Commercial real estate attorneys work on a variety of cases, ranging in topic from zoning laws, commercial leases, property rights and land use, real estate development law, landlord-tenant disputes, breaches of contract, and much more.
“A commercial real estate attorney, at a very base level, is a deal maker,” said Anthony Marre, an attorney at Wilson Cribbs & Goren. “When you’re running real estate transactions, whether you’re representing a buyer, a seller, a borrower, a lender, or a developer, there’s a very specific business transaction that you’re trying to close. And you have a role in taking that transaction from the beginning stages to the very end.”
Commercial and residential real estate attorneys work on many of the same types of duties, but in commercial law, lawyers need specific knowledge and experience pertaining to business, property management and development.
“We help people buy and sell commercial real estate assets,” Marre added. “We help them finance commercial real estate assets, or help them develop commercial real estate assets from the ground up.”
While many commercial real estate lawyers are generalists, working in all areas of commercial real estate law, others focus on specific facets like zoning or land use regulation. Real estate laws also change very slowly, Marre said, which is an advantage in that commercial real estate attorneys don’t have to spend too much time learning new laws and researching changes.
Jo-Ann M. Marzullo, an attorney at the law firm Ligris, said she works on “leasing, retail leasing, construction contracts, architects’ contracts, commercial financing,” and more, both on the tenant side and the landlord side.
“It’s a great variety of things that you could be dealing with,” Marzullo said.
What Does a Typical Workday Look Like for a Commercial Real Estate Attorney?
The first fact to note is that a commercial real estate lawyer’s schedule is not 9 to 5. The workdays are long, and often unexpected.
David Cannady, an attorney and founder at Cannady & Associates Real Estate, starts his workday early.
“Half the day is fielding calls from potential clients,” Cannady said.
However, Cannady also travels a good deal, working on cannabis real estate in South Florida. During those trips, which occur once or twice a week, he visits the farms and talks to owners about the particular cases he’s working on.
Cannady’s schedule does not follow the typical work day, as he works until around 5 or 6 p.m., takes a break for a bit, then works again from 7 to 9 p.m., after which he goes home to be with his family. Then, if he has the energy, he starts to work again from 11 or 12 p.m. until 2, 3, or 4 a.m., depending on his workload.
Cannady also spends part of his workday trying to grow his firm, tapping into young talent he can recruit from law schools, especially young, Black attorneys like himself, since it’s such an underrepresented group in law.
“A firm is just like any other business,” Cannady said. “You have to do the business of the business, as well as understand the growth of the business.”
In a regular day, a commercial real estate attorney could be dealing with a number of unexpected and unplanned cases and circumstances.
“A typical workday is, you figure out what you think you’re going to do in the morning, and then it never goes that way,” Marzullo said. “There will be some emergency that comes in, or your priorities get upset.”
Marzullo described a case she was working on in which she was trying to get an estoppel from a large pharmacy chain for a period of four months. One day they reached out to her saying her client failed to make a payment in 2012, which they had never previously asked for since the original notice in 2012. Because of that new notice, Marzullo had to change around her workday, making efforts to communicate with the pharmacy and figure out the proper address to send payment.
“But they wouldn’t pick up the phone. They wouldn’t answer emails. They were just non-communicative,” Marzullo said.
When the pharmacy finally did mail the estoppel, they didn’t provide tracking info, and sent it to the firm’s other office. Marzullo had to track down the documents, going back and forth with multiple people until the issue was taken care of.
“You just never know,” Marzullo said of her typical workday. “But it’s a lot of fun, in that there’s so many ways that pull you to get things. And when you get to do a lot of different tasks on a deal, and pull in all of your connections, it’s a lot of fun.”
Marzullo is primarily a transactional attorney who doesn’t go to court, so much of her workday is spent in the office. Because of the pandemic, she primarily works out of her home. The typical workday, she said, lasts around nine to ten hours.
Marzullo added, “There are a lot of times you end up dealing with the same people, especially in retail. And so you need to be known as a person who makes deals, and doesn’t go for the last nickel. Because if that’s what you’re doing, that’ll be remembered. And when you’re in a different position, it turns around.”
Essentially, a commercial real estate attorney needs to be willing to make fair compromises. On the next case, a person you’ve wronged could turn around and do the same to you.
“Everything gets negotiated” Marzullo said. “And it’s [important] knowing what to go for and what not to go for — trying to do it in a reasonable way.”
Marre, as a partner in his law firm, is responsible for about 20 real estate cases at any given time. At the beginning of each week, he checks where all of his deals are in terms of the timeline, contract negotiations, due diligence, loan documents, etc., to figure out which cases he needs to prioritize.
“I start each day executing on the plan that I created for the week on Monday,” Marre explained. “The best way to describe my daily routine is prioritizing deal flow at the beginning of every day, and then reassessing what I’ve accomplished or didn’t accomplish at the end of every day.”
The time between the beginning and end of the day, though, Marre described as a “mixed bag,” similar to Marzullo characterizing her days as unexpected.
“Some days, I spend a lot of time drafting and redrafting various contract documents,” Marre said. “Some days, I may not touch any documents at all, and I’ll spend the day negotiating various aspects of these transactions on the phone, or moving deals along, communicating over email.”
Marre described a great deal of variety to his days because of the different requirements for each case.
“No piece of real estate is exactly the same,” he said. “Real estate deals that we’re working on are all different as well.”
Essentially, the day to day life of a commercial real estate attorney is complex and varied, involving a number of different tasks each day. Although the days are long, the work is not boring, and involves plenty of negotiation and back and forth conversation among businesses and clients. It seems, though, that the unexpectedness of each day is part of the fun of working in commercial real estate law.