Real estate law practice encompasses both transactional real estate practice and real estate litigation practice. Attorneys often specialize in one or the other in most firms and practice settings, but some attorneys are involved in both transactional and litigation work, especially in small or mid-size law firms. Attorneys engaged in real estate practice work in a wide variety of practice settings. There are real estate attorneys or practice groups in law firms of all sizes, from large global law firms to small firms or sole practitioners. Real estate attorneys can also work for companies with significant real estate holdings or substantial involvement in real estate financing; title insurance companies; federal, state and local government agencies (including agencies involved in affordable housing initiatives or economic development initiatives); and nonprofit organizations (including those which focus community redevelopment, fair lending or affordable housing issues). Such companies, agencies and organizations tend to hire attorneys who have already worked in private practice.
Since virtually all types of individuals and organizations have interests in real estate (including as owners, purchasers, investors, developers, lenders or tenants), the universe of potential clients for a real estate lawyer is especially broad. Clients may include private individuals and families; private equity, sovereign wealth and pension funds; real estate investment trusts; financial institutions; investment banks; real estate management companies; non-profit organizations; and government agencies, among others.
The following is a brief summary of transactional real estate practice and real estate litigation practice. Note that, while the various areas of real estate delineated below are useful constructs for purposes of understanding the breadth of real estate law practice, there are no hard-and-fast boundaries between these areas in the real world. In fact, many real estate lawyers have built practices that straddle multiple areas. There are, for example, plenty of commercial real estate attorneys who handle both “equity” and “financing” transactions, and many construction lawyers who both negotiate construction documents and litigate issues arising therefrom.
Real Estate Transactions
Transactional real estate lawyers advise clients in connection with real estate transactions, including drafting, negotiating and closing real estate deals on behalf of their clients. Transactional real estate lawyers may focus on either commercial transactions (more common at mid-size and large firms) or residential transactions (most common for sole practitioners or at smaller firms).
Commercial real estate transactions include such diverse matters as purchases, sales and tax-free exchanges of commercial and residential properties, (re)development projects, leasing, the formation and management of condominiums and cooperatives, and joint venture investments. These transactions also include real estate financing activities such as mortgage loans, mezzanine loans, preferred equity, mortgage backed securities (MBS), real estate investment trusts (REITs), and workouts and restructurings of such financings. Commercial real estate lawyers often concentrate their practice on either “equity”-side or “financing”-side transactions. In addition, some commercial real estate lawyers choose to focus on a particular niche practice area, such as condominiums or MBS, or to focus on the representation of a particular type or class of client, such as private equity funds, REITs, lenders or borrowers. A substantial number of real estate attorneys concentrate their practice on the highly specialized area of zoning and land use. Generally speaking, commercial real estate lawyers spend a large amount of time reviewing, negotiating and drafting agreements necessary to effectuate real estate transactions, such as leases, mortgages, and joint venture operating agreements; coordinating the closing of real estate transactions; and advising clients on all manner of legal issues relating to real estate.
Residential real estate transactions include the purchase and sale of homes (condos, coops and houses), and other matters relating to residential real estate, including leases, insurance, and building permits. Many residential real estate lawyers couple their real estate practice with a trusts and estates or general corporate practice to better serve or expand their client base. Generally speaking, residential real estate lawyers spend a lot of time negotiating purchase and sale agreements for residential properties, overseeing closings, and advising clients on legal issues that may arise in connection with their homes.
Real Estate Litigation
Real estate litigators represent their clients in connection with matters such as mortgage foreclosures, actions for specific performance of purchase and sale agreements, construction contract disputes, commercial and residential landlord-tenant litigation, environmental related cases, and tax reduction (tax certiorari) proceedings. Real estate litigators sometimes specialize in one area of real estate litigation. Generally speaking, real estate litigators spend a lot of time doing legal research, drafting memoranda and court pleadings, negotiating with opposing counsel, and appearing at court hearings and trials.
One of the things you should think about as you consider a career in real estate law is how much you wish to specialize. Many real estate attorneys start their careers as generalists, allowing them to gain exposure to a variety of areas in their initial years of practice. A real estate attorney who starts out as a generalist could choose to pursue one or more specialties later in her career, at which point the choice could be made with the benefit of substantial experience.
