Real Estate Law

For the real estate lawyers on here (if there are any):

1) How satisfied have you been with your real estate law career so far? Any regrets?

2) How difficult is it to make partner at a biglaw firm if you're already a RE associate?

Currently in REPE, but having done a lot of soul searching recently, I think RE law is the best fit for me and thinking of going back to law school. TIA.

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Comments (43)

Feb 17, 2021 - 9:37am

Associate 2 in RE - Comm

For the real estate lawyers on here (if there are any):

1) How satisfied have you been with your real estate law career so far? Any regrets?

2) How difficult is it to make partner at a biglaw firm if you're already a RE associate?

Currently in REPE, but having done a lot of soul searching recently, I think RE law is the best fit for me and thinking of going back to law school. TIA.

I am someone who left the industry. I was not in a real estate group, I do have friends who are still in it. 
 

1. I have written more extensively on this elsewhere, most attorneys who had a serious job before (like REPE) regret law school entirely. I have yet to meet one front office financier, consultant, or person in tech who went to law school and would do it over again. Three years with no income and being flooded with useless material in classes is miserable. Out of 300 classmates, no way more than ten have met your success by being on the buy side, law school attracts some massive cretins. Real estate law you'd be a bit player, never the main action. Most likely you support an M&A or corporate group on a small part of a larger transaction (such as change of control provisions). Land use is a specialized niche and there's no guarantee, even at a T14, that you can break in. 
 

2. At a respectable "Big Law" firm, someone has to die or a very large new client has to be brought in (good luck, market is saturated). Odds are you won't be equity partners, but a service/non equity partner if you even get that far. Most are forced out 2-6 years in, you almost certainly won't be made partner (https://www.top-law-schools.com/forums/viewtopic.php?f=4&t=261392)

  • Associate 2 in RE - Comm
Feb 17, 2021 - 1:50pm

Appreciate the response. Sure, 3 years of no income isn't ideal, but I'd venture to say the biglaw pay scale is more generous than 90%+ of real estate jobs out there, with the only exceptions being: 1) a top opportunistic REPE firm (nothing against them, but not say LaSalle), or 2) a role that gives significant equity in successful deals (success being by no means guaranteed). Not to mention a lot of REPE roles (mine included) and REIB roles are equally or even more "up or out" than RE law - it seems like RE law (given one's good at it) is a better risk adjusted path than other high paying RE-related positions. After a lot of self reflection, I've come to realize that being the "main action" or risk taker / principal isn't important to me, and that I'm very happy being a servicer (and cashing PPP checks). For the few RE attorneys you know that went back to law school and are actually enjoying the practice, is there anything that separates them from the rest (personality or otherwise)? Thanks again.

Feb 17, 2021 - 2:51pm

Appreciate the response. Sure, 3 years of no income isn't ideal, but I'd venture to say the biglaw pay scale is more generous than 90%+ of real estate jobs out there, with the only exceptions being: 1) a top opportunistic REPE firm (nothing against them, but not say LaSalle), or 2) a role that gives significant equity in successful deals (success being by no means guaranteed). Not to mention a lot of REPE roles (mine included) and REIB roles are equally or even more "up or out" than RE law - it seems like RE law (given one's good at it) is a better risk adjusted path than other high paying RE-related positions. After a lot of self reflection, I've come to realize that being the "main action" or risk taker / principal isn't important to me, and that I'm very happy taking a servicer (and cashing PPP checks). For the few RE attorneys you know that went back to law school and are actually enjoying the practice, is there anything that separates them from the rest (personality or otherwise)? Thanks again.

1. It is more generous, but it lasts 2-6 years.  Most associates leave or are forced out by then and take a very steep paycut to go in-house, where the work is more montonous and mind-numbing.  The goal of making partner at a big law firm is unrealistic for almost all people entering law school, do not bother to think about those PPP checks because it is well outside of your control and luck is crucial.

2. It is not as risk-adjusted as one would conclude.  There are tons of in-house roles for cap markets, M&A, general corporate, employment etc.  There are very few for real estate, if you get as far as being a RE associate at a big law firm.  Most large cities have 1-3 firms that have a built-out real estate practice, it is considered niche.  You will go into OCI for big law recruiting and the vast majority of positions will be for corporate or commercial litigation departments.  Your experience in REPE will not matter much at all to the real estate firms compared to your class rank and law school (in fact it may hurt you, some lawyers really do not like people with substantive prior work experience and get defensive; yes, I know this is immature and bizarre).  With the filtering mechanisms of (1) OCI making RE unlikely, (2) the overhwelming odds of not making partner, and (3) the scarcity of in-house RE roles, you are running the real risk of being over-specialized with a skillset that is difficult to market or allow you to go off on your own.

