The following is an excerpt from Practice Perspectives: Vault's Guide to Legal Practice Areas.
Julia L. Wachter—Special Counsel, Real Estate
Julia L. Wachter is a recently elevated special counsel in the firm’s Real Estate practice in the New York office. She represents major developers, property owners and investors in a range of real estate projects, with a particular emphasis on condominiums and cooperatives. Her work includes preparation and implementation of public offerings for some of the most notable luxury and super-luxury residential projects in recent years, as well as structuring complex commercial and mixed-use developments for sale in publicly offered and non-public transactions. During her time at Kramer Levin, she has played an integral role in implementing creative condominium solutions that have enabled clients to improve the value of their assets and structure their property ownership in accordance with their specific needs. Ms. Wachter graduated magna cum laude with a Bachelor of Science degree from Syracuse University and holds a J.D. from Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. New York Super Lawyers named Ms. Wachter a Rising Star in Real Estate from 2014 through 2017, and one of the Top Women Attorneys in New York from 2014 through 2017.
Please provide an overview of what, substantively, your practice area entails.
My practice concentrates in the area of condominiums and cooperatives. I advise clients on the planning, structuring and implementation of sophisticated co-ownership regimes, as well as on applicable legal and regulatory requirements, in order to facilitate public offerings and commercial sales, leases, acquisitions, financings, and tax incentives. My work includes crafting condominium and cooperative governing documentation, preparing and filing offering plans (and applications for no-action letters) with the New York State Department of Law, and drafting and negotiating purchase and sale contracts for both commercial and residential condominium and cooperative units. I have advised on a number of sophisticated and complex projects, both within and outside New York, including internationally.
What types of clients do you represent?
I represent mainly real estate developers and real estate investment firms, including The Related Companies, Extell Development Company, The Witkoff Group, Toll Brothers, Tishman Speyer, HFZ Capital Group and El-Ad Group, among others. However, I am also often called on to assist with condominium-related real estate transactions for property owners in fields such as education, health care and the arts. Recent clients in these areas include a prominent theater owner, a major university hospital and a New York City private school.
What types of cases/deals do you work on?
My recent experience includes creating a highly tailored condominium regime which made possible the redevelopment and restructuring of the Broadway Palace Theatre in Times Square, which is being lifted 30 feet in the air to create new separately owned retail and other spaces below; crafting a sophisticated condominium structure involving joint ownership of a property comprising a long-standing Park Avenue church and a development site, and the filing of offering materials for a super-luxury project to be developed on the development site; condominiumizing and preparing and filing offering materials for two prime midtown mixed-use retail and office buildings; creating unique leasehold condominium structures for not-for-profit tenant entities seeking to qualify for New York City real property tax exemptions; and preparing and filing offering materials for the condominium and cooperative conversion of numerous existing large-scale residential rentals as well as new-construction mixed-use residential luxury and super-luxury condominium developments in both Manhattan and Brooklyn.
How did you decide to practice in your area?
I always knew I wanted to be a transactional lawyer, and I sort of fell into condominium and cooperative law when I started working at a boutique law firm straight out of law school that specialized in this particular area. I immediately knew that I would enjoy pursuing a career in this area because it’s so gratifying to see a development project through from the beginning stages to completion, and many of the transactions provide a unique opportunity to be involved in every individual stage of a project, from the initial land acquisition to the project financing through construction and condominium or cooperative formation to the eventual sale of the individual condominium or cooperative units. The nature of my work gives me opportunities to foster relationships with clients in some of the most interesting fields and with each new deal enables me to gain new insights into the fascinating complexities of real estate development.
What is a typical day or week like in your practice area?
One of the most exciting things about my practice is that no two days are alike. Although my schedule is frequently filled with client meetings, calls and work-related events, each day tends to bring new and interesting challenges. That being said, a typical day or week comprises a mix of deal planning and structuring, internal and external team meetings, document drafting, negotiating with adversaries, and attending firm, department and professional development events, such as continuing legal education seminars and business development workshops. We all work hard, but we frequently take time out to celebrate birthdays, work anniversaries, marriages and babies. The Real Estate group convenes each month for a department lunch, and the Condominium team convenes twice a month for a breakfast at which we discuss trends in the market, analyze recent legal developments and share practice pointers. The firm also has monthly firmwide cocktail parties, and the Women’s Initiatives Committee (as well as other committees) runs interesting social and professional development events on a regular basis.
