CAREER COUNSELOR'S CORNER 1. 800. 973. 1177
Life As a Real Estate Attorney
[by Erica Winter]
Inarguably one of the “hot” areas of law, real estate law has recently become a very attractive choice for law
students and established attorneys looking to switch practice areas. We talked to real estate attorneys in vari-
ous situations to see what this field can offer you.
Real estate attorneys often start off doing contracts (which O’Brien wrote), there are five New York Law School, a private stand-alone
something else. Possibly this is because real days in which the buyer can have an inspector law school in Manhattan, is drawn to real es-
estate law is a natural compliment to many look at the house, and for the buyer’s at- tate law because it shows actual results, and
other legal specialties - from international torney to contact the seller about any changes is not as theoretical as other areas of law. Mc-
corporate law, to divorce law, to environmen- requested before the sale goes through - a Colley likes the variety of practice within the
tal law. repair to a leaky faucet, or roof repairs, for specialty, including zoning, landlord-tenant,
example. real estate development, and the mortgage
Real estate law could add more to your grow- industry, and that “each specialization has a
ing practice. Or, this specialty could be a good Another part of the contract includes an whole field built around it, and a whole field of
way for you to move to another legal neighbor- “attorney approval clause,” which says that practitioners who specialize in those areas,”
hood if you are not happy with the one you’re the contract is subject to attorney approval. he says.
in right now. O’Brien has only had to invoke this a few
times. Once, a buyer loved the house, but the McColley started his school’s Real Estate Law
That’s what John O’Brien did. O’Brien, local schools could not meet the needs of her Association in 2002, which now has 80 mem-
alumnus of Loyola Law School in Chicago, has autistic child, so she had to change her mind bers. He sees real estate law as a good skill to
been practicing law for 32 years, 20 of those about the move. have under your belt, no matter what area of
in residential real estate law and estate law. law you want to pursue.
Now in solo practice, he is also the Chair of When the house is in the right condition for
the Illinois Real Estate Lawyers Association. sale, and everything else is in place, then One specialty, many ways.
O’Brien will attend the closing personally. He
O’Brien handled many divorce cases as a handles about 700 real estate deals a year, Real estate law is a good specialty to combine
young attorney. It was “no fun” to work in such which means that he could easily have more with others, says Lisa Abrams. It can be part
an angry environment, he says. Now, working than one closing a day. of a family law practice, when it comes to
in residential real estate law, O’Brien sees dividing assets and property. It can be part of
clients taking a step up in life, most of whom Overall, O’Brien says his work is a “family-re- estate planning, in setting up trusts to distrib-
are happy with the process of buying a house. lated practice that has real rewards.” ute property. Also, there are jobs out there for
real estate attorneys who are staff attorneys
Since most people buy houses on the week- If you love to organize, you like the feeling at law firms, says Abrams, arranging for
ends when they are not at work, a typical of completing one project and moving on to house purchases and real estate transactions
work week for O’Brien involves checking his the next, you have good negotiating skills, for the firm and its attorneys.
fax machine at 8:00 on Monday and Tuesday and enjoy the fine details of contracts - then
mornings, and usually finding two or three real estate law could be for you, says Lisa Real estate law can be an addition to an al-
contracts there waiting for him. Then he gets Abrams, author of The Official Guide to Legal ready busy general practice, a niche in a larg-
to work. Specialties (published by Harcourt Legal, and er field, a stand-alone endeavor (as with John
the National Association for Law Placement). O’Brien’s residential real estate practice). It
O’Brien contacts new clients, advises them Abrams, an attorney, is also the Associate can also be the basis for working in a field you
of the requirements of the home-buying con- Director of Career Services at the University wish to pursue - such as environmental law or
tract, his fees, and other details. of Chicago Law School. international law.
In the standard Chicago-area home-buying Jace McColley, a third-year student at the Susan A. Bernstein chose to combine environ-
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CAREER COUNSELOR'S CORNER 1. 800. 973. 1177
mental law with real estate law after 15 years international legal services, including corpo- In Illinois, the housing market right now is
working for various public agencies, includ- rate, banking and securities, employment and “very hot,” says O’Brien; there is a lot of work
ing a stint as Assistant Commissioner of the labor, aerospace, oil and gas, and entertain- out there for real estate attorneys.
Massachusetts Department of Public Health ment law. So why include real estate?
(DPH), writing environmental regulations. By the same token, residential real estate law
Pinci went to law school at the University of is probably not going to make you rich or work
Gradually making the decision to make a Milan, and Georgetown University Law Center you to death. While corporate real estate may
career move out of the public sector, Bern- in Washington D.C., and studied international be a different story, O’Brien says he makes
stein left the DPH, attended the New England mergers and acquisitions. When first starting a comfortable living in a “home-for-dinner”
School of Law in Boston, and hung out her his international law career at a firm in Milan, practice. Banks and escrow companies are not
own shingle in 1997. Pinci was assigned to do some real estate open on weekends, nor past 5:00, so neither is
work. his practice.
