How One 3-Attorney Florida Boutique Began Representing Sovereigns

The article How One 3-Atty Fla. Boutique Began Representing Sovereigns, by Rachel Rippetoe, was originally featured on on February 8, 2023. © 2023, Portfolio Media, Inc.


The community of lawyers representing sovereign nations in U.S. courts is a small one, mostly made up of BigLaw attorneys, but for Michael Ehrenstein, his three-lawyer South Florida boutique's size has been its secret weapon for breaking into the international market.

Already faced with the monumental task of working through the bureaucracy of an entire nation in order to represent his clients, Ehrenstein told Law360 Pulse that it makes it easier for the pint-sized Ehrenstein Sager LLP to skip over the bureaucracy that comes with a large law firm.

"In a small firm, you can look at an opportunity and make a decision within about 30 seconds rather than running in front of a committee and having other people opine about the ethics and business implications of something," he said. "Those considerations can be weighed in a much shorter time frame with a lot less brain damage and even less antagonism."

The firm, situated outside of Miami, has taken on some big and unique cases in the last few years, most recently representing the Angolan government in a $1.1 billion dispute over power contracts. Ehrenstein has been helping the Central African country keep a case brought against it by Aenergy SA out of the U.S. courts, and has been successful in New York federal court and on appeal before the Second Circuit.

Ehrenstein doesn't find it odd that he's a South Florida lawyer in a tiny boutique representing an African nation in New York. A corporate litigator in Miami is bound to work on cases with an international angle, he said, whether it's dealing with foreign investors buying a hotel or aircraft parts being shipped overseas.

Earlier in his career, he had represented an investor in a dispute over the privatization of a foreign cement facility. The dispute between the buyers of the facility and the government went on for years, bouncing between state court, federal court and then eventually landing in arbitration. Ehrenstein found the issues raised in the context of representing sovereigns fascinating.

"I landed a few larger cases and decided, 'I like this. It's lucrative. It's very interesting work,'" he said.

He signed up for some conferences in Africa and began introducing himself on the international market, Ehrenstein said. His leadership roles as the 2022 president of the Litigation Counsel of America, an invitation-only society of U.S. trial lawyers, and a founding member of Abacus Worldwide, an accounting firm association, also set him up with contacts around the world who could refer international cases to him.

"Having built up this network of real relationships over 33 years gives me the same coverage, if not better than I could get if I was a member of any BigLaw practice," he said.

Ehrenstein's been a small firm lawyer for the bulk of his career, starting at Kluger Peretz Kaplan & Berlin PL, now known as Kluger Kaplan Silverman Katzen & Levine PL, in Miami nearly 30 years ago, when it had just 18 lawyers. As the firm grew to more than 60 lawyers, he realized he valued the culture of a smaller shop, and so in 2017, he started his own: Ehrenstein Charbonneau Calderin. That firm lasted for over a decade but folded in January 2018 after its other founding partners left to start Agentis PLLC.

Even with just 15 lawyers, Ehrenstein told Law360 Pulse that he felt Ehrenstein Charbonneau was still a larger operation than he would have liked.

"When I started that first firm, it really did have an almost family-like culture," he said. "I knew every person in that firm, every person in that firm knew me, and we all respected each other. We all liked each other. As the firm started to grow, it's not that the people that we were growing it with were bad or anything like that, it just became impossible to have a firm with more people where everybody has that level of commitment to each other."

Operating now with an even smaller practice with partners Brett Sager and Latasha Johnson, Ehrenstein said he can more easily incorporate his own identity and culture into the practice. For example, he said he's worked to transfer lessons learned during years of martial arts practice — training he started as a teenager before going on to earn his black belt — into his firm's work in the courtroom.

"I think most good trial lawyers have a history of their own experiences through which they view the case," Ehrenstein said. "Lawyers who are extremely religious, for example, view every case through the prism of their own religious beliefs. For me, the same is true about martial arts."

Forum-shopping cases like the Angola one are particularly interesting to Ehrenstein from this lens, because part of studying martial arts is about knowing your battlefield.

"Where are we going to be fighting? Where's the high ground? Where's the low ground? These are little bits of information that are helpful to have before the fight begins," he said. "By the same token, we want to establish the battlefield in the legal world. We want to pick the battlefield before the battle ever starts. If we pick the battlefield smartly, we're going to win before there's ever a fight."

Ehrenstein began working on behalf of the Angolan government in about 2017, when he represented the country in a breach of contract suit brought by energy company LS Energia. The company, asking for around $75 million, ended up voluntarily dismissing the case.

Through that suit, he became aware of a similar suit accusing Angola of using forged documents to cancel a $1.1 billion partnership with energy company Aenergy SA.

To read the complete article, please click HERE.