What is the best thing about your practice area?
One of the best things about my practice area is that Kramer Levin’s real estate clients are among the biggest names in real estate development in New York City. As a result, I have the privilege of being involved in some of the most exciting, high-profile and innovative deals. Our clients’ projects are frequently reported on in major publications, and when the projects are completed, I feel great satisfaction knowing I was part of something complex and tangible. My work has helped remake the New York City skyline!
What is the most challenging aspect of your practice area?
I am constantly on my toes because every new deal has its own set of unique and often unprecedented challenges. Creative thinking and collaboration are a must, and I’m so grateful to work with such an incredible team of lawyers, both within the Condominium group and across the broader Real Estate practice and other practice areas at the firm. I never stop learning, and that keeps things exciting.
What training, classes, experience, or skills development would you recommend to someone who wishes to enter your practice area?
Working hard in law school and at internships or summer associate positions can help prepare you for the level of diligence and attention to detail that is required in order to succeed in day-to-day real estate practice, but nothing compares to the experience one gets learning on the job. While the Real Estate group at Kramer Levin routinely goes toe-to-toe on transactions opposite its peer best-in-class firms in the city, our philosophy for delivering excellent and efficient work is a little different, as we do not overstaff matters. This gives junior associates an incredible opportunity to be more meaningfully and holistically engaged across the spectrum of issues that a high-stakes transaction entails. Senior lawyers, including partners, are enthusiastic teachers and readily available to discuss both legal issues and business realities. The deals we see regularly require creative thinking by every member of our team, and having an open mind and proactive attitude makes all the difference. I believe all of us are learning every day.
What misconceptions exist about your practice area? What do you wish you had known before joining your practice area?
I think one of the biggest misconceptions about working in real estate law in a large law firm is that it’s impossible to maintain a work-life balance, particularly as a working mother. When I returned from maternity leave after having my first child, I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to make it work. As it turns out, although juggling work and motherhood is not without its challenges, I believe that in the right set of circumstances, it truly is possible for women to both maintain a thriving career in big-law real estate and attend to the needs of their families. Fortunately, I work with partners who value family and have allowed me to be flexible with my schedule, and with co-workers who are always willing to pitch in for one another. Of course, I also have remote access!
What is unique about your practice area at your firm, and how has it evolved since you have been at the firm?
The Real Estate practice at Kramer Levin is unique in that the overwhelming proportion of work is for real estate clients from every side of a transaction (owner developers, equity investors, lenders), so we are adept at understanding the entire transaction, not only one side of it. In a way, Kramer Levin’s Real Estate department is a firm unto itself in that our matters originate in the department, and we are a major part of the firm’s overall presence, not an afterthought. At the same time, this capability resides within a market-leading, full-service law firm, which enables us to address all our clients’ needs. With respect to our Condominium practice, when I started at Kramer Levin in 2012, I was the only dedicated Condominium associate. Now I am one of many who work exclusively in the field. In the past five and a half years, we have grown our Condominium practice, and we now have more than ten lawyers who devote all or a significant portion of their practice to condominium-related work. In addition to the increased number of lawyers in the Condominium group, the nature of the work has changed such that, while we maintain a robust practice in the area of luxury residential condominium offerings, and while we have long been known for our ability to structure the most-complex co-ownership regimes, we are seeing an increasing number of transactional real estate deals that have the added complexity of involving condominium formations, whether to enable a property owner to finance, sell, lease or seek tax incentives for their property or otherwise to improve the value of their asset. There really is no other firm that matches the depth and breadth of the experience and capabilities we have developed, and I’m proud to have had a hand in that.
What activities do you enjoy when you are not in the office, and how do you make time for them?
Outside the office, I primarily enjoy spending quality time with my family, which includes my husband, my three-year-old son and our dog, a Yorkshire Terrier. We love to explore New York City’s parks, restaurants, museums and cultural events. Living in Manhattan, a short commute to the office, has enabled me to establish the ideal work-life balance. My family really enjoys all the city has to offer, and I’m able to maximize time at home and in the office!