What do real estate lawyers do? This is a broad question, but real estate lawyers ultimately find solutions to the legal problems of their clients as they relate to real estate matters, whether it be negotiating a purchase and sale agreement, drafting a commercial lease, or structuring the formation of a real estate investment trust. As in other practice areas, there is a broad division between transactional attorneys and litigators. Although some attorneys have a hybrid practice of litigation and transactional work, most attorneys are either exclusively transactional attorneys or litigators. Another division within the field lies in the type of real estate involved. Most real estate attorneys define themselves as either residential or commercial real estate attorneys. There is a school of thought in the profession—and YLN takes no official position on this—that residential attorneys should not dabble in commercial real estate and vice versa. This school of thought arises from the knowledge and experience of many that it is easy to commit malpractice in real estate law. The path to avoiding mistakes is through participation (and repetition) in various types of real estate transactions. The different types of real estate lawyers are numerous and includes residential closing attorneys, commercial closing attorneys, zoning attorneys, real estate tax attorneys, commercial leasing attorneys, and real estate development attorneys. Even within a practice area—say commercial closing attorney—there can be subsets of practice areas based on the type of real estate involved. There are commercial real estate attorneys that exclusively focus on retail real estate (i.e., big-box retailers, shopping centers, franchisees, franchisors, hotel, resort, hospitality), office real estate (i.e., office parks), multi-family real estate (i.e., apartments), or industrial real estate (i.e., warehouses).
What challenges do law school graduates face trying to enter the profession? There are no particular barriers of entry into a career as a real estate attorney. But experience does matter. Candidates seeking to join a firm as first-year attorney will have an advantage if they had a prior career in real estate (i.e., real estate agent, mortgage broker, appraiser). Generally speaking, such experience shows a commitment to the field. Whether you have a prior career in real estate, you would be advised to clerk for a law firm during law school that can provide real estate work. You will gain experience working on projects that relate to real estate matters, and you will receive training from attorneys (or their paralegals) that will help you build a foundation of knowledge for your future career.
How does a real estate lawyer obtain the knowledge to perform his or her function within a firm? Does it come from law school or work experience? Law school provides a foundation to understand the legal concepts at play in any transaction or litigated matter, but on-the-job training is the best way to learn how to practice law. If you are a transactional attorney, you may learn how to draft a purchase and sale agreement or loan documents. You will also learn what provisions get heavily negotiated (and which do not). If you are a litigation attorney, you will gain valuable skills by participating in discovery, drafting motions and memoranda, and advocating for your client at hearings, mediations, or trials.
What courses should law students take to prepare them for a career in real estate law? Courses in contracts and property are fundamental to practicing real estate law. The following courses are also extremely helpful: income tax; bankruptcy; secured transactions; real estate transactions; wills, trust and estates; zoning and land use planning; equity; condominium law; environmental law; and any course that offers experience in drafting commercial contracts. If your law school has a dearth of real estate courses, the University of Miami (FL) has an excellent LL.M. program in real property development that offers courses in commercial real estate law.
How are real estate lawyers compensated? How much do they earn? In a typical law firm, first-year attorneys earn a salary that is commensurate with the size and prestige of the firm. If you work for an Am Law 100 firm, the median first-year salaries are currently at $150,000 per year. If you start at a smaller or mid-size firm, the salaries can range from $70,000 to $115,000 per year, depending on the market.
What organizations would you recommend joining to prepare for a career in real estate law? Joining the ABA’s RPTE Section is a great way to begin your career in real estate law. RPTE has a fellowship program each year that serves as an excellent introduction to RPTE and the profession at large. The Urban Land Institute is another great organization. The best way to leverage your membership in these organizations is to be an active member. Join committees that are of interest to you and participate in the substantive work of these organizations.