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Overview

Real estate lawyers work in a variety of areas, including purchases, sales, joint ventures, and financings for projects, as well as navigating the state and local land use regulations. Clients can include owners, developers, landlords, tenants, investors, REITs, and lenders involved in a real estate market. Real estate finance attorneys help to secure financing of residential and commercial buildings and complexes.  The practice can be similar to project finance but with different types of projects. Real estate finance attorneys are often drawn to the work because of the tangible result at the end of the day. Land use attorneys help developers get local and state approval for their projects. Attorneys will negotiate with various government entities and advise clients on regulations that affect their developments. Real estate law is practiced both in large and small law firms, and there are many in-house opportunities with the various players in commercial real estate markets.

Featured Q&A's
Get an insider's view on working in Real Estate from real lawyers in the practice area.
Jonathan L. Mechanic, Partner • Valerie Kelly, Partner
Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP

Describe your practice area and what it entails.

Jon: My practice, and that of the department, is broad and encompasses all types of commercial real estate transactions, including purchases and sales, joint ventures, borrower and lender-side financings, development deals, leasing on behalf of both landlords and tenants, and land use and zoning.

Valerie: Our department represents clients in all aspects of commercial real estate. My practice has a particular emphasis on acquisitions and dispositions and large commercial leases for both landlords and tenants in DC and NYC.

What types of clients do you represent?

Jon: We represent owners, developers, landlords, tenants, investors, REITs, and lenders, all of whom are active players in NYC’s real estate market. Brookfield, Google, SL Green Realty Corp., Resnick, RFR, Tishman Speyer, Related Companies, and Vornado Realty Trust are just a small sampling of the clients we represent.

Valerie: Our clients are some of the largest and most active players in the real estate market. I have worked on transactions for a number of landlords and developers—including RXR Realty, Carr Properties, and Tishman Speyer—and I have also worked with various tenants—including Ernst & Young, Evercore Partners, Broadcast Music Inc., and Legends.

What types of cases/deals do you work on?

Jon: We worked on a number of exciting deals in 2018. We continue to do a variety of work for Related Companies at Hudson Yards and Brookfield at Manhattan West and are representing Related and Vornado Realty Trust on the redevelopment of the James A. Farley post office building as part of the redevelopment of Penn Station. We are representing JP Morgan in various aspects of its planned 2.5-million-square-foot headquarters redevelopment at its 270 Park Avenue location. We advised Google in its US$2.4 billion acquisition of Chelsea Market in NYC, represented Maefield Development in its acquisition of 20 Times Square for approximately US$1.6 billion, advised Brookfield in its acquisition of a 100 percent leasehold interest in 666 Fifth Avenue’s office, and represented RXR Realty in connection with JetBlue’s proposed US$2-3 billion terminal expansion at JFK Airport.

We also advised various clients in real estate finance transactions. One example is representing Blackstone in its US$1.8 billion financing for The Spiral, a 2.8-million-square-foot trophy office building located in the Hudson Yards district of NYC.

Valerie: In addition to the deals Jon mentioned, I worked on some exciting leases this year. I represented Carr Properties and National Real Estate Advisors, as landlords, in their approximately 510,000-square-foot lease for State Street Bank’s global headquarters at One Congress in Boston, MA; RXR Realty, as landlord, in a number of its leases throughout NYC, including to law firm Cahill Gordon & Reindel in its lease of more than 200,000 square feet at 32 Old Slip in NYC; and Evercore in its 350,000-square-foot lease expansion and extension for its global headquarters at Park Avenue Plaza.

How did you choose this practice area?

Jon: I have been interested in real estate since I was a teenager. My father was a “part-time” real estate developer in New Jersey. When I was about 12, he bought a ShopRite, which had gone out of business, and he decided to convert it to an office use. I walked the site with him as they were reconfiguring it into an upscale office building. I knew then that I wanted to be involved in the real estate industry. After law school, I started working at Fried Frank and was fortunate to work with some great people who acted as teachers and mentors, fostering my love of the industry and the practice.

Valerie: In a way, the practice area found me because I met my mentors, Jon Mechanic and Franz Rassman—a partner in the DC office. Ninety percent of any job is the people that you get to work with, and I truly enjoy working with the Fried Frank real estate team. We get the joy of negotiating complicated, high-stakes transactions with repeat players. At the end of many of our deals, both sides win, and I find that incredibly satisfying.

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

Jon: 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 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. On Fridays during the spring, I teach a real estate transactions course at Harvard Law School.

