The following is an excerpt from Practice Perspectives: Vault's Guide to Legal Practice Areas.
Meghan Hottel-Cox, Senior Associate — Real Estate
Meghan Hottel-Cox is a real estate attorney. She focuses her practice on land use, working with real estate developers and educational institutions on a range of zoning matters. She counsels clients through the full range of project analysis and strategy, helping them to reach their goals when acquiring zoning approvals for projects throughout the District of Columbia. Meghan regularly appears before the DC Board of Zoning Adjustment and the DC Zoning Commission on behalf of her clients. Meghan also handles real estate transactions, such as sales, acquisitions, leasing, and financing of commercial real estate properties. She assists clients with both single-asset and portfolio transactions involving multiple jurisdictions.
Describe your practice area and what it entails.
As a real estate attorney at Goulston & Storrs, I have been exposed to a broad real estate practice, including sales and acquisitions, leasing, finance, and development. As I’ve become more senior, I have concentrated my work on land use work in the District of Columbia. I now help clients build up the DC area while complying with zoning laws and other District regulations.
What types of clients do you represent?
As a Goulston attorney, I have the opportunity to represent a variety of clients. Many of my clients are private developers, both national and local, focused on mixed-use development in Washington, DC. I also represent local universities—including The George Washington University and Trinity Washington University—in their long-term campus-planning efforts, as well as local private schools as they develop their campuses. I also have the honor of representing several nonprofits on a pro bono basis, including Jubilee Housing, So Others Might Eat, and Martha’s Table, which all provide housing and services to low-income and housing-challenged families in the District.
What types of cases/deals do you work on?
I work on a variety of zoning and related matters, all within the District of Columbia. Most of my work involves projects seeking discretionary approval from District agencies, including representing our clients in community meetings and public hearings. I also will analyze a property’s future potential for clients as they look to purchase and review client’s architectural plans for compliance with District law. I also assist clients in related real estate transaction work, including drafting contracts connected to their use of property. One of my most exciting projects, which has included almost all of these different tasks, has been development of the Riverpoint project in Southwest DC. This project is a redevelopment of the old Coast Guard headquarters building to create an exciting riverfront, mixed-use building with residential and restaurant uses scheduled to open in 2020.
How did you choose this practice area?
I knew I wanted to go into something related to property from the first week of my 1L property class—I immediately found its rich history and ubiquity fascinating. As I took more classes in real estate, I found my passion, and as I started practicing, I was drawn to land use and development work. Being a “dirt lawyer” is incredibly appealing—you get to help shape the growth of the community around you, and you see projects, literally, from the ground up. It is incredibly satisfying to see the tangible results of your work, and, as a people-person, I love working with all of the various stakeholders on a project, from the client and our team to the community and city officials.
What is a typical day like and/or what are some common tasks you perform?
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.
What training, classes, experience, or skills development would you recommend to someone who wishes to enter your practice area?
In addition to the ever-important property class, those interested in real estate should consider broad exposure to real estate issues. These can include real-estate-specific classes like real estate transactions, real estate finance, and land use law, but also may include other related courses that real estate attorneys touch on regularly. These related courses could include tax and partnership tax, corporations, unincorporated business and agency law, secured transactions, environmental law, and administrative law. Skills and drafting courses are also incredibly useful and help prepare for the real-life practice of law beyond just the subject matter. For real estate, negotiations and contract-drafting skills are of utmost importance, so anything you can do to develop those skills will steer you on the right course.
What do you like best about your practice area?
I love the practicality of being a land use lawyer. When I walk around my city, I can see and usually understand why a building looks the way it does—the height, the design, the entrances. Additionally, working on projects in all areas of the District is a terrific way to get to know the city. I have had the opportunity to travel around the city with the most senior members of our practice; they can tell stories about neighborhoods, growth, and specific projects that show how integrated into Washington, DC, land use law is. Having that deep connection to the land and to our built environment is incredibly satisfying.
What is unique about your practice area at your firm?
The real estate practice at Goulston is unique in how collaborative it is. While collaboration and collegiality are important in any firm, the level of extensive outreach and help we seek and receive from colleagues is a highlight of Goulston as a firm. My smaller land use practice mirrors this collaboration. We have bi-weekly meetings to discuss all of our projects, we routinely show up at each other’s doors to talk through issues on cases, and we come up with answers to complicated issues together. Having such a collaborative process helps us and our clients by aggregating our knowledge to address every case.
What are some typical tasks that a junior lawyer would perform in this practice area?
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.
How important is collaboration in effectively practicing real estate law?
Collaboration is incredibly important to real estate law. First, internally within a practice group or firm, collaboration is essential to understand multiple perspectives on an issue, to efficiently answer questions that have come up before, and to let clients benefit from the breadth of your collective knowledge. But even beyond your individual group or firm, collaboration in real estate is crucial. In real estate transactions, all parties (almost) always want to get to closing. While interests are not aligned exactly, collaborating to understand and address each party’s issues and get the deal done is the ultimate goal. In land use, collaboration is vital to understanding client, consultant, community, and city perspectives to promote a project that is viable and will serve everyone’s interests, shepherding the project through to completion.