she and her boyfriend share their home with two Rottweilers and two beagles.

“I’d love to get my youngest beagle certified as a therapy dog so we can spread happiness to those who need a smile,” she says. “He’s such a sweet little guy who loves to cuddle.”

While she finds pleasure in simply hanging out at home in canine company, or reading, Berden is also a world traveler. Introduced to geocaching by her sister, she has found caches in South Africa, Puerto Rico, Grand Turk Island and seven U.S. states. 

“My brother has property on Drummond Island in the Upper Peninsula, and my sister and one of my nieces and I spent a day slowly making our way back to Indian River caching through the U.P. It’s a great way to get outside, spend active time with friends, family or dogs and see places you never would have come across.”

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