A Real Estate LL.M. is an Asset in a Downturn

Law schools create specialist courses in property and sustainability

How we develop and manage our built environment matters now more than ever in a pandemic, and real estate attorneys are the lynchpin for every aspect of this vital practice.

“Real estate has been an increasingly important part of global markets for decades and the fundamental role it plays in cities will continue even as we emerge from the current crisis with new insights for a changing world,” says Nestor Davidson, faculty director of the Urban Law Center at Fordham University’s School of Law.

The institution in New York crystallized the importance of property and land when it established a new LL.M. in Real Estate earlier this year — one of many courses offered by leading law schools. These include courses at Emory Law, the Notre Dame Law School in the US and the University of Vienna in Europe.

The coronavirus crisis has caused unprecedented disruption to the sector, with its fortunes closely tied to economic cycles. When Covid-19 struck, construction stalled, retail crashed, the hospitality industry collapsed, tenants stopped paying rent.

But rather than drying up the work of real estate lawyers, the current situation means they are busy advising their clients on how to minimize or mitigate risk and losses, renegotiate loans and deal with non-paying tenants.

And Raquel Matas, acting director of the Real Property Development LL.M. at University of Miami School of Law, says a second phase of the crisis beckons, with cash-rich developers using attorneys to buy distressed assets at healthy discounts.

“Cities needing the revenue from building permits and fees will encourage development and ease on restrictions. Strip malls that go bankrupt will become available for redevelopment; the cycle will begin again,” she says.

Job prospects for Real Estate LL.M. grads

In the wake of the 2008 economic crunch, institutional investors piled into real estate because the low interest rate environment left them starving for yield. The asset class became mainstream in the 1990s, and its more recent popularity has greatly enhanced the job prospects of real estate lawyers.

Miami’s LL.M. graduates work in large law firms such as DLA Piper and Akerman. They also join boutique real estate advisory firms like Rennert Vogel, and land jobs with big developers as well as in government agencies like the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. Others become entrepreneurs, developing or investing in real estate themselves.

Matas insists that despite the deep economic downturn, a Real Estate LL.M. is not a risky proposition. “We tell our students that real estate is cyclical,” she says. “In the up cycles, lawyers are helping clients create assets. In the down cycle they are helping clients protect assets. The well-prepared real estate lawyer will be able to pivot.”

Real estate and sustainability

Miami’s LL.M. includes foundational courses in core competencies such as mortgage law, tax, leasing, development, transactions and environmental regulation. Like on other LL.M.s, the theme of sustainability is a common thread through the curriculum, with Miami’s students able to take specialist courses in such subjects as affordable housing — a vexed issue around the world.

It is a similar story at Fordham, which offers LL.M. courses on environmental law, land use, climate change law and policy. “Sustainability is an important aspect of both the core real estate curriculum as well as the broader educational ecosystem at Fordham,” says Davidson, the Albert Walsh chair in real estate, land use and property law.

He says New York City, a global leader in sustainable real estate, infrastructure and community planning, is a good backdrop to studying on the LL.M. The program offers a breadth of foundational knowledge — from transactions and finance to land use regulation and the role of capital markets.

For those who are seeking to build a career in a real estate practice, such instruction is essential because most JD programs include very little content in this niche, says Miami’s Matas.

“Given the increased complexity of real estate development, pursuing a specialized post-graduate degree is one of the most efficient ways to acquire the necessary breadth and depth of expertise,” she says.

And her course goes beyond the theory to include site visits to real estate projects where students learn from experts in zoning and environmental issues, as well as architects, developers, lenders and tenants. The students also participate in an internship at law firms, developers or in the public sector.

Their future looks more uncertain now but Davidson, at Fordham, is optimistic. “Every potential student must weigh the benefits and risks of investing in their education,” he says. “No doubt, there is more uncertainty in times of economic distress, but real estate lawyers have an important role to play in helping clients in all economic circumstances.”

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