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Blank Rome Partners on Growing NY Real Estate Practice

Law360 Pulse

Blank Rome LLP has prioritized growing its real estate practice even as the coronavirus pandemic continues to upend the sector, adding five new attorneys in New York in recent months.

The firm added a real estate of counsel, two partners, an associate and a senior attorney to the practice group in New York since July, banking on the industry's growing needs as dirt deals pick back up, leases are modified and clients look to monetize their assets and property. Blank Rome is hoping to expand the real estate practice and team even further after Sonia Kaur Bain joined the firm as a partner in October following three years at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner.

Bain and partner Samantha Wallack, co-chair of Blank Rome's national real estate practice, spoke with Law360 Pulse about the impact of COVID-19 on their clients and work, growing the group's capabilities during the pandemic and how they and other real estate practices are adapting their approach to recruiting and strategy.

This interview was conducted on Nov. 5 and has been edited for length and clarity.

Blank Rome has hired at least five real estate attorneys including Bain since July. How much of a priority is growing the firm's real estate practice group right now?

Wallack: There isn't a number that we have in mind. Our main goal is attracting the best talent and creating the most vibrant group that we can, and Sonia was an integral piece of that. Our work has grown exponentially in the last few years, in large part because of the diversity of our practice. And it seemed like every area that we touch on has exploded, so we really have had to build a team around leasing, buying and selling, finance, development work, joint venture work — everything. We've made opportunistic partner hires and that really is what bringing Sonia over was about. Now we have to build up a team around Sonia so we can make sure to support her and her practice.

How has Blank Rome's real estate practice been adapting to the pandemic?

Bain: I think the firm's real estate practice has thrived during the pandemic, and I think it is a credit to the diversity of practice areas that Sam mentioned. That diversity in the real estate practices has allowed the group to shift and pivot as clients' needs have during the pandemic. This is great for me and my practice, which is also broad and diverse. I am able to approach partners with varied practices and specialties within the real estate department to address the needs of my varied group of clients. Whether it be a retail client or a developer client or an owner, or foreign group looking to acquire a large portfolio of assets around the country, they've got practitioners and experts who are able to advise and guide them through all of the issues presented, and the pandemic did not deter that ability.

Wallack: We were really fortunate because even though dirt and ground-up deals basically froze for a moment in spring 2020 and some types of finance froze, we had other arms of our practice, like agency lending and leasing, that were still crazy busy. We have amazing depth in practice areas that we were able to build a lot of work around during the height of the pandemic. For instance, we addressed hundreds of lease modifications for our retail and office tenants and landlords during the pandemic and that kept us really busy. Now, every aspect of our practice, including our dirt practice, is really churning at a strong clip. So we've been really lucky to be diversified through the pandemic and come out the other side even stronger.

Bain: One of the unique aspects of Blank Rome, given that it is a large firm and has a significant national real estate practice group, is its leasing capability for all asset classes. Specifically for retail, I've been really impressed with the depth of experience the group has in the retail space. For retailers, the challenges began before the pandemic but were accelerated during the pandemic. Those challenges required the expertise of practitioners to partner with our retail clients and help them appreciate their real estate investments and strategize and think about new and creative solutions and opportunities. When you have a full-service real estate group that also has a focus on all aspects of the retail industry, which includes a strong leasing group, you can really be a true partner to retailers and help guide them through challenges like the pandemic and general downturn in the economy.

How might the firm guide clients through challenges the real estate industry has faced during the pandemic?

Bain: The retail industry was challenged even pre-pandemic. But now we can really help retail clients understand how to minimize some of the negative impacts of the pandemic and understand their real estate assets and how to monetize or appreciate and get value out of them. We help and advise them with respect to their existing leases or ownership interests or help them with potential future opportunities with respect to their real estate all while having a deep understanding of their industry as a whole. We advise them on outright sales or contributions into new developments or negotiating better lease deals. Because we can do the development side of it and understand the other assets classes like multifamily that may be developed, for instance, we can really add value to that retailer in understanding how to get out of this pandemic in a real positive way. And then on the other side of it, their e-commerce business, which has grown significantly as a result, requires them to think of their logistics needs — like warehouses — and that capability is at the firm as well. So, we can come to assist in many different ways when it comes to assisting our retail clients with the challenges of the pandemic and otherwise.

