A Diverse Practice: Chair of the Women’s Initiative who orchestrates transactions that straddle real estate and finance, Joy Barrist proffers diversity in both practice and mission

Friday, March 4, 2016 - 00:20

Joy Barrist, a partner at Benesch, focuses her practice on representing financial institutions, primarily in commercial real estate transactions, as well as real estate investors, developers and private equity firms. She also serves as the chair of the firm’s Women’s Initiative. She notes the trends in borrowing activities and offers an ardent elucidation of the importance of diversity initiatives. Her remarks have been edited for length and style.


MCC: With the expectation that interest rates will continue to inch up, what activities and changes do you foresee in your practice in 2016?


Barrist: I would expect the practice to continue to be extremely busy, as it was in 2015. In ’15, as the year progressed, the deal volume increased significantly. One of the factors was the fear, or the anticipation of, an increase in interest rates. Clients with credit facilities nearing maturity were motivated to refinance on a longer-term basis at the lowest interest rate possible for as long a period as they could. So we had, especially in Q4 ’15, a very, very heavy deal flow, which I see continuing into Q1 ’16, which traditionally tends to be a slower time for deal closings. 


MCC: What changes are you seeing in the types of secured or unsecured commercial loan transactions that you and your team are facilitating? Is demand for borrowing increasing? If so, is that trend specific to particularly industries?


Barrist: There’s definitely an increase in demand for borrowing, especially on the real estate side. Again, owners and developers want to lock in their rates for long-term refinancing, or even if it’s construction financing they are seeking, they want to know what their project costs are going to be. 

The types of transactions that I’m seeing haven’t changed drastically over the past couple of years, although there’s definitely a change if you go back to pre-’08 in what lenders were willing to do versus what they’re doing now. Most lenders are still keeping their underwriting pretty tight.  

That being said, there is some increased competition with many lenders chasing the same deals, and certain aspects of transactions are loosening up a little bit – the guarantee component, is one example. I’ve been seeing more nonrecourse or guarantee burn-offs in transactions, especially real estate transactions, which is something that we haven’t seen for a while. This is not so much in the permanent market, where we are still seeing a lot of nonrecourse loans, but in the shorter-term market – we’ll say terms up to 10 years – there is just a lot more flexibility with the terms and conditions surrounding guarantees. 

In general, there’s a lot of money out there that can be borrowed, and there are a lot of sources other than financial institutions that are willing to be flexible in how deals are structured and the tiers of permitted borrowings.


MCC: You’ve represented lenders for several commercial and residential real estate projects in the U.S., Mexico and the Caribbean. How does your practice in finance and banking dovetail with your firm’s real estate practice group, and what do you see on the horizon in these areas?


Barrist: My practice overlaps significantly between both the finance group and the real estate group. As the majority of my financing transactions are real estate based, they fall more heavily into the real estate practice group here than the finance group. I do utilize the support of the finance group at certain times in the drafting of documentation and especially when handling syndicated transactions. In those deals, I rely on the real estate group more for diligence review and diligence support. But my practice really does fall between both practice groups. 

And both groups are extremely busy. The real estate market is very hot, so there’s a lot going on in our real estate group, other than the finance side of these projects. My partners handle a lot of development work and retail leasing work – we have some very large national clients for whom we handle a large majority of their retail leasing work across the country. As interest rates rise, we are seeing capitalization issues with retail properties. Many landlords are hot to restructure leases and renew at higher rates to address these capitalization issues. 


MCC: You’re currently serving as the co-vice chair of the Mortgage Lending Committee in the Real Property, Trust and Estate section of the ABA. Can you share the priorities for that section with our readers?


Barrist: The section as a whole is a national forum for lawyers. It currently has about 22,000 members. The Real Property section focuses on all legal aspects of property use, ownership, development, transfer and financing, which is where I come in. The Mortgage Lending Committee is active in various forms of mortgage lending, including mortgage servicing, workouts, distressed assets and banking regulations. We meet and discuss hot topics in mortgage lending and plan various e-learning seminars and webinars, a fundamentals of commercial real estate program, and any opportunities for writing articles and live speaking engagements. The committee also put on programming for the Real Property, Trust and Estate Section at the ABA’s annual symposium, which is being held in Boston from May 12 through 14. Personally, myself, I speak at that symposium every year on different topics relating to mortgage lending, usually providing the lender’s perspective. Two years ago my topic was title insurance and the new endorsements. Last year it was loan amendments. This year I’m speaking on SNDAs – subordination, nondisturbance and attornment agreements – lender-tenant negotiations. The committee’s main service to the ABA at large is our programming, along with the articles that we write on topics that are very specific to the lender’s side of mortgage lending. 

As to the priorities for the section, that’s really finding the hot topics and bringing them to the rest of the members through the webinars, conferences and written articles. We try to find what’s hot out there and then do the research behind it so that we can provide the members with tangible information that they can use in their daily practices. 


MCC: The Benesch philosophy is to be committed to providing an inclusive and innovative environment and to work to ensure that every woman attorney is provided with the support she needs to succeed. What programs and tools are in place to accomplish this, and how is the program’s strength and consistency maintained? 


Barrist: Benesch attracts many talented male and female attorneys, and it’s the firm’s goal to see that all are provided exceptional support to succeed. Like all law firms, we want to increase the number of women who stay in private practice and develop into firm leaders. There are no clear answers or methods to achieving this goal. But we do know that the benefits of having more diverse perspectives in a decision-making setting can only have a positive influence on the success and growth of a firm. The goal is to find innovative ways to get there, and that is what Benesch Women’s Initiative (WIN) will be working on this year.    


MCC: Tell us about the Women’s Initiative.


Barrist: I took over as chair about a year ago, and we are in the midst of restructuring. It’s very near and dear to my heart, and I feel very strongly that it’s very important that law firms, along with other businesses, have structured women’s initiatives as a way to recruit, retain and promote female attorneys within firms and other organizations. The numbers speak for themselves. The research is all over the web, and anyone can see that most law firms start out with 50-50 gender equality at the incoming associate ranks. As you start looking at the gender percentages moving through the ranks – senior associates, of-counsel, junior partners, full equity partners – these percentages drop drastically. 

Our focus in the Women’s Initiative is to really help women in their business development and give them the training and opportunities to become business developers, because that’s what allows an attorney to move to higher ranks and what’s going to allow them to have management positions within the firm. 

At the end of the day, diverse perspectives and having a broad array