Valerie: Sometimes, I work on one all-encompassing matter that requires most of my attention. Other times, I am managing multiple smaller matters. Most days include a lot of negotiating, drafting, counseling clients, and interacting with opposing counsel. I also devote a significant amount of time to training and advising junior attorneys. I am involved with pro bono work, including recently advising Sanctuary for Families on its relocation of its headquarters in NYC.

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

Jon: 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.

Valerie: I would recommend taking a course in negotiations during law school and the books Getting to Yes and Getting Past No. I also recommend taking real estate transactions courses that would give you a sampling of the different types of deals. A joint J.D./M.B.A. could also be beneficial if you want to eventually transition into the business side of real estate.

What is the most challenging aspect of your practice area?

Jon: Each deal is different and presents its own set of challenges. We all strive to balance protecting our client’s interests and addressing the other side’s legitimate concerns to end up with a deal that is consummated. The uniqueness of each deal is what makes the practice so exciting.

Valerie: Managing the needs and time constraints of clients and closing complex deals under pressure is one of the most challenging aspects of my work, but that is also what makes this practice so exciting.

What do you like best about your practice area?

Jon: The landscape of NYC is constantly changing. I can be in a car or walking down the street and see any number of buildings where we have been involved in the acquisition, development, leasing, financing, or some other aspect of the building’s history.

Among those buildings are the Westside Yards (including developments by Related, Brookfield, and Tishman Speyer), various buildings in Times Square, Penn Station, JFK Airport, Chelsea Market, the GM Building, The Plaza Hotel, Brookfield Place, One World Trade Center, 200 Park Avenue, 299 Park Avenue, 550 Madison Avenue (the SONY Building), the Empire State Building, and One New York Plaza—the location of our firm’s headquarters.

And, of course, we travel into Brooklyn to Metro-Tech, The Barclays Center, and Greenpoint Landing, as well as Long Island City in Queens, and so on. After being a part of this industry for so many years, it has made me feel totally connected to the city in a way that I never dreamed possible.

Valerie: I like that our practice area affects skylines, communities, and the streets of different cities around the country (and sometimes, the world). I enjoy that when I go around the corner from my office to get a sandwich at the Jimmy John’s, that I represented the landlord on the lease for that space; when I look at One World Trade Center, that I represented Legends in One World Observatory; or when I look at the Boston skyline after One Congress is constructed, that I helped my client change the Boston skyline.

What misconceptions exist about your practice area?

Jon: I think the biggest misconception about real estate is that the work may not be exciting. I never imagined that it would be such a vibrant and engaging practice. I love being able to walk around the city and see the many ways in which I have participated in changing its face. What could be more satisfying? To me, nothing.

Valerie: I think there is a misconception that real estate work can be repetitive and boring, but I have found that every deal has an interesting issue that requires me to be creative, use my problem-solving skills, and take a business-minded approach.

What is unique about this practice area at your firm?

Jon: We have an incredibly talented, close-knit group that feels more like an extended family. We enjoy each other’s company. That feeling has grown stronger with each year, even as the group has grown in size. We are capable of representing parties on any side of a transaction and in any type of deal. And we expanded—we now have the number one land use group in NYC, a highly sophisticated lending practice, and a vibrant REIT practice. I do not know of any other group that approaches the depth and breadth of our practice.

Valerie: We are a Fried Frank real estate family! Our group in DC has grown from two attorneys to seven attorneys, and we keep growing. Our department has more than 100 attorneys, and we work seamlessly across offices together. We have one of the largest real estate practices in the country, and that allows us to have expertise that is hard to find at other firms.

Jonathan L. Mechanic, Partner & Chairman—Real Estate Department, and Valerie Kelly, Partner—Real Estate Department

Jonathan L. (“Jon”) Mechanic is a partner in, and chairman of, Fried Frank’s Real Estate department. He earned his B.A. from Brandeis University, magna cum laude, and his J.D. from New York University School of Law, graduating Order of the Coif. He is admitted to practice law in the State of New York.

Valerie Kelly is a partner in Fried Frank’s Real Estate department. She received her B.A. from University of Florida, magna cum laude, and her J.D. from University of Chicago Law School. She is admitted to practice in the District of Columbia, New York, and Florida.

George W. Evans III, Associate
Goulston & Storrs PC

Describe your practice area and what it entails.

The Real Estate group at Goulston & Storrs works across all sectors of the real estate industry, covering a very wide range of deal sizes. We handle acquisitions, dispositions, joint ventures, debt capital markets, equity capital markets, bankruptcy, and litigation for multifamily, commercial, industrial, and mixed-use developers, owners, operators, investors, and lenders up and down the capital stack in Boston; New York; Washington, DC; and throughout the country.