3. Almost no one enjoys transactional law (as opposed to litigation, which some do enjoy).  What makes it bearable or not is whether you can deal with boring minutiae for over 1,800 billable hours a year (usually more) and what other options you had.  The people most pleased with law had no debtload (most law students and recent grads will have six figures of debt, it is the elephant in the room), could not conceive of another path (they could have if they brainstormed for a couple of hours), and had poor undergrad/professional credentials.  Those who had other options regret it when they are being honest (get them drunk and they'll say they wanted IB or REPE or tech or something they probably were not qualified for).  Every.  Single.  One.

Feb 17, 2021 - 4:20pm

Post above is probably dark enough but after working with RE lawyers at fancy firms I find myself often saying "wow I'm glad I don't have that job". I don't care how good the money is, the hours are brutal and so is the work. There is so much about that job that seems horrible to me.

I will say I highly admire the good attorneys I work with, they are some of the sharpest and hardest working folks out there. A good lawyer is worth every penny.

I would think really hard about this and talk to as many people as you can.

Feb 17, 2021 - 4:31pm

Yes. The hours are brutal (not as bad as a lot of finance roles at the earlier stages), the issue is the hours do not get much better as you progress. Partners work around the clock and still have billable hours. Within those hours, though, the work is unbelievably dull. Being an excel monkey is better than a redline Word monkey any day, hour for hour it is a much better way to operate. 

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Feb 17, 2021 - 4:42pm

At a 10,000 foot, anecdotal view:

I work with both in-house and national firm attorneys daily on PSA, mortgage and leasing. To me it seems like the intellectual equivalent of shoveling coal in a furnace. These people WORK and RE transaction law is mind numbing. You say you are in REPE (whatever that means) but be specific with us, what are you really doing and what are your prospects. Because leaving a real REPE gig to go back to law school sounds awful and awfully silly.

  • Associate 2 in RE - Comm
Feb 17, 2021 - 5:09pm

Thanks. Currently working on the AM side for an Angelo Gordon / Square Mile type firm, not deal side. Have favorable prospects for moving up the AM ladder, but I'm largely an economic creature, and senior AM professionals at my firm with decades of experience (excluding the AM head) top out at ~$400-$500k-ish max (i.e. what a biglaw associate makes in Yr 5-6). Long hours / dull work / being on call don't faze me, and I'm more or less familiar with the type of work national firm attorneys do, having interacted with them in my current role. And all the work we've shoveled them, I honestly think I can do well. Also have a few junior corp law associate friends (albeit in M&A and finance) that are pretty satisfied with their roles. Given a desire to progress into a potentially higher paying role down the line without taking entrepreneurship risk, looking at law school for RE law or b-school for REIB.

Feb 17, 2021 - 5:16pm

People say law school teaches you to think, this is ad material the profession puts out because they don't teach anything useful over the three years (it is almost all appellate case analysis, most trial attorneys do not touch appellate matters, let alone transactional attorneys). B school can be a two year break and somewhat of a joke, but the classes I took there to avoid law school were far more tangible and worth the money. 
 

if you go to Harvard law more if your classmates will make under 300k than over 300k ten years out. Stay in your role if you can. 

Feb 17, 2021 - 5:25pm

You are comparing apples to oranges friend. If an associate is making 500k, its because they are in NYC, top tier law school, top ~10% of their peer group even within NYC law firms and working like a fucking jamoke.

I don't pretend to know the hours that go into debt AM but I refuse to believe its even close to what my friends go through at Skadden and Wachtell.

I don't know, feels like a "grass is greener" thing.

@T30Graduate Please confirm or deny

  • Developer in RE - Comm
Feb 18, 2021 - 9:01am

Sounds like you made your decision already. You came to the wrong forum to ask for support my friend. But I'll add my two cents. 
Seems you like law so go for it. Worst case, you go into big law then realize oh shit I want all that entrepreneurial risks etc, you can go back to the principal side strapped with tons of legal knowledge. I've seen plenty of C level folks on buyside who were lawyers by trade. Totally doable. Life is short, don't spend time doing AM work while dreaming about being a lawyer, that shit just kills you. You said you have the numbers to get into top lschool so what's stopping you from doing what you enjoy? Good luck and enjoy law school!

