What Construction / Property / Real Estate Lawyers Do
Attorneys who work in real estate law handle issues related to the sale, rental, management, financing, construction, or use of commercial or residential property and the buildings on it. Their work is generally transactional, versus litigation-based, and may cover a broad spectrum of real estate transactions or be highly-focused, covering areas such as zoning, mortgages, real estate development, international real estate, or landlord-tenant laws. Some real estate lawyers work in courtrooms, but this is typically only when a dispute over ownership or land use comes into play or when landlords and tenants have grievances against one another. The rest of the time, they work on ensuring all legal requirements are met before property is transferred or modified.
Who would enjoy a career in Construction and Property Law?
Real estate law is usually broken up into individual projects with clear endings or “closings,” and is generally transactional, which makes it a good fit for attorneys who prefer compartmentalized work outside the courtroom. Though complex, there also tends to be specific steps to be carried out in any transaction, and doesn’t involve legal theory, as other branches may, so it’s better-suited to those who are analytic and prefer structure. The field also converges with family, estate, contract, and environmental law sometimes, so many lawyers work in real estate law for a period of time in order to develop a broader skillset.
Who mightn't like the career?
Earnings can be hit or miss in real estate law. For example, a small-town lawyer who focuses on residential law may not see the same paycheck a commercial real estate in a large city will, but there are also tradeoffs for time invested as well. For example, it’s somewhat common for those who work in boutique firms that specialize in residential real estate law to work a standard work week, whereas those in big law working in the commercial sector will likely find themselves in the office on nights and weekends in order to get deals wrapped up quickly for their clients. For this reason, people considering a career in real estate law should choose a specialty and firm with their desired hours and income in mind.
Admittance into an accredited university upon completion of entry exams is the first step in entering law. Quality institutions have rigorous requirements and competition for positions is fierce. A law degree is required in order to practice at any level above the rank of intern or summer associate in the US and Canada. In the UK and Australia, offerings such as the Graduate Diploma of Law (GDL) or the Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice (GDLP), respectively, are available, which allow people with virtually any undergraduate degree to move into law. Each jurisdiction has further requirements, including a bar exam and licensure process.
- Juris Doctor
- Master of Laws
- Doctor of Juridical Science
- Bachelor of Laws (also called a BL or LLB for the Latin Legum Baccalaureus)
- Graduate Diploma of Law (GDL)
- Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice (GDLP)
Those who are aware they’d like to enter into a law career should plan early and apply for a summer associate or internship position while still in school, as the experience will help secure a long-term position after graduation.
- Harvard Law School’s “Questions You Should Be Prepared to Answer”
- 10 tips for a strong legal internship interview
Moving into Construction and Property Law from another career
It can be difficult to transition into law, simply because one must pass legal exams and participate in additional coursework. At the same time, some big firms appreciate diversity and take pride in amassing a staff with unique non-legal backgrounds, as these individuals are better prepared to understand the needs of each sector that is being represented by the firm.
- Consulting (general business)
- University Professor (any subject, especially law)
- Law (family, estate, contract, environmental)
- Government (diplomat, military, politician)
- Economics Consultant
Graduate / Associate
Role: Incoming lawyers are referred to as associates. Students who are interning may have the distinction of being called a “summer clerk” or “summer associate,” and those fresh from university will be called “first-year associates,” and so on. Lawyers typically hold the title of associate for somewhere between seven and ten years, depending on the firm. During this time, their job is to support the firm’s partners, generally by handling research and reviewing contracts. It’s worth noting that some firms have an “up or out” policy, meaning that if a lawyer is not on the tenure track and does not become a partner within the allotted time, they are asked to leave the firm.
Role: Generally speaking, the title of senior associate is offered to a lawyer around five years into practice, though each firm will have its own guidelines. During this phase, the senior associate is expected to behave as if he or she is a junior partner. Ownership of projects is expected and the individual should be an expert in the area he or she covers. Tasks of greater importance may be assigned to senior associates by the firm’s partners and senior associates will generally have junior associates they can delegate some of their work to. It’s while working as a senior associate that a lawyer demonstrates to the firm that he or she is an indispensable part of the firm and is already behaving as if a partner.
Role: Associates who have proven themselves and are managing some of their own clients as well as bringing in new clients are typically offered partnerships. The exception to this is firms that have “of counsel” positions, which is a promotion from associate for those not on the partner career track. When a lawyer is offered a partnership role, it’s generally an equity partnership in which the lawyer “buys in” to the practice and then earns a percentage of the profits. As part owner, he also gets a say in the firm’s business decisions. Some firms may offer non-equity partnerships and let their seasoned lawyers take a salary instead of being part owner.
Real estate lawyers generally work in one region due to differences in municipal codes. However, those who represent large corporations may travel anywhere the company does business or areas the company is considering doing business. Naturally, those who work in specific niches of real estate law, such as those with a focus on international transactions, will likely travel more too.
Entry Level: According to data from PayScale, those beginning their careers have salaries of approximately USD $95,258 in the United States, £39,530 in the United Kingdom, CAD$90,210 in Canada, and AU$71,860 in Australia.
Mid-Career: USD$121,077, £70,800, CAD$110,580, AU$113,943.
Experienced: USD$159,040, £74,340, CAD$121,250, AU$145,816.
Naturally, bonuses and profit sharing are a major part of a partner’s income. With additional payments, an experienced attorney can earn more than USD$307,000, £120,000, CAD$156,000, or AU$206,000.
Why Construction / Property / Real Estate Lawyers move on
Because real estate law converges with so many other areas of law, it’s somewhat common for attorneys to work in real estate law for a period of time in order to gain firsthand knowledge of the field and apply it to their primary field, or they may become involved in real estate law as a component of their initial field and find they prefer it. For example, in “ The Pros And Cons Of Practicing As A Real Estate Attorney,” John O'Brien talks about becoming burnt out on the unhappiness of divorce law, which often entails some real estate law for the purpose of property division, and moving fully into real estate law as a final result. In the same piece, Susan A. Bernstein talks about beginning in environmental law, but now helps clients “navigate the thick and complicated field of environmental regulations needed in most commercial real estate transactions.” Being able to move into a niche-specific are of real estate law makes it much easier for attorneys to find the right role for their needs, but some do become disenchanted with repetitive work, extensive hours, and having pay depend heavily on the economy. In these cases, lawyers often move into another aspect of real estate, such as development or work as a real estate agent. For further reading, see “10 Things to Know About Real Estate Practice.”