Boca Raton lawyer Michelle Tanzer keeps golf courses and resorts out of the rough.
Tanzer, partner and chair of the residential, resort and club legal practice for the Gray Robinson law firm, troubleshoots for golf and other private clubs on legal issues such as membership, employees, landscaping and zoning.
Her work in Florida revolves mostly around golf courses that have residential housing, but she is called upon to do work around the world, with about one-third in the Caribbean and Bahamas, another third in Asia and India, and the remainder in the U.S.
In South Florida, she has worked with golf clubs since the recession to make them more “economically viable.” As golf clubs began to struggle for membership during the recession, more have moved to broaden their membership.
“Today’s membership demographic is younger, more diverse, and clubs are more family-oriented,” Tanzer said.
Golf club documents have to be altered as a club makes changes.
“A club is like a small business,” she said. “It touches so many aspects of business and law.”
Keeping any private club out of court is a priority as privacy is essential to a private club. So Tanzer is an advocate of arbitration. She’s a Florida Supreme Court-qualified arbitrator, certified circuit court civil mediator and one of four professionals selected by the American Arbitration Association for the National Golf Industry Panel.
She may be called if there’s a problem with a member or previous member, an employee or a desire to add new amenities, such as a spa. Or if someone is injured on the golf course in a golf cart or by a flying club.
But usually a golf club is covered legally for such incidents because the courts view golf as a difficult sport, she said.
“When you play the game of golf, you have the reasonable expectation there might be an errant golf ball now and then,” Tanzer said.
To help clubs through tough economic times, she developed the “Hero Program,” in which members who leave relinquish the club’s obligation to refund their initial deposit for membership. The golf club offers a variety of alternative perks to the obligation and hails the departing member as a “hero.”
Edward “E. J.” Ewing Jr., general manager Sailfish Point, a golf course and marina community on Hutchinson Island, said Tanzer was instrumental in updating the property’s documents and bylaws, which spell out the rights and responsibilities of its more than 500 residents. The job took four years but won the membership’s approval in 2014.
“She does a good job not only interpreting, but also working her way through issues,” Ewing said. Tanzer’s approach helped get the required 75 percent vote of the property owners in favor of the changes, he said.
Large hotel and condominium companies also call upon Tanzer for her expertise.
“We look to her as our condominium expert,” said Dottie Ingalls, who is responsible for negotiating transactions for Marriott International in Bethesda, Md. “She really does a remarkable job.”
Ingalls said she once faced a long weekend to finish a task, so she turned to Tanzer for help. By Saturday afternoon, Tanzer had completed her part and was asking, “What else can I do for you?”
Tanzer, 53, knew she wanted to practice law as early as the second grade. She graduated from Emory University School of Law and passed the bar in 1988. She first joined Gunster law firm, then Holland & Knight, and finally was recruited to GrayRobinson to lead the hospitality practice.
A single mother, Tanzer said there has been no time to play golf herself. She has been busy practicing law or parenting her son Alex Fisher, 19, now a freshman at Burnett Honors College at the University of Central Florida.
When asked, Tanzer did find time to write a book on her specialty. The result was “The Club Litigation Book – Keeping Clubs out of Court,” part of the Club Book series published by The Club Tax in 2008.
Ed Rehkopf of Club Resources International writes in his review of the book, “I learned more about club legal issues in the two hours it took to read the summarized material than during a 38-year career in hospitality management.”