  • Analyst 1 in S&T - Equities
Feb 18, 2021 - 9:09am

You will get absolutely biased responses here so you should ask the same type of question in the law school forums. Lots of people are happy in their law careers and most have higher job security than those in finance. Its all about personality, though. 

Becoming partner at a law firm is equivalent to becoming MD at a bank. Its as hard, as unlikely. So not sure why everyone paints the picture that its impossible? or absurdly hard? You just have to want it. Same way most IB analysts leave after 2 years, most law associates jump ship as well.

This is all from a top law school perspective. As long as you go to one of the top 3-5 law schools, you are set, if that's what you want. You will have a path towards partnership, you will make good money. Don't know how much you will make, but I truly believe that money comes with how good you are at your job. If you're the best attorney in town, you'll kick everyone's ass in terms of comp. Its all perspective. do what you want. 

Feb 18, 2021 - 9:29am

You will get absolutely biased responses here so you should ask the same type of question in the law school forums. Lots of people are happy in their law careers and most have higher job security than those in finance. Its all about personality, though. 

Becoming partner at a law firm is equivalent to becoming MD at a bank. Its as hard, as unlikely. So not sure why everyone paints the picture that its impossible? or absurdly hard? You just have to want it. Same way most IB analysts leave after 2 years, most law associates jump ship as well.

This is all from a top law school perspective. As long as you go to one of the top 3-5 law schools, you are set, if that's what you want. You will have a path towards partnership, you will make good money. Don't know how much you will make, but I truly believe that money comes with how good you are at your job. If you're the best attorney in town, you'll kick everyone's ass in terms of comp. Its all perspective. do what you want. 

1. Most do not have greater job security. De-equitization is real at the partnership level. Alcohol/depression rates among corporate attorneys are some of the highest. Those who are happy had no other options and don't know any better. 
2. The law school forums, aside from their bias, cannot give accurate advice. People in big law and T14 schools never had the chance to enter finance or consulting or the desirable jobs discussed here. Even at the associate level, they have no understanding of what a banker or asset manager does day to day. It is a very parochial bunch, just be cautious if you go on TLS or Reddit because you are dealing with a humanities major from a non-target school with no skills (you'd be shocked how many students at HLS worked menial jobs before entering; not knocking them for this, solely pointing out how it's not as white collar as you'd think). 
3. it is not about being good at your job. Most incoming associates at a reputable firm can do the work well, it is like an 8th grade spelling bee contest among PhDs. Transactional law is pretty simple and is all about being organized (a low bar). This, and the fact the legal industry never recovered from 2001 or 2008 while most industries did, is a recipe to make partnership a game of luck. All business has become institutionalized and there are no growth areas. A partner has to die or another firm collapse for you to make partner. 

  • Analyst 1 in S&T - Equities
Feb 18, 2021 - 9:36am

C'mon... tell me you see the ironies in this post. So don't listen to what law students/lawers have to say since they haven't been in finance but yes listen to junior finance employees with no first-hand law experience? And don't believe someone if they say they are happy, as they just haven't seen greener pastures? Man... 

I know transactional law is easy at junior levels. So is formatting PPT slides all day. Its the hours and burnout that get you. You really can't generalize a whole industry and say alcoholism levels are through the roof. I bet, per capita, finance folks take the cake on $ spent on drugs/alcohol/vices. This post literally proves my point that the advice here is really biased. 

Again, I'm not saying law is better. My point is that some people enjoy it. Lots have job security and make a hell of a living. Just because you find it boring doesn't mean someone else will. 

Feb 19, 2021 - 3:06pm

Becoming partner at a law firm is equivalent to becoming MD at a bank. Its as hard, as unlikely. So not sure why everyone paints the picture that its impossible? or absurdly hard? You just have to want it. Same way most IB analysts leave after 2 years, most law associates jump ship as well.

... If you're the best attorney in town, you'll kick everyone's ass in terms of comp. Its all perspective. do what you want. 

The point has been beaten to death already, but I'll add here that wanting it/working for it and being the best lawyer is not sufficient at many firms. For a lot of the most lucrative firms, they are lucrative because they keep their partnership ranks lean.  

As for being a good lawyer, that helps, but it's neither necessary nor sufficient. I've seen really good lawyers get pushed out of firms before making partner and I've dealt with some partners who are really bad lawyers. At a certain point, being a partner is about production and not being the best at law or negotiations.

I'm only hammering this point home because a lot of people go into the law thinking that if they work hard and don't quit, they'll make it. But that's only true at some firms-many firms have an up or out model where you get kicked out no matter how good you are at your job or how hard you work.