What types of clients do you represent?

I represent a wide range of clients from family offices and New York developers like Silverback Development to national multifamily REITs and financial institutions like AvalonBay and State Street.

What types of cases/deals do you work on?

I have a fairly broad practice area within our Real Estate group. The largest parts of my practice are representing buyers and sellers of multifamily or mixed use properties in New York and across the country and joint venture work, representing both GP’s and LP’s. I frequently work on borrower side financings in connection with property acquisitions and joint ventures and also work on lender-side financings. Finally, I work on REIT securities offerings from time to time.

How did you choose this practice area?

I initially chose real estate because I’ve always been interested in architecture and urban development and because I liked deals that focus on a tangible asset. I came to Goulston & Storrs as a lateral associate in my fifth year. I had been in the real estate group at two previous firms, and I wanted to work at a firm with a strong local and national real estate practice that represents clients at all levels in the capital stack and in all sectors of the real estate industry. I also wanted to work for a firm where the real estate practice group was a core part of the firm and its prospects for future growth.

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

As a senior associate, I am the primary draftsperson on almost all deal documents, so I spend a good amount of time drafting purchase and sale agreements, joint venture agreements, and loan documents. I also frequently negotiate these deal documents, both with and without participation from partners. Many of our clients like to bring us into deals at an early stage, so I spend quite a bit of time discussing deal strategy and ownership structures with clients, and then I work closely with our Tax group in setting up ownership structures.

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

An understanding of real property is very important, so property law is an important class. And then it is important to spend time on developing skills to understand title and survey. A large part of the practice is drafting and negotiating contracts, so a strong understanding of contract law is also important. In my practice, assets are most commonly owned by partnerships and limited liability companies, so I would recommend a strong understanding of the forms, powers, and limitations of business entities. Tax plays an important role in many real estate transactions, so understanding tax issues well enough to be able to flag them for tax specialists is very helpful. Finally, clients appreciate it when you understand their business objectives, so understanding net present value and the time value of money have been very helpful for me.

What is the most challenging aspect of practicing in this area?

The most challenging aspect of my real estate practice is balancing competing client demands. Law is a client service business, and it is essential to be responsive to your clients; nevertheless, it can be very difficult to balance the demands of needing to get two contracts out at the same time or closing multiple transactions. Fortunately, our firm is quite supportive and collaborative, and my colleagues are willing to help provide the extra hands needed to provide excellent work product for our clients.

What do you like best about your practice area?

I find real estate fascinating. We all need shelter, and where and how buildings are built has a huge impact on where we live, where we work, and how we get around. I love that my deals almost always focus on a physical property that you can see, so I generally start each deal by checking Google Maps and Google Earth to get a sense of the property and its surroundings. I always appreciate the opportunity to walk a site because that gives you an even better understanding of your client’s plans. Finally, I love seeing and walking around inside buildings for which I’ve worked on the deal. I’m sure my wife gets tired of me pointing these buildings out to her, but I never do!

What is unique about this practice area at your firm?

The scope and quality of the Real Estate group at Goulston & Storrs is unique. We have one of the largest real estate practice groups in the country, and we are very strong players in our local markets of Boston; New York; and Washington, DC, which are some of the most exciting markets in the country. We also have a truly national practice. In addition to geographic scope, we also work on all types of deals, including “dirt” development work, sales, acquisitions, financing on both the lender and borrower side, joint venture investments, and other means of equity financing. Finally, we work at a very wide range of price points, which means that junior associates are frequently able to gain valuable experience earlier in their careers by taking larger roles in smaller deals.

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

Our junior lawyers typically start by working on title and survey and other diligence matters and prepare basic corporate documents, such as simple limited liability company agreements.They also authorize resolutions and ancillary deal documents like bills of sale and assignments. Junior lawyers can expect to receive more complex assignments and more responsibility as they demonstrate capacity. We want to challenge our junior lawyers to operate outside of their comfort areas, while providing close support and instruction to ensure that our junior lawyers have the resources they need to learn effectively and perform at a high level.

George W. Evans III, Associate—Real Estate

George Evans is a real estate attorney who represents owners, operators, developers, borrowers, investors, lenders, landlords, and tenants. George works closely with clients to help them achieve their objectives whether they are acquiring, financing, investing in, selling, or leasing multifamily, office, or hospitality assets across the United States. In doing so, George negotiates and structures joint ventures for the acquisition or repositioning of properties. He also handles all aspects of drafting, negotiating, and filing commercial condominium documents. George has experience advising publicly traded REITs on securities law matters as well.