All students interested in real estate are encouraged to consult with the Director of the Mattone Family Institute for Real Estate Law, as well as their Career Development Officers, in connection with their career planning. The Mattone Institute is St. John’s focal point for real estate law. Its principal mission is to prepare aspiring real estate attorneys for practice after graduation. The Mattone Institute coordinates real estate course offerings, administers the Real Estate Law Fellowship Program, and coordinates special real estate-focused events throughout the school year, including site visits, roundtable discussions and networking events. In coordination with the Career Development Office, the Mattone Institute also offers career development assistance to students interested in this area, including resume and cover letter review, mock interviews, curriculum planning, and job placement assistance.
Restructuring and workouts of real estate deals “gone bad” straddles the areas of real estate transactions and real estate litigation, and may implicate transactional, bankruptcy, tax and litigation work, among other areas of law. Restructurings and workouts can take a number of forms, including loan amendments and forbearances, joint venture/equity modifications, UCC sales, foreclosures, deeds-in-lieu, REO sales, receivership actions and guarantee actions. Real estate transactional attorneys and litigators are frequently involved with restructuring and workouts; some attorneys choose to specialize in this area.
The aspiring real estate attorney should master the governing legal principles applicable to a variety of real estate transactions, from basic residential purchase transactions to complicated commercial real estate transactions and financing. Most real estate law is state law, though federal regulations such as the Fair Housing Act and banking regulations, do come into play. You will learn these principles in the advanced real estate courses, i.e., Real Estate Transactions; Condominiums, Cooperatives & Homeowner Associations; Land Use Planning; Real Estate Finance: Commercial; Real Estate Finance: Residential; Real Estate Workouts and Bankruptcy; Construction Law; Commercial Real Estate Leasing; Real Estate Development; and any other real estate electives that come to be added to the curriculum.
Real estate law practice is also interdisciplinary. In any given transaction or litigation, multiple areas of substantive law can come into play, including, in particular, trusts and estates, environmental, tax, corporate and bank finance, bankruptcy, and corporate law. Hence, certain non-real estate courses are recommended for this pathway.
The core electives in Business Organizations and Basic Federal Personal Income Tax are very useful for all real estate practitioners because real estate investors are often business entities, and clients are always interested in the tax implications of their transactions. In addition, a large number of real estate attorneys are also involved in estate planning and therefore the core elective in Trusts and Estates is recommended.
Students could also consider the following additional advanced courses: Accounting for Lawyers and/or Business Basics (useful for students with little business background, as real estate attorneys are expected to understand basic business concepts), Creditor’s Rights (questions of real estate law are often intertwined with questions of bankruptcy law, particularly in a down market), Environmental Law (environmental issues regularly arise on real estate deals), Secured Transactions (real estate financing transactions are often secured with non-real estate collateral), Insurance Law (real estate lawyers may encounter insurance law issues in connection with leases or if there is damage to a property), Banking Law & Regulation (useful for students who will go on to represent institutional lenders), Business Planning (real estate lawyers often advise on tax, liability and other issues covered in this course), Consumer Protection (will educate students on the Truth in Lending Act and other legal requirements applicable to residential loans and transactions), Corporate Finance (will advance the student’s understanding of preferred equity and other commercial real estate financing methods), and Taxation of Business Entities and/or Tax: Federal Corporate Income (knowledge of tax law is important as tax considerations undergird the structuring of most real estate deals).
Students interested in real estate litigation should consider taking courses recommended in the Civil Dispute Resolution Pathway in addition to their real estate courses, to learn about court systems and administrative processes, and to refine their advocacy skills.
The real estate attorney is often drafting agreements. Therefore, students should take drafting courses to hone their skills, Drafting: Real Estate Transactions would be a particularly beneficial choice.