Feb 18, 2021 - 9:16am

Sounds like you just want people to tell you want you want to hear as in, Law School is magnificent and being a RE lawyer is the most fun job in the world which is the exact opposite of what is being said here.

You do what you want. If it's RE law then by all means go for it. Sounds like you already made that decision.

  • Analyst 1 in IB - Gen
Feb 18, 2021 - 10:33am

Do whatever you want.Not like you're going to be homeless if you end up going to a top law school and then biglaw.

At the end of the day, the information about law careers is out there. Do your research and make an informed decision. Don't just listen to naysayers like T30Graduate and take their word for it. Use your brain and take the reigns of your own career.

Feb 18, 2021 - 11:11am

Do whatever you want.Not like you're going to be homeless if you end up going to a top law school and then biglaw.

At the end of the day, the information about law careers is out there. Do your research and make an informed decision. Don't just listen to naysayers like T30Graduate and take their word for it. Use your brain and take the reigns of your own career.

1. The data is not always out there. Many law schools, including some prestigious ones, have been sued for doctoring the books. 
2. The two positions here are (a) never choose RE law over REPE and (b) do some research and figure it out on your own.  Why do you think "(c) choose RE law over REPE" is not voiced, and that no practicing real estate attorney would advise this unless in the most desirable land use niche (which is less likely than advancing within REPE)?

3. You are an analyst, so you have some friends from undergrad in debt. Tell those friends they have an extra six figures on top of it from grad school and see how they like it. Your 32 year old first year big law associate is not homeless, but he has two roommates, is paying massive taxes with no deduction on student loans, and has no choice but to keep working in big law because of the debt. This is not even the worst case scenario. 

  • Associate 2 in RE - Comm
Feb 18, 2021 - 1:02pm

No chill general corporate role has a path to 7 figures a year, and very few MSRED grad roles (i.e. at developers) can get there without incurring principal risk. I understand that the REIB / RE law path is risky as well (career progression / climbing the corporate ladder risk), and that's something I'll have to weigh myself. More importantly, from all the research and soul searching I've done, I think I'd make a much better RE lawyer than banker / developer / capital provider / etc, and IMO one's prospects for climbing the corporate ladder are a lot better when they're good at something. Add the fact that with my stats I should be able to get into a #10-#20 law school (UCLA, Georgetown, UT Austin level) with a full ride, without having to incur any debt, and the idea becomes even more attractive.

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Feb 18, 2021 - 4:49pm

I'm a commercial RE lawyer (about 5 years of practice at a large firm) considering transitioning to RE acquisitions, largely because I think the experience will be helpful in buying my own properties later. There's a lot of doom and gloom in this thread, but here's the rundown from someone who's actually worked as an RE lawyer in big law for several years:

1. Hours are generally more predictable than corporate/commercial and securities work. Fire drills do arise but the due diligence and closing periods are longer in RE than for most corporate transactions.

2. Residential RE can be monotonous but commercial RE can be very intellectually stimulating. Deals, leases, and developments are all legally-intensive processes and can involve a lot of creative maneuvering and pitfalls to avoid. Don't believe a non-lawyer when they say they can do a lawyer's job. They'll pick up some of the stuff through osmosis but they don't even know what they don't know. I salivate when I get to negotiate against a non-lawyer because I'm going to take them to the cleaner on most points (as most good lawyers will).

3. In some markets, you're the big dog where RE is a huge part of the economy and you bring in your own deals. This is where I work. Our firm has a lot of RE partners and upward mobility and we're one of the most profitable groups. In other markets and firms, you're just a service lawyer doing the small RE portion of a larger M&A transaction (more of a big city east coast thing). If I stay at my firm a few more years, I'm almost certain I'll make partner.

4. The worst parts about being a lawyer are 1. The law school debt (minimize to extent you can), 2. Billable hour targets (you actually have to work instead of lollygag, but on the flop side, once you hit target you can take your foot off the gas), 3. Urgent client demands (I find lawyers are often one of the last people on the deal team to find out something needs to be done, and while the client is anxious about a late night/weekend deliverable, the lawyer is the one actually working on it).

5. Law is a career for risk averse people, with a higher salary floor than most professions and a well-defined path to yearly raises, albeit a lower ceiling than high finance or making it big as an entrepreneur, because your output is tied to hours billed (by yourself and the associates under you if you're a partner)

Overall, I'm quite happy with my job and am still unsure if I want to leave for acquisitions. I'd like to buy my own commercial properties in the future but I have a pretty good shot at making partner at my firm in a few years. Oh well, life is all about trade offs. Feel free to PM me if you you have any specific questions.

