Say what you will about the legal profession, mighty CEOs no less than newly minted college graduates need educated fighters who dicker and bicker and shout and squabble so they don’t have to. The conventional wisdom is wise indeed: Nobody likes lawyers until they need one.
Odds are you are going to need one. Whether you’re working out a deal to lease new office space for your business or threatening legal action against your upstairs neighbor because an overflowing bathtub flooded your condo, you’ll eventually require expert legal assistance. In the office, at home, because of a sudden interruption to your everyday life, or because a chronic problem just keeps getting worse, you’ll want an attorney’s advice.
There is indeed a direct correlation between major life events and lawyers. In the world we all live in, our rites of passage are typically accompanied by legal issues—even where there is no evident “problem.” Employment lawyers are good folks to talk to if you’re getting a new job or being promoted. You’ll talk to trusts and estates lawyers if you make a million or a bankruptcy lawyer if you lose your shirt. Getting divorced obviously requires a lawyer but, in the age of the prenup, so too does getting married.
Even if you manage to avoid retaining and paying a lawyer directly, you’ll feel their influence. Attorneys have reviewed the contracts you’re offered, approved your employee manual, gone line-by-line over that 20-page real estate lease, or overseen financing for the new bridge you’ll drive across on your way to work.
It’s no wonder, then, that the practice of law itself has become highly specialized and that nearly every genus of daily life is inevitably enmeshed—for better or worse—in a legal web of some sort. Some attorneys, for instance, simply focus on real estate transactions, handling everything from financing and purchases and acquisitions to leasing and joint venture agreements, for everyone from big-time developers to individuals buying their first condo.
What can seem like a straightforward transaction, a basic sell-buy arrangement, can actually become fairly complicated as mortgage contingencies, engineering inspections, and the extent of any repairs is bargained over. Is that crystal chandelier in the dining room staying, or will it be replaced with a cheaper lighting fixture? Will the drapes remain? What if the sellers want to stay in the home for a few more months until their new place is ready? What happens if the bank is moving slowly in approving the buyer’s mortgage? What if lightning strikes and the place burns down before the purchaser has even moved in? Suddenly, a seemingly simple transaction becomes much more involved. Add to the mix the emotions of both buyer (perhaps investing her life savings) and seller (whose attachment to his about-to-be former home may lead to some foot-dragging), and tensions can escalate. Of course, with a good lawyer, many potential pitfalls can be avoided before they even rise to the level of being a problem. Much can be hammered out during the contract-negotiation phase, when buyer and seller flesh out the specifics of their agreement. “The contracts are there to protect your interests, not to waive them,” explains Samuel Zylberberg, a partner in the New York City office of Weil, Gotshal & Manges.
In a booming real estate market, there are plenty of deals for real estate lawyers to negotiate. But during a downturn, a real estate lawyer’s work becomes that much more important. “When the market is great, everyone keeps buying and selling and everyone is happy,” Zylberberg says. When the market shifts downward, however, “contracts get tested and loan agreements get tested because borrowers go into default,” he explains. Especially in those situations, it’s that much more important to have gotten good counsel in the first place.
Living—and Resting—in Peace
Domestic “deal making” is also a legal potpourri in any number of ways. “There’s been no slowdown in divorces,” says Eleanor Breitel Alter, a partner at Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman in New York City. There are even a fair number of repeat clients and “some recidivism,” says Donald Frank, a partner in the New York City office of Blank Rome. Before walking up the aisle in the first place, some people prefer the safety of a prenuptial agreement to protect them from what they darkly suspect is inevitable. “I used to see prenuptial agreements in second marriages, but I’m seeing a lot more of them in first marriages as well,” observes Frank. Prenuptial agreements are increasingly popular among young professionals, Alter reports. Some people even want to do agreements in the middle of a marriage, she adds.
Partnership contracts are not just for the married and marriageable. “People sometimes want to have agreements if they are living together but aren’t married or can’t be married,” Alter explains. Gay couples, for instance, might “want to make arrangements that are binding with respect to children or finances,” she says.