Meigan Serle, Associate
Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP

Describe your practice area and what it entails.

I am a real estate associate with a focus on condominium and cooperative law. There are two major components to my practice area. The first is advising clients on the planning, structuring, and implementation of sophisticated ownership regimes. This involves drafting and negotiating condominium and cooperative governing documents and advising clients as to the applicable legal and regulatory requirements. I also facilitate public and non-public offerings through the preparation and filing of offering plans and applications for no-action letters with the Attorney General’s Office. This allows our clients to sell in New York or to New Yorkers as early in the construction process as possible.

What types of clients do you represent?

My clients are real estate developers, owners, and lenders, including The Related Companies, Toll Brothers, Ceruzzi Properties, HFZ Capital Group, Extell Development Company, universities, and telecommunications providers.

What types of cases/deals do you work on?

One of the best aspects of my practice area is that I have the opportunity to work on some of the most exciting, innovative, and complex real estate deals in the country. I’m currently representing The Related Companies and Oxford Properties in their development of Hudson Yards, the largest private real estate development in the United States. When completed, the 28-acre, $18 billion project in midtown Manhattan is anticipated to include more than 18 million square feet of commercial and residential space, five state-of-the-art office towers, more than 100 shops, a collection of restaurants, approximately 5,000 residences, a unique cultural space, 14 acres of public open space, a 750-seat public school, and a luxury hotel with approximately 200 rooms. My work on the project to date involves assisting with both the creation of a project-wide ownership association and management regime that will govern and facilitate the interconnectivity of all the individual development parcels on the site and the distinct condominium structures for each of the project’s individual buildings. I also prepared public offerings of more than $1 billion for the residential units.  

How did you decide to practice in your area?

As a law student, I thought I wanted to be a litigator. After graduation, I quickly realized that I wanted to turn my passion for real estate into a legal career.

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

Our practice is client driven; if a client comes up with a novel idea, conceptualizing solutions to make that a reality will govern my day. I spend most of my time speaking with developers, architects, and marketing teams, and it is part of my job to translate the information they provide about how a building is being designed into legal text and to implement a legal structure. I review floor plans, draft offering prospectus and governing documents, ensure marketing materials comply with regulatory requirements, negotiate provisions with opposing sides, and interface with the attorney general’s office.

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

Real estate and property classes are certainly helpful for law students hoping to work in real estate law. It is very easy to get caught up in law school with the litigation side of law; I would recommend a student diversify his or her course load with negotiation, writing, and even business courses. It is also useful to join a journal. Journals allow law students to develop strong writing skills and gain the ability to explain complex topics to readers who are less familiar with that legal issue.

What is the most challenging aspect of practicing in this area?

The most challenging aspect of practicing in this field is also what makes it so exciting. Our transactions are client driven, so each day is slightly unpredictable and unexpected. No two developments are identical; there is no “form.” We need to approach each project with unique, creative, and innovative solutions to help each individual client accomplish its goals.

What do you like best about your practice area?

The best part of my practice area is the people I interact with. Everyone is really passionate about what they do. The clients are innovative and reshaping New York City, and we assist them in redefining the skyline. My colleagues are smart, hardworking, and compassionate. I love that I do not need to be argumentative to be successful and am able to be involved in the business or design aspects of real estate developments, many of which I walk by every day.

What is unique about this practice area at your firm?

By working at Kramer Levin, I have gained expertise in condominium and cooperative law, a very niche area of real estate law. With these skills, I am able to play a more active role and provide guidance on many aspects of real estate transactions. Kramer Levin is a large law firm with a small-firm feel. We have an open-door practice, and I am just as comfortable interacting with fellow associates as I am with partners.

How important is collaboration in effectively practicing real estate law?

Real estate transactions often have tax, corporate, or land use impacts. Collaboration with experts in these other areas of law is often crucial to the real estate deal. In order to close a deal or transaction, everyone must work cooperatively to achieve that goal. Also, you often work with the same people on a variety of developments (although, sometimes in different capacities), and there is a sense of collegiality.

