How Michael Sullivan Went from Football to Law School

The football career flopped, but law was a touchdown

Published in 2008 Florida Super Lawyers magazine

By Dan Millott on June 16, 2008


Fresh from a stint as a running back at Yale University, Michael Sullivan took a stab at the pros, signed on as a free agent with the Cleveland Browns and was cut after four weeks.

Undeterred, he traveled to the New York Jets camp—where his tour lasted a total of one day.

“That is when I concluded my football career was over,” the real estate attorney says with a chuckle.

His Yale degree was in business administration, but the business climate in New England in 1980 was stagnant. So he sought a job in a warmer climate, taking a job in Atlanta as a brand manager for a hospital-supply company.

His long-term plans, however, included going into law. After a year in Atlanta, Sullivan headed for the University of Connecticut’s law school, earning his degree in 1984. The warmer climates still appealed, so he relocated to Orlando, otherwise known as the convention center of the world.

“I knew I wanted to practice real estate development and finance,” he says. “I figured the hotel practice here would be as good as anywhere, and that proved to be true.”

Arriving in 1988, Sullivan soon went to work at Godbold, Allen, Brown and Builder, where his work involved bankruptcy cases. “A number of hotels, apartment complexes and shopping centers were going under,” he recalls. “We were constantly in court representing property owners and mortgage lenders.”

Sullivan is now the co-managing shareholder of Greenberg Traurig’s Orlando office, a firm he joined shortly after the branch opened in 1996.

For most of the next decade, few private mega-hotel projects were built in Orlando. “Typically they were government funded, linked to a convention center.” During that period, he focused on assisting with the buying, selling and financing of existing hotels and helping to develop new extended-stay, resort and urban business hotels.

Now that’s changed. Sullivan loves the big, complex projects and has a couple cooking right now involving negotiating and documenting management agreements between owners and hotel companies.

One is a 1,400-room multi-story Hilton under construction on International Drive near the convention center. It’s a $375 million job, due to be completed in early 2009.

“It’s complicated, because it is a joint venture requiring negotiations with the client and their equity partners. We had to proceed through the entitlement and development process, the financing process and negotiating the hotel contracts.”

Few law firms around the country, Sullivan says, are capable of handling such massive projects.

He is also involved in a $450 million two-hotel project in the Bonnet Creek area south of Orlando.

While his law practice keeps him hopping, Michael spends his spare time in New Smyrna Beach, where the Sullivans have a weekend home and he can go long-board surfing.

It’s not football, but it’s less stressful than being a free-agent rookie.

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