36 Years of Practicing Real Estate Law: Perspectives from Partner Bruce D. Friedberg

On November 1, 2020, Bruce D. Friedberg, Esq., joined Holm & O’Hara LLP as partner and head of our residential real estate practice. We spoke with Bruce to get a sense of how he approaches the practice of law, lessons he has learned in 36 years of practice and the impact of COVID-19 on his approach.

What drew you to the practice of real estate law?

I grew up in an environment centered on real estate. My father was a developer and my mother was a broker. My father dealt with lawyers all of his career and encouraged me to go to law school. Having obtained a Bachelor of Science in Management and Business, I decided to follow the JD path and combine my passion for real estate, law and business. I liked that real estate law transactions involved numbers and finance, and that the matters had a definitive end. Most deals have a 60 to 90 day cycle, and my job is to continually orchestrate the numerous moving parts in that cycle from contract to closing. My motto is: “Always open, always closing,” which tells my clients that, not only am I always there for them, but I am always conscious that the deal needs to get done so we can all focus on the next important project.

What has been the biggest shaper of your career?

I would have to say that it’s the variety of work experience I’ve been able to acquire. My first legal position was in the public sector, working with the SEC on insider trading issues down in DC. When I came back to New York early on in my career, I was fortunate to work with four prominent real estate firms—and to have a different experience at each one of them because they each had different focal areas. As a result, I was able to learn every facet of transactional real estate for both residential and commercial deals.

What do you think distinguishes you as an attorney?

That’s easy; there are three big things:

1. I constantly strive to set the gold standard for professionalism and high quality work product. I take pride in the quality of my work. If it’s my work—or work from my firm—I want it to look a certain way. I realize that mistakes are inevitable and will always take the time to point them out to junior people in ways they can learn from them.

2. Generally, I’m a very adaptive and agile leader. I work hard to handle clients well, no matter how “difficult” they might seem to be. I work at their pace and get on their level so they can have confidence in what we are doing. I really like it when clients ask questions, no matter how complex or elementary. I’ll do a lot of due diligence and help clients evaluate the pros and the cons of a particular deal or course of action. I recognize that, though a deal might not seem so big on paper, it looms large for the client and there is a lot of emotional investment. I work to remain conscious of this and put my emotional IQ to work.

3. Finally, I like opportunities to be creative. You don’t usually think of creativity in the traditional sense having much to do with the practice of law. Yet often times, a transaction calls for a new type of paragraph or provision. There’s also room for creativity in juggling many deals. It is like moving chess pieces around. You look at things from 30,000 feet and then zoom in to examine the critical details. I excel at advising and helping clients evaluate what they can and cannot ask for in a particular situation.

What is the most surprising thing you have learned as a real estate attorney?

When you are working on a real estate transaction, you are often in the position of having two clients. There is the actual client who is making the purchase or sale, and who of course always comes first. Then there is the broker who brought you into the transaction. There’s a delicate balancing act trying to keep them both informed and happy. I have learned that my job is larger than merely client representation. It’s about creating a collaborative team atmosphere with the client, broker and lawyer which plays a large part in the best representation of and for the client.

A lot of your practice involves negotiations. How do you handle them?

In the legal profession, there are essentially two styles of negotiation. On the one hand, you can be intelligent, logical and firm. On the other, you can be a kind of bully, yelling and screaming to get your way. I prefer the first style. The bullies tend to get under my skin and it’s hard not to let them boil my blood, but when you deal with a bully, you have to bully back. Every time I have to enter into a negotiation with opposing counsel, I know there are going to be some wrinkles. I also know that, no matter how effective I am at representing my client, the outcome is seldom going to be all or nothing. A genuine negotiation is all about the compromise and it is usually possible to get to a win-win. The biggest mistakes people make in negotiation are giving into fear and over-negotiating. Fear can lead to threats, which usually don’t work well, delay the transaction and run up costs for the clients. And holding out for a total win without compromise can scuttle a deal. I’ve earned a strong reputation for having good relationships with my all counterparts, which can help us find satisfactory middle ground.

You started your own firm?

I did. When I left the last larger firm I was working for, I wanted to exercise my entrepreneurial instincts. After firm life, my path first started with me working out of my apartment which then led to the official start of the firm in 2000. I was able to draw on the relationships I had built over the prior decades. I was gratified to find that prior clients were more than ready to put their trust in me again, regardless of where I practiced. As the firm evolved, one of the most rewarding things for me as a leader was to mentor younger attorneys and paraprofessionals, guiding and ensuring that they would develop into successful professionals. When it was time to wind down the firm, while it was bittersweet, I think we all took pride in what we had created together and confidence that we would retain strong collegial relationships with each other no matter where we ended up.

What brought you to Holm & O’Hara LLP?

As I’ve said throughout this discussion, relationships have been central to my practice of law. I’ve known and worked with the attorneys at Holm & O’Hara LLP for a long time, so there’s a lot of trust and a keen sense that we can readily work well as a cohesive team. The firm also offers the kind of opportunity that I want for the next stage of my career: to offer exceptional value to my clients by leveraging the breadth of the firm’s practice offerings, excellent infrastructure and superior staff. Beyond that, I think that my extensive expertise and network within residential real estate compliments the existing trust and estate practice, employment law and other areas of the firm. I see a tremendous opportunity to expand a strong existing real estate practice area within Holm and O’Hara LLP which will benefit our collective clients.

How has COVID-19 changed your practice?

This is still a work in progress, since we aren’t through with the pandemic yet. I’ve written and been interviewed for various articles on how the pandemic has changed the process of closings, probably forever. In New York, you would travel for half an hour to get to the closing, sit around executing quadruple copies of documents while invariably swapping stories, then wait half an hour for copies to be made and travel for another half hour back to the office. It could easily take half a day. In the face of COVID and in the best interests for all parties’ safety and health, coming up with remote/virtual protocols and getting everyone on board with them took some doing. Lenders in particular were not used to this as they want “wet” signatures on everything. We’ve gotten this down, I think, and I expect it to be the model going forward.

Another thing that has been particularly challenging is trying to find ways to make existing contracts work in the new environment. We have had to be very creative not to have deals fall apart and go into litigation.

A third enormous change perhaps does not directly affect how I work with clients, but it has had a profound impact on my practice and ongoing professional development. At the beginning of the lockdown in March, I started a Zoom meeting with maybe 40 or 50 attorneys with the intent to gather strength as a legal community. It was initially a kind of support group that met twice a week. None of us knew what the future might hold, whether we were going to have any business or even whether we’d be able to see people we’d known for 20 years. The Zoom group I created allowed us to exchange experiences and ideas to better serve our clients amidst the chaos. I gradually expanded it to include brokers, title companies and lenders. I also had guest speakers and topical discussions. I’m looking forward to continuing the group as part of my practice at Holm & O’Hara LLP.

What is the most unusual deal you have worked on?

The one that stands out involved the purchase of a very high-profile residential property by a well-known individual. It turned out to be a great deal for the buyer, although it certainly seemed expensive at the time. The sale involved a lot of personal property and the inventory of that was 40 pages long, including every gold doorknob, faucet and bathrobe hook. The personal property may have cost more than the real estate.

In another highly unusual deal, my client was negotiating to buy a Manhattan property for redevelopment as condominiums. Both sellers were in jail for tenant harassment, so their wives were conduits for the negotiation. They would check with their husbands during weekend visitations and come back to negotiate with us during the week.

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