Bernstein’s solo practice in Boston helps
clients navigate the thick and complicated Turns out, says Pinci, “for tax reasons, most One of the good things about practicing law
field of environmental regulations needed in large real estate transactions in Italy are car- in general is that it is a varied and flexible
most commercial real estate transactions. For ried out ‘in corporate form,’ i.e. you transfer profession. Lawyers work in a “constantly
example, if a client wants to purchase land the shares of a company that owns the real changing environment,” says Peter Witten-
and build an office building on it, before the estate, rather than the real estate itself.” So borg, Executive Director of the Real Estate Bar
lenders will ante up the funding, there has to Pinci used his corporate law training to work Association for Massachusetts (REBA). From
be an environmental assessment of the site on real estate transactions for clients who 1972 to 2000, Wittenborg was a real estate
and the project. This assessment, called “due were not in Italy - doing corporate law while attorney, and then he became the branch
diligence,” is just the first step, says Bern- learning real estate on the job. manager of a title insurance company before
stein. taking his post at REBA.
Now, real estate law is a core part of Pinci’s
Any one commercial real estate transaction practice in international business law. The The real estate market is cyclical with the
involves due diligence, the acquisition of and real estate work often involves facilitating ne- overall economy, yes, but there is always work
compliance with several environmental per- gotiations among a long list of individuals and in real estate law, says Wittenborg, who has
mits, managing cleanup of existing toxins on entities - for example, developers, banks, and first-hand knowledge of the variety in this
the site, and/or setting up a corporation to buy corporations, often located in different coun- field.
the property. Before you get started practicing tries - and then drafting the contracts and
this combination of commercial real estate other documents needed to close the deal. Witenburg’s first job, after returning to Mas-
law and environmental law, “there is a lot to sachusetts from law school at Vanderbilt in
learn,” says Bernstein. [For ways to get your So, if you want to do international real estate Nashville, was as a law clerk to the chief judge
feet wet, see “Advice” below.] law, you not only need the legal skills, but of the land court. Firms became interested in
also the language, diplomatic, and organiza- him because of his experience there, and he
Doing international real estate law involves tional skills to manage transactions spanning started off in residential real estate law. In
equal parts legal knowledge and diplomacy. multiple nations. the 1980s, Wittenborg shifted to working on
“The practice of international law requires commercial real estate transactions, and then
first and foremost the cultural skills for deal- Making a living. later represented national lenders. “I have no
ing with human beings who speak different regrets,” he says.
languages, live in different socio-economic The economy - local and national - impacts
situations, and are familiar only with their own real estate and opportunities to practice real Real estate law is not only an interesting spe-
legal systems,” says Marcantonio Pinci, who estate law. You should consider the market, cialty for legal practice, but also could stand
has been practicing since 1990 and is Manag- agrees John O’Brien, when planning your you in good stead if you decide to make career
ing Partner of Pinci & Associates, with offices career. Large cities have more housing and changes down the road, says Jace McColley.
in New York, Brussels, Athens, and cities more housing turnover than most small If, for example, you do work as a real estate
throughout Italy. towns, for example, and so they might be good attorney for a few years, and then decide to
places to practice residential real estate law. leave legal practice, you could go into mort-
Pinci’s current firm handles a wide range of gage banking work, or real estate sales, and
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CAREER COUNSELOR'S CORNER 1. 800. 973. 1177
use your legal knowledge well in those fields. student, you need the classes in the specialty.
And, in addition to those real estate-focused
Advice. classes, Abrams recommends that you take
legal drafting classes to learn how to draft
1. For attorneys considering a lateral career contracts, as well as classes on environmen-
move, Lisa Abrams recommends that you con- tal law, corporations, and secure transactions.
nect with real estate attorneys in your bar as- You can also attend local zoning meetings and
sociation, look into doing pro-bono work, and work in law school clinics to hone your inter-
try to find continuing legal education classes personal and negotiating skills, Abrams says.
specifically focusing on real estate law.
6. Reality does differ from the classroom.
2. What you learn during your first five years For example, the real property law classes in
out of law school is what “comprises your val- law schools have little to do with actual real
ue to your clients,” says Susan A. Bernstein. estate legal practice, says John O’Brien. If you
If you are a young attorney just out of law are a law student interested in entering this
school, she says, getting a job with a govern- field, don’t rely on the classroom alone. Check
ment agency is a good way to get on-the-job out your state bar association and see if it is
knowledge. You can learn a lot, and you have offering real-world courses in real estate,
career options when you’ve got the experi- or any specialty, says O’Brien. For example,
ence. If you love your government work, you the Illinois State Bar Association is offering a
can stay; if you want to move on, you can use series of seminars for law students on real-
that regulatory knowledge in a law practice in world real estate law topics such as how to
the same field. set up a deed.
3. To be involved in international real estate, 7. There are two kinds of lawyers, says Peter
Marcantonio Pinci recommends that you: Wittenborg - those who make love, and those
“Live, study and gain work experience (not who make war. If you are not the warring
necessarily in the legal or real estate field) type, and enjoy “pragmatic problem solving,”
abroad, as much as possible.” Also, if you real estate law could be for you. If you are an
have already established a legal practice attorney who is already doing transactional
and want to expand overseas, or are being law, the transition to this specialty could be an
assigned overseas, he recommends that you easy one, says Wittenborg.
“study the foreign legal systems, and develop
relationships with lawyers in such foreign Here is one place to start: there are 2,631 jobs
countries.” for real estate attorneys on LawCrossing right
4. To get a job in any type of real estate law,
you need to network. “You have to do it,” says
Jace McColley. When he started the Real
Estate Law Association at his law school,
McColley contacted several alumni to come
and speak to the group, and he kept in touch
with them. For law students, he recommends
either joining or starting a specialty group
at your law school, and to take as many real
estate law classes as you can. This “gives you
more to offer to employers,” he says.
5. Lisa Abrams seconds that, if you are a law