Lawyers are great at asking questions, but how are they at answering them? Bloomberg Law is talking with lawyers and other legal industry players at the top of their fields to find out what makes them tick, what challenges they face, and how they do what they do.
Jay Neveloff, the chair of Kramer Levin’s 59-lawyer real estate practice, says coronavirus-related remote work has not been the death knell for attorneys in his line of business that some feared it might be.
While the real estate market has been especially hard hit by the pandemic, Neveloff says that the firm’s condominium team racked up more than $750 million in sales between March and the beginning of 2021. The firm’s combined real estate and land use practice accounts for nearly 20% of the firm’s revenues.
“It is essential to overcome the distance and keep in constant contact with our colleagues,” he says. “Engagement cannot be confined to emails.”
Neveloff is a veteran New York real estate dealmaker who has worked with prominent clients like The Walt Disney Company/ABC, Mt. Sinai Hospital, and New York University on major deals in the city.
He formerly represented then-private citizen Donald Trump and the Trump Organization, on matters including acquisitions of the Plaza Hotel and Trump Tower. Neveloff declined to comment on his work for Trump and the Trump Organization.
Neveloff currently assists clients with mixed use, commercial, retail, and residential projects in New York and nationally. He also serves on Kramer Levin’s Covid-19 Legal Task Force.
Bloomberg Law spoke to Neveloff about overcoming remote work limits, the surreal experience of conducting a transaction during the 9/11 attacks, and the importance of keeping one’s word—no matter the length of practice experience.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Bloomberg Law: What legal question keeps you up at night?
Jay Neveloff: Fortunately, I am a great sleeper. However, I do worry about the complexities of transactions and the impact of business realities, especially when problems are systemic and not the result of client failures.
Covid-19 is a prime example of how widespread market pressures are adversely affecting otherwise durable business deals. For example, what is the best approach when dealing with a party that is unable to pay expenses because of a temporary dip in revenues? That issue is endemic today in numerous contexts, and at the same time markets and expectations are constantly in flux.
BL: What specific strategies are you using to attract and retain clients? What’s the biggest challenge?
JN: It is essential to cultivate relationships, to always be available, and to genuinely care about the people you represent. It’s also critical to ensure that those qualities are shared by the entire team.
One major challenge of working remotely is making sure that you are in constant contact with clients, colleagues, and adversaries, and not just by email or text. Often, you should pick up the phone and call—or even suggest a Zoom meeting—as a way to develop closer ties at a time when physical, in-person meetings simply aren’t feasible.
BL: The commercial real estate market has been hard hit due to the pandemic. How have Big Law real estate practices been affected, including yours, and do you think if work from home continues to be widespread, real estate deal lawyers will be in trouble?
JN: The ability to walk into somebody’s office, meet someone in the hallway or in the elevator or at the coffee machine are all catalysts for creative collaboration. Working from home limits that interaction. Even so, it is essential to overcome the distance and keep in constant contact with our colleagues. Engagement cannot be confined to emails, but rather it requires actual conversations whether over the phone or by video.
Working remotely is going to continue for a while as it will take time for people to return to the office, but transactional lawyers are not and will not be “in trouble.” In fact, dealing with the issues we are now confronted with demands greater sophistication and judgment. For example, our condominium team will have closed in excess of $750 million in sales by the beginning of 2021. Remote closings of similar transactions did not generally occur prior to the pandemic.
BL: What’s your best war story from your legal career?
JN: One moment that remains seared into my memory was on September 11, 2001. I was engaged in a lengthy face-to-face negotiation with Sam Zell that morning, which began shortly after the second World Trade Center Tower had collapsed. It was incredibly surreal for all of the obvious reasons. The negotiation lasted several hours, which allowed me to mentally escape the sheer horror of the events as they unfolded. We consistently stopped at 45-minute intervals to listen to the news and look out of the window towards Lower Manhattan.
BL: Does the firm have specific diversity targets, is the firm meeting those targets, and what does it still need to do to improve diversity?
JN: The firm has adopted a multipronged approach that includes recruiting, training, business development, and leadership development programs for Kramer Levin lawyers and staff. The firm has a long history of cultivating pipeline diversity strategies for minority students including internships and mentoring to students the summer before they enter law school. In the coming year, we are expanding the pipeline further by developing an internship program to broaden the opportunities for minority students interested in real estate.
BL: I’m a new associate, fresh out of law school, what should I do to stand out and advance my career in the best way possible?
JN: Always be available, ask questions—but only after thinking them through—and seek out the most interesting deals, even if at the beginning you are sitting in meetings or on calls just listening. Being an excellent lawyer means not only having excellent lawyering skills, but also sound business judgment and understanding what issues are most important to the client.
Also, you are only as good as your word. Having a reputation for keeping your word is invaluable. A reputation takes years to build and only a moment to lose, so don’t be a jerk.