Feb 19, 2021 - 2:48pm

RE_Lawyer

I'm a commercial RE lawyer (about 5 years of practice at a large firm) considering transitioning to RE acquisitions, largely because I think the experience will be helpful in buying my own properties later. There's a lot of doom and gloom in this thread, but here's the rundown from someone who's actually worked as an RE lawyer in big law for several years:

1. Hours are generally more predictable than corporate/commercial and securities work. Fire drills do arise but the due diligence and closing periods are longer in RE than for most corporate transactions.

2. Residential RE can be monotonous but commercial RE can be very intellectually stimulating. Deals, leases, and developments are all legally-intensive processes and can involve a lot of creative maneuvering and pitfalls to avoid. Don't believe a non-lawyer when they say they can do a lawyer's job. They'll pick up some of the stuff through osmosis but they don't even know what they don't know. I salivate when I get to negotiate against a non-lawyer because I'm going to take them to the cleaner on most points (as most good lawyers will).

3. In some markets, you're the big dog where RE is a huge part of the economy and you bring in your own deals. This is where I work. Our firm has a lot of RE partners and upward mobility and we're one of the most profitable groups. In other markets and firms, you're just a service lawyer doing the small RE portion of a larger M&A transaction (more of a big city east coast thing). If I stay at my firm a few more years, I'm almost certain I'll make partner.

4. The worst parts about being a lawyer are 1. The law school debt (minimize to extent you can), 2. Billable hour targets (you actually have to work instead of lollygag, but on the flop side, once you hit target you can take your foot off the gas), 3. Urgent client demands (I find lawyers are often one of the last people on the deal team to find out something needs to be done, and while the client is anxious about a late night/weekend deliverable, the lawyer is the one actually working on it).

5. Law is a career for risk averse people, with a higher salary floor than most professions and a well-defined path to yearly raises, albeit a lower ceiling than high finance or making it big as an entrepreneur, because your output is tied to hours billed (by yourself and the associates under you if you're a partner)

Overall, I'm quite happy with my job and am still unsure if I want to leave for acquisitions. I'd like to buy my own commercial properties in the future but I have a pretty good shot at making partner at my firm in a few years. Oh well, life is all about trade offs. Feel free to PM me if you you have any specific questions.

I know that I was pretty negative up above, but to be fair, I would probably have the same optimism as RE_Lawyer if I felt there was a chance at making partner at my firm.  I'm in a firm where someone basically needs to retire in order to be promoted.  The prospect of working your ass off and giving your all just to be kicked out in 6 years can be demoralizing at times... but the up or out model is nothing new to people on this forum.  
 

I don't disagree with anything in this comment. But I will re-emphasize that I really like the work that I do as a commercial RE lawyer. It is complex and challenging, and as RE_Lawyer mentioned above, commercial RE work is very legal driven. Even when you are in your first year of practice, the diligence that you are doing is very important and can drive the structure of the deal (or kill it altogether). If you're someone who likes working in the RE industry and you enjoy complexity, being a commercial RE lawyer is a great option. You just have to enter law school with eyes wide open (i.e., take into account all the doom and gloom above, but take it with a grain of salt, because us lawyers can be pretty negative sometimes).

Feb 20, 2021 - 6:26am

Agreed with this post, but I just want to clarify that I would still enjoy this job even if I didn't think I'd make partner. The work is intellectually stimulating, the clients and partners see me as a trusted advisor, and my coworkers are very nice people. I'm fully aware that things may change and I may be forced out of the firm in 2/3 years, but even despite that, I still quite enjoy my job. Even if I do eventually leave law for acquisitions, I wouldn't say I regret becoming a lawyer. I would still be grateful for the experience and having worked with this particular group of coworkers. Legal private practice is definitely an up-or-out model but it can still be a very rewarding and fulfilling career, particularly if you like reading and writing more than number crunching (as I do).

Feb 19, 2021 - 4:10pm

Just to give a slightly different take. 

I know a lot of developers who started out as lawyers.  Given how litigious the industry can be, being able to draft and review your own documents can save a ton of time and money on legal expenses.  Depending on your level of commitment, it also can give a lot of insight into how the sausage gets made, making it easier to move out of a strictly legal role and into a more business side role.  Especially if you're doing it on your own.  I see a lot of comments here saying that transactional law is really easy and is mostly about being organized - I would argue that real estate, especially development, is the same.  You need a lot of organizational and communication skills, but no specific expertise, and that sounds to me a lot like what lawyers do well.  Or good ones, at least.

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