Young Lawyers Network: How to Be a Successful Real Estate Associate

You’ve graduated from law school and landed your first job as a real estate associate. You’ve spent your first few weeks at the law firm settling into your new environment, meeting your supervising attorneys, and learning how to bill your time. Now that you’ve covered the basics, it’s time to look ahead and focus on the practical steps a young real estate associate should take to rise in the ranks.

Seek Out a Variety of Work

Most real estate attorneys are either exclusively transactional attorneys or litigators. Beyond this, real estate attorneys typically focus their practice on commercial or residential issues based on the type of real estate involved. For example, commercial real estate attorneys may exclusively handle matters related to commercial real estate financing or commercial leasing. On the other hand, residential real estate attorneys may focus their practice on purchases and sales of residential real estate and landlord-tenant issues.

As a real estate associate, you should take advantage of every opportunity to gain exposure to new areas within the real estate practice. Volunteer to work on something you’ve never done before. If possible, work with more than one partner and diversify those who know your skill set.

Depending on the size of the law firm, consider whether you’d rather become an expert in a specific niche area or a jack-of-all-trades. Whichever you choose, making yourself an indispensable part of the team can lead to future assignments and demonstrate your willingness to learn different aspects of the real estate practice.

Learn the Lingo

Real estate attorneys tend to have their own language. The sooner you learn it, the better. A senior partner may ask you to sit in on client meetings or conference calls to assist with future projects. If you’re unable to keep up, you’re at a significant disadvantage. Whatever you do, take copious notes even if you have to go back later and learn what they mean.

Most real estate practice areas have their own specialized terminology. For example, real estate finance attorneys should understand terms like “amortization,” “collateral,” and “due on sale” when reviewing loan documents. Leasing attorneys should understand terms like “estoppel,” “guaranty,” and “triple net” when reviewing a lease agreement. Construction attorneys should have a working knowledge of the current contract forms published by the American Institute of Architects and terms like “change order,” “design-build,” and “draw.”

You should also know other terms commonly used in a transactional real estate practice. For example, a senior partner may explain that clients have only a few days before they “go hard” on the purchase of certain real estate. You may also have to “write off” some of your time rather than bill it to the client for time spent doing background research or reviewing a case file to get up to speed.

Understand How the Firm Makes Money

One of the most important things you can do to set yourself apart as a young real estate associate is to learn how the firm makes money. Real estate transactions typically have a discrete beginning and end. Unlike other practice areas, it’s common for the firm to get paid when the real estate transaction closes rather than on a monthly basis. Ask whether the firm charges by billable hour, contingency fee, fixed fee, or some other alternative fee arrangement. This may affect the firm’s operating cash flow during both peak and slow seasons.

Understanding the firm’s fee structure and how long each task should take increases your value to the firm. Senior partners look for associates who are efficient with their time and judicious in their time-keeping entries. If you continually bill the extra time it takes you to complete a task due to a steep learning curve, the firm will have to write off your time. You want to be known as efficient, not the associate whose time entries are always adjusted.

Keep an Eye on Market Trends

General business cycles and market trends can have a large effect on real estate transactions. Real estate transactions also tend to fluctuate based on the time of year. For example, real estate attorneys are notoriously swamped at the end of the year trying to meet closing deadlines. When interest rates are low, it’s common to see an increase in financing transactions for real estate development projects. Consumer trends, such as pop-up retail experiences, also affect retail leasing activity.

As a real estate associate, it’s vital for you to understand the client’s industry and keep an eye both on the economy and on emerging market trends. Going above and beyond to understand the client’s business and the pressures it faces may lead to repeat business for the firm and may set you apart as a star associate.

Integrate Yourself into the Real Estate Community

Real estate associates don’t have to spend all day and night at the office to get ahead. Attend events where you can meet local title company agents, bankers, brokers, and insurance agents. Networking with other professionals in the real estate community can lead to new business or even referrals.

Consider joining the real estate section of your state or local bar association and the ABA RPTE Section. Become an active member of a committee related to your substantive practice area. Being an active member of a bar association helps you gain recognition among other real estate practitioners, stay current in your practice area, and build your referral network. n