When someone rents or purchases a place – regardless of whether that spot is a luxury hotel or a piece of farmland – the transaction is often governed by rules that are specific to the jurisdiction where the property is located.
Some attorneys are experts on the federal, state and local laws, statutes and regulations that apply to the exchange and usage of “real estate,” a legal term for undeveloped or developed land and any buildings and resources that exist on that land.
What Real Estate Law Is and What Real Estate Attorneys Do
When there are competing claims to the same physical space such as a botanical garden, parking lot or skyscraper, the dispute is often resolved through the application of real estate law.
This area of law determines who gets to occupy a particular location and how long they can stay. It addresses questions about the rights of landlords and tenants and touches on debates about environmental protection, historic preservation, construction safety and accessibility for individuals with disabilities. In addition, this type of law lays out the consequences of not making rent or mortgage payments and addresses evictions and foreclosures.
Real estate law sometimes restricts what landowners may do with their land in cases where their choices might negatively affect surrounding communities, such as by creating an eyesore, obstructing views of beautiful natural scenery or inflicting a danger on neighbors such as toxic waste emissions. This legal field also addresses how much authority is extended to homeowners associations and condo or co-op boards, to what extent that authority is limited and the technicalities of rent-to-own property contracts.
“Real estate law involves where you live, where you work and where you recreation,” says Michael Wippler, a California-based member of the Dykema law firm, which has multiple U.S. offices. “It involves the streets you drive on, the shopping centers you go to, the home you live in – and in that sense, it’s very broad.”
Lawyers in this field may choose to focus solely on either residential or commercial real estate, but they can also provide services to a mix of clients. They sometimes specialize in negotiating and facilitating real estate transactions and drafting legal documents like leases and deeds, and they occasionally concentrate on litigation.
Additionally, real estate lawyers can interpret zoning ordinances and building codes, provide guidance on the technicalities involved in real estate financing and help to establish joint ventures between developers and creditors. They typically can explain the property taxation system within a particular region and are skilled at restructuring real estate deals if the original bargain no longer works.
Education, Training and Skills Helpful for a Real Estate Law Career
Legal training beyond a Juris Doctor, or J.D., is not mandatory for a career as a real estate lawyer, but a master of laws degree, or LL.M., in real estate law or a related academic discipline like tax law can be valuable in the field, according to real estate law experts. Some state bar associations offer trainings and conferences that focus on real estate law.
Though J.D. programs typically require coursework in property law and contract law and may include a mandatory course in administrative or regulatory law, there are often optional law classes that provide relevant information to a future real estate lawyer, real estate attorneys say. They suggest that courses on alternative dispute resolution, bankruptcy law, corporate law, environmental law, estate law, family law, insurance law, negotiation, probate law, trusts and trial advocacy are all applicable to the practice of real estate law.
Law school classes focusing specifically on leasing law or development law would be valuable for a future real estate lawyer, Wippler notes. Though students with an interest in real estate law do not need to pursue work experience or extracurricular activities that relate to that subject during law school in order to get hired in the field after graduating, doing so is helpful and improves someone’s odds of success in the job market, he suggests.
One way for someone to bolster his or her credibility within the real estate legal field is to get a license as a real estate agent, broker or contractor, Wippler adds.
David L. Berkey – a partner with the Gallet Dreyer & Berkey law firm in New York – recommends that aspiring real estate attorneys look for law schools with real estate law internships and clinics. A quality course in legal drafting or writing would also be beneficial, Berkey says.
Potential real estate lawyers should ask if a law school offers a formal concentration in real estate law, advises Pierre E. Debbas, co-founder and managing partner of the New York-based law firm Romer Debbas.
Real estate law requires a strategic and practical mindset, Debbas noted in an email. “In negotiating any real estate transaction, you are often times analyzing a number of ‘what if’ scenarios which can be problematic if you do not have the practical experience to know which risks are theoretical versus those you actually encounter in handling transactions on a daily basis.”
Many real estate lawyers emphasize that their occupation demands meticulousness, since missing details can lead to serious mistakes. They say people skills are a must.
Someone selling or buying a home is likely to have strong feelings about that process, which means that a proactive approach is better than a reactive one, Brandon Ayers, a residential real estate attorney with the Vanek, Larson & Kolb law firm in Illinois, wrote in an email. “A keen attention to detail is also important. Most residential real estate contracts are drawn up by realtors on a standard contract form, so it is easy to get lulled into a sense of familiarity, but each deal has its own personalities and details that will catch up to you if you do not spot them right away.”
Job Opportunities for Real Estate Attorneys
Economic conditions affect the types of jobs available to real estate attorneys, experts say, but they note that real estate lawyers are in demand not only during financial expansions but also during market downturns.
Salaries for real estate lawyers vary widely, and estimates of typical compensation are inconsistent.
“When you’re a real estate lawyer, you’re involved during good and bad economic times, and so it is a fairly recession-proof job,” Berkey says. He notes that real estate attorneys are highly sought after currently because of a surge in demand for single-family homes in the suburbs, and due to financial problems among commercial tenants whose businesses suffered during the pandemic and who have struggled to pay rent as a result.
Kara Cook, co-founder of the Cook & James law firm in Georgia, says a unique aspect of employment as a real estate lawyer is that it tends to be less combative.
“While conflicts between parties certainly arise, typically real estate law is not usually adversarial in nature,” she wrote in an email. “Thankfully, we are typically dealing with happy situations – refinancing to save money or purchase or sale of a home.”