Wallack: What was really interesting during the pandemic was that, as a practice group and as a firm, we were sharing in real time with each other what we were all seeing across all industries. For example, we have this category killer maritime practice and logistics practice at the firm. So our real estate lawyers and our logistics lawyers would talk daily about what we were each seeing in the market. During the pandemic, every single client wanted to hear from us what was going on in the market, as their perspective was limited to their specific vantage point at their specific company. Since we were seeing the market across all of our clients and sharing intelligence among partners across all industries, we were able to take that industry knowledge, apply it to real estate and bring true insight to our clients. It was a real value-add.

In what ways is the firm's New York real estate practice different from other markets?

Bain: Blank Rome is rather unusual in that it has a very deep bench of real estate practitioners in NYC, which is the most competitive market and the most competitive industry in the country. Pretty much every specialty and area is covered, between the dirt, the finance, the acquisitions and development work, agency finance and affordable housing and retail ... all within the New York office. That depth and that bench allows for a multifaceted approach to representing real estate clients' needs ... and in N.Y. it is never simple, so having that bench and breadth is pretty special.

What are the biggest trends, developments or issues on the horizon in New York's real estate industry and market that you're keeping an eye on?

Bain: While dirt deals and development may have slowed down in New York a bit, trading and transactions involving multifamily space continues to be hot. Logistics, even in New York, is an asset class that a lot of owners and companies are trying to figure out how to make work here, too. Nontraditional owners of real estate who are now sitting on properties that they would just traditionally let function as either a church or a museum or a school, for example, are now recognizing that they're sitting on assets worth a lot of money and they might consider other opportunities to help monetize their assets, including maybe transferring excess air rights or partnering with developers or other real estate owners. All asset classes of owners of real estate are really rethinking their use, their current status and what their current opportunities might be. The pandemic forced people to think about creative ways to appreciate the value of their real estate assets.

How are law firm real estate practices shifting gears or adapting with recruiting and strategy?

Wallack: Recruiting is about people. I really believe that if you recruit the right people, you are able to build the right business. We specifically did go out and recruit Christy Reuter a few months ago because we wanted a hospitality expert in our midst. But recruiting in general has evolved for us. It's such a hot market and I think that in order to recruit talent, we need to have relationships at every level. So we have really strong relationships with recruiters, make sure that recruiters know what we're about and how we're different, and then create an environment in our group where we're not losing people and we're continuing to elevate associates. Our hope is all of our associates stick around and make partner. Many of them grew up as summer associates at the firm. But if we see a candidate come across our wires and their resume is excellent, I'll call the recruiter and spend an hour on the phone with them and make sure that they know that we're special. We really believe that we have special sauce at our firm. I can't tell you all the ingredients 'cause it is proprietary, but we think that what we're doing here is unique. When we hired Sonia, we went on a star search. That was our goal. Our goal was to hire an incredible lateral partner who would continue to grow our practice in every way, both professionally and personally, just be an amazing and energetic addition to our group. What Sonia and I share that's really important is love of mentoring and giving back and elevating women, especially, in the industry. And I think that we're both at this point where the women that we genuinely love spending time with are also at elevated spots in their career. We're having a moment where we're all helping each other succeed professionally and be there for each other personally, and effect change in our organizations and give back. We saw that in Sonia and we're excited for her to be a part of that. Recruiting has become very aggressive, we've become more aggressive, but it really does start with the person, and if we continue to bring in these amazing people, we'll create an environment that's truly special and continue to be a place where people want to come.

How might diversity elevate or improve a real estate practice?

Bain: Diversity enhances and elevates every aspect of any real estate practice. Diversity brings in different perspectives and different backgrounds into every conversation, into every negotiation, into every interaction, and it creates a much more vibrant, much more thoughtful and effective product and result at the end. No two real estate transactions are alike and no one approach works for all. A diverse approach with diverse practitioners will no doubt elevate any real estate transaction. Not only do we as practitioners realize that, our clients realize that and expect that.

“Blank Rome Partners on Growing NY Real Estate Practice,” by Anna Sanders was published in Law360 Pulse on November 18, 2021.