Students with a strong interest in real estate law practice should consider applying for the Mattone Institute’s Real Estate Fellowship Program, which provides selected students with a strong interest in real estate practice a monetary stipend as well as a unified program of academic and pre-professional instruction designed to put them on the track to rewarding careers in this field. Rising 2Ls and 2Ls are eligible to apply for this unique program in either of two application cycles: one in May/June and the other in December/January. In exceptional circumstances, rising 3Ls may also apply in the May/June application cycle. Further information about this program is available here: https://www.stjohns.edu/law/mattone-family-institute-real-estate-law
To learn the law needed for real estate practice, a student should take a variety of the advanced courses and writing courses listed below:
All are strongly recommended and should be taken early in the upper-level years.
Advanced coursework that will build your substantive knowledge in this pathway.
Coursework to hone your writing skills and develop a portfolio of practicing writing in your field.
Courses that will develop your oral advocacy, ADR, and other skills necessary for practice.
Join the Real Property Law Society (RPLS), the student division of the Mattone Institute, which provides a forum for students to participate in real estate-related activities and discuss real estate law issues. Each year, usually in April, the RPLS elects an executive board for the following academic year. Consider applying for an executive board post.
The Consumer Justice for the Elderly: Litigation Clinic and the Tenant’s Rights Advocacy Clinic will provide valuable experience for real estate litigation practice. A Civil Externship Placement or job in a law firm, corporation or government agency involved in real estate transactions will build useful skills and provide knowledge of real estate practice.
A Civil Externship Placement or job in a law firm, corporation or government agency involved in real estate transactions will build useful skills and provide knowledge of real estate practice.
If you choose to apply to a journal as a rising 2L, consider applying to the NY Real Property Law Journal, the official publication if the New York State Bar Association’s Real Property Law Section. Members of the Journal’s Editorial Board and Staff Members provide editorial assistance in connection with the publication of issues of the Journal (usually quarterly) containing articles written by practitioners and scholars in the real estate field.
Students who participate in a clinic are exposed to a practice area through the representation of actual clients under faculty supervision. The following clinics are relevant to this pathway:
St. John’s boasts numerous scholarly journals, including the following:
Externships place students in a wide variety of not-for-profit, government, public interest, and private organizations and firms, where they work directly under the supervision of a practicing attorney. The external placements are bolstered by an in-school seminar in which students analyze their practical experiences and gain skills necessary for the profession. Sample placements in this pathway include:
Adjunct professors can be an excellent resource both for guidance and for employment opportunities. Professional bar associations also welcome student participation and many offer free or reduced membership rates for students. Some bar sections and committees permit students to join and look for students to provide research or other assistance on projects. St. John’s faculty are also an essential resource. Students should make an effort to get to know faculty who teach and have experience in their chosen areas.
Students interested in real estate should reach out to the Director of the Mattone Institute to discuss curriculum, career planning and networking opportunities. Make an effort to attend a Mattone Institute Information Session (at least one is held each semester). The one-page handout, General Guidance for Students Interested in Real Estate Law, which is available from the Director, includes specific pointers for students on academic planning and career development. Students should also seek out connections with real estate industry professionals, practitioners and other students, both at St. John’s and externally.
The Mattone Institute, the Real Property Law Society and the New York Real Property Law Journal host real estate-related events throughout the academic year, including site visits, roundtable discussions and networking events. You should take full advantage of these offerings and attend as many of these events as possible. Stay abreast of the most recent events by joining the Real Property Law Society, and the Real Property Law Society’s TWEN page. Also, follow the Mattone Institute on LinkedIn and Twitter (@mattoneinst).
- New York State Bar Association – Real Property Law Section
- American Bar Association – Real Property Trust and Estate Law Section
- New York City Bar Association – Real Property Law Committee
- New York County Lawyer’s Association
- Queens County Bar Association
- Brooklyn Bar Association – Real Property Law Section
- Bronx County Bar Association
- Richmond County Bar Association
- Nassau County Bar Association
- Suffolk County Bar Association
- Westchester County Bar Association – Real Property Law Section
- Connecticut Bar Association – Real Property Law Section
- New Jersey State Bar Association – Real Property Trust and Estate Law Section
- Real Property Law Society
Part-time students should spread out the suggested path below to account for their expected date of graduation.
See your Career Development Office counselor and the Director of the Mattone Institute to obtain a list of employers in this pathway and for assistance in conducting targeted mailings.