Meigan Serle, Associate—Real Estate

Meigan Serle is an associate in the firm’s Real Estate practice in the New York office. She represents leading developers and investors in luxury and mixed-use commercial, retail, and residential projects, with a particular focus on condominiums and cooperatives. She guides clients through all phases of the planning, development, structuring, and implementation of sophisticated ownership, operation, and management regimes, as well as the registration, marketing, and sale of luxury and mixed-used condominium and cooperative public and non-public offerings. During her time at Kramer Levin, she has played an integral role in implementing creative condominium solutions for her clients and facilitating the creation and sale of many of the marquee luxury condominium and cooperative offerings in New York City. Ms. Serle graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. degree from Syracuse University and holds a J.D. from Cornell Law School, where she served as Senior Notes Editor of the International Law Journal. New York Super Lawyers named Ms. Serle a Rising Star in Real Estate in 2018.

Nathalia Bernardo, Partner
Paul Hastings LLP

Describe your practice area and what it entails.

My practice focuses on the representation of capital providers and real estate developers, operators, and managers of real estate investments, with a particular focus on joint ventures (including all related transaction agreements, such as asset management, property management, and development agreements).

What types of clients do you represent?

I represent both “sides” of real estate transactions—real estate private equity funds, institutional investors, family offices, and other sophisticated investors, on the one hand, and real estate managers and developers, on the other hand. As examples, I have represented Fisher Brothers; The City Investment Fund, L.P.; and William Macklowe Company.

What types of cases/deals do you work on?

I am fortunate to be in a position to work on complex, complicated, and really interesting real estate transactions, both domestic and foreign. I have represented a real estate fund in its sale of a 4,000-unit residential apartment portfolio in New York City, an institutional investor’s acquisition of unsold condominium units in Florida, a family office’s restructuring and acquisition of additional ownership interests in two New York City office buildings, a real estate fund’s acquisition of a tract of land for development in Africa, and a foreign investor’s acquisition of stakes in two residential buildings in Brooklyn, NY.

How did you choose this practice area?

I went to law school with the goal of becoming a corporate attorney. I started in Paul Hastings’ Corporate department, and I quickly started working with a partner who represented public company real estate clients in corporate transactions and also represented some private equity clients in real estate joint ventures. I found my love for joint venture work through these deals, and I eventually switched groups within the firm to join the Real Estate department.

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

It completely varies day to day and week to week, and that’s the best part! I meet with clients, draft documents, negotiate with counterparties, work with junior attorneys, and consult with other departments within the firm on thorny issues. I rarely do the exact same thing two days in a row.

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

I highly recommend a business organizations/corporations class, preferably before starting as a summer associate. It will help you to understand how decisions are made within your clients’ organizations, and you will begin to learn the “lingo” for corporate transactions, which will help you to participate early on in client conversations. I also recommend taking tax, which is often the driving force behind deal structuring.

What is the most challenging aspect of your practice area?

As with any aspect of law, there are attorneys that bluster, condescend, and put on a show in order to make a point. In my experience, the best antidote to these personalities is to negotiate forcefully but calmly, doing your best not to raise your voice or lower yourself to their level.

What do you like best about your practice area?

I love the fact that my deals are tangible. I can walk down streets in New York City and look up at the amazing buildings that my clients have built, bought, and sold. I also genuinely enjoy my clients—they are smart, creative, dynamic, nimble, and passionately engaged in their work.

What misconceptions exist about your practice area?

I’ve spoken to some people who think that real estate attorneys either read leases all day or just do residential closings. There certainly are attorneys whose practice areas focus on leasing and residential transactions, but the world of real estate is so much broader than that. I wish I had known that a commercial real estate practice is, in some ways, similar to a mergers & acquisitions corporate practice—I may have taken an interest much sooner, rather than starting in the Corporate department.

What is unique about this practice area at your firm?

What makes us unique is that we really, truly enjoy what we do every day. We also care for each other as human beings, not simply as mere colleagues. To be sure, there have been tough times during my tenure at the firm, but the attorneys in our group never lose sight of the ultimate goal of working together as a team to execute exciting and important deals for our clients.

Nathalia Bernardo, Partner—Real Estate

Nathalia Bernardo is a partner in the Real Estate practice of Paul Hastings and is based in the firm’s New York office. She counsels a wide variety of clients in commercial real estate transactions, including joint ventures, acquisitions and dispositions, development, and management. Ms. Bernardo also advises nonprofit organizations regarding real estate and other transactional matters. Notably, she advised the Intrepid Museum Foundation in its acquisition of Space Shuttle Enterprise from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Ms. Bernardo is an adjunct professor at Cornell Law School and an adjunct assistant professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, where she teaches courses on transactional real estate.

Ms. Bernardo received her B.B.A. from The George Washington University, summa cum laude, in 2001. She received her J.D. from Boston College Law School, cum laude, in 2004. Ms. Bernardo is admitted to practice in New York and New Jersey.

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