Imagine a real estate deal involving a myriad of moving pieces: the acquisition of a historic property, development plans to create a mixed-use building, financing from a senior lender and mezzanine lender, tax issues, borrower/developer corporate structuring needs and environmental concerns. Due to the project’s complexity, the logical move is for each party involved to surround themselves with teams of lawyers, each with their own niche relating to the deal, such as the real estate “dirt” lawyer, the real estate finance lawyer, the leasing specialist, the tax attorney, the corporate lawyer and the environmental lawyer—not to mention insurance and regulatory specialists.

The reality check is that sellers, developers, borrowers and lenders increasingly are looking to one super lawyer, or smaller numbers of lawyers with multiple areas of expertise, to get deals done with nimble legal teams that cover all areas and issues. As property development visions become more complex, there is a growing need for lawyers who can handle many aspects of legal work within the same deal, causing real estate lawyers in particular to stretch beyond a targeted law practice in order to advise their clients on more than the “dirt” aspect of the transaction without calling in additional legal troops.

The trend toward multi-faceted attorneys offering a broader depth of services is particularly advantageous to lawyers from small or boutique firms looking to develop and maintain business in today’s commercial real estate market. Legal practices that focus on real estate matters naturally cross over and blend into other areas of practice, such as corporate, environmental and tax law.

Traditionally, large law firms with national or international offices can work across practice groups to utilize their own intra-firm experts and specialists to cover many aspects of a particular real estate transaction. With today’s trend of one attorney or a small group of attorneys handling all facets of a transaction, smaller law firms with attorneys who have experience across a variety of practice areas can compete with bigger law firms for business, despite not having multiple offices nationwide. Additionally, smaller law firms often market lower billing rates than the rates that go hand in hand with hiring a large law firm.

Notwithstanding the existence of boutique firms with the ability to handle large, complex real estate transactions, many developers hesitate to place their legal needs with one attorney or a smaller shop. Douglas Olson of Monument Realty helped orchestrate the Half Street development, near the Washington Nationals’ baseball stadium, with “big firm” legal representation. “Ground-up developments that are the product of assemblage and entitlement initiatives require multiple legal disciplines and broad legal experience, which is why we generally align with deep-bench firms that have a demonstrated record of success,” Olson says.

However, boutique and small law firms focusing on the development boom in Washington, D.C., are challenging the assumption that a party to a complex commercial real estate transaction must use a large firm in order to cover more legal ground. Development deals today can benefit from attorneys who are particularly connected to their location and local industry players. Having insight into specific areas, waterways, environmental issues and neighborhoods may further benefit regional firms.    

A former “big firm” real estate finance partner, now working at a multifamily government-sponsored enterprise (GSE), noticed the connection between regional firms and their locations upon making the change from private practice to in-house counsel. “I probably knew generally that the smaller firms were getting more and more work given our big firm hourly billing rates, but until I got to the GSE and realized who was working on most of the transactions for multifamily, it was smaller, regional firms. Some of the legal shops are located in places such as Minneapolis and Atlanta. All of these shops are diverse and bring a versatile skill set to real estate/finance, but at reasonable rates.” 

Lending institutions, such as Cardinal Bank, continue to seek a versatile skill set within regional law firms. “We find the smaller firms have attorneys who specialize in the real estate transactions but have a broader knowledge outside of the standard transaction,” says Cardinal Bank Senior Vice President Andy Peden, who recently helped arrange financing for a redevelopment in Arlington, Va.

As the Washington, D.C., mixed-use development boom continues at a bullish rate, the trend toward developers, lenders and borrowers hiring multi-faceted attorneys will grow as well.

Boutique and small law firms with versatile commercial real estate attorneys have the opportunity to secure business, maintain clients and thrive in busy mixed-use urban markets so long as they can break through the mentality that only big firms can cover a variety of practice areas. 


Barbara Anne Spignardo is a member of Shapiro, Lifschitz & Schram’s Real Estate and Business groups in Washington, D.C. For more information, visit www.slslaw.com.