The Ins and Outs of Practicing Real Estate Law

Published: Apr 14, 2021

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From financings to joint ventures to land use issues, and more, real estate lawyers tackle myriad areas, making the practice both challenging and exciting. For many, working in real estate law is exhilarating because they can see their efforts directly as they walk through their neighborhoods. But what is it really like to work as a real estate lawyer, and what can you do to prepare if it is a path you are considering?

In our guide, Practice Perspectives: Vault’s Guide to Legal Practice Areas, lawyers from top-ranked real estate practices share the ins and outs of working in this area, including a typical day, recommended training and skills, and tasks junior lawyers would perform. Read on for their insights.

What is a typical day like and/or what are some common tasks you perform?

Laurinda Martins, Partner—Fried Frank: While no day is the same, with each presenting new challenges, my typical day involves being actively engaged in various transactions, managing the teams working with me on those matters, mentoring the associates, and focusing on ways to continue to provide great service to our clients.

Jonathan Mechanic, Partner & Chairman of Real Estate Department—Fried Frank: My typical day is very busy, and I would not have it any other way. I carry a significant workload that requires me to juggle client and firm meetings, conference calls, and business development. I also attend many industry and charity events, some of which I am involved in directly and some of which I help support on behalf of our clients. I am on the Board of Trustees of NYU Law School, Chairman of the Furman Institute of NYU, and on the Executive Committee of the Board of Governors of the Real Estate Board of New York.

Bridgette Bolte, Associate—Goodwin: One of my favorite aspects of my practice is that every day is different. Some days feel very interactive and are filled with client calls and internal meetings. Other days, I spend a large part of my day at my desk drafting or reviewing a sophisticated transaction document or preparing an issues list for discussion with a client and negotiation with our client’s business counterpart. Most often, my days are a mix of both, with any remaining time spent with junior associates, working through diligence questions or preparing closing deliveries and managing deal-closing logistics.

Diana Brummer, Partner—Goodwin: This is a difficult question because there really is no typical day. My work is a combination of meeting with clients about new opportunities to work together, teeing up new trans- actions, reviewing documents that have been drafted by our fantastic associates, leading negotiations, training associates both formally and informally, co-chairing our Women’s Initiative, and troubleshooting issues, among other things.

Meghan Hottel-Cox, Senior Associate—Goulston & Storrs: At any given time, I am working on several zoning cases, usually at various stages in the process. I spend time most days drafting, reviewing architectural plans, meeting or having conference calls with clients and project teams, and meeting with city agencies. I might draft a memo to a client about a potential development on a particular site or draft a filing to persuade a District agency why they should approve my client’s project. Zoning is also a very people-based practice, so I often have calls and meetings with a client, our project team (including architects, civil engineers, and transportation consultants), and city agencies to provide a legal perspective on the project’s development. A few times a week, I also have community meetings and public hearings to explain our project to the public and secure approval of our plans. With such a variety, the work is always diverse and interesting, and I spend a good amount of time away from my desk.

Josh Winefsky, Partner—Kramer Levin: Organized chaos. Each morning, I make a list of the things that I will do that day, which typically includes a mix of drafting/revising documents and speaking with clients, colleagues, and opposing counsel. Typically, that list proves to be aspirational—unexpected issues arise, priorities get rearranged, and new deals come in. Through it all, my goal is to advance as much as possible and maintain regular communication with the people I work with and for. There is never a dull moment, and that is a big part of what makes my job fun.

What training, classes, experience, or skills development would you recommend to someone who wishes to enter your practice area?

Laurinda Martins, Partner—Fried Frank: Given the sophistication of our clients and their projects, as well as the complexity of the real estate industry, I would recommend anyone wanting to pursue a career in real estate law take classes in property law, tax, and bankruptcy. Incorporating strong research skills into the practice is also incredibly important. Real estate is heavily structured, so having a firm understanding of tax laws and issues as well as potential litigation risks is key to success.

Jonathan Mechanic, Partner & Chairman of Real Estate Department—Fried Frank: Students interested in New York real estate should read the real estate columns in the local papers—The Wall Street Journal’s “Property Report,” the real estate section in Sunday’s The New York Times, Steve Cuozzo’s column “Realty Check” in The New York Post, and Lois Weiss’s column “Between the Bricks” in The New York Post. Of course, an undergraduate degree in finance, economics, or urban planning doesn’t hurt either.

Bridgette Bolte, Associate—Goodwin: I would recommend taking an experiential business transaction class (such as contract drafting), as well as corporations and corporate finance. In addition, both secured transactions and tax would be useful background (though, admittedly, I took neither). Goodwin offers both business basics and real-estate-specific training to its junior associates. Coupled with experiential learning and on-the-job training, diligent and hardworking associates will be able to succeed in our practice group even if they did not take specific courses in law school.

Diana Brummer, Partner—Goodwin: For associates going into any kind of transactional practice, I always recommend an accounting class. However, I also think that for most of us, law school is the last component of our formal education, so take advantage of that opportunity to take classes in anything and everything that interests you. (My colleagues may disagree with me on this!)

What are some typical tasks that a junior lawyer would perform in this practice area?

Meghan Hottel-Cox, Senior Associate—Goulston & Storrs: As a junior real estate attorney, there are a variety of tasks you will perform to help clients. In sales and acquisitions, you will often review title and survey to get to know the property and alert the client to any issues. For any kind of transaction, you will get to know the deal documents by creating closing checklists and helping keep track of everything needed to close the deal. In land use law, you will draft narratives and exhibits for case filings, research legal questions that arise, and spend time reading the zoning and planning documents in the city to understand how they impact your projects. You will also regularly conduct site visits—as a land use attorney, it is always important to see and walk the property you’re working on. Nothing will help you understand the land as much as standing on it.

Josh Winefsky, Partner—Kramer Levin: Junior associates are generally staffed on deal teams with a dual purpose: to gain hands-on experience doing “nuts-and-bolts” assignments and to observe the habits and approaches of senior lawyers. Basic tasks (e.g., completing title and survey diligence, managing checklists, and preparing schedules and exhibits) establish a strong foundation for how real estate transactions are structured. A team setting allows a junior lawyer to learn both tangible and intangible skills by observing, while also creating a natural occasion for mentorship. Our group is eager to give any promising junior associate the opportunity to learn new tasks and take on additional and advanced responsibilities.

Click here to read more insights from these lawyers about their real estate practices—include types of cases and clients they represent—as well as Q&As from more than 100 lawyers across 24 other practice areas. (If you are a law student, you may have free access to the Practice Perspectives guide through your law school—check with your career services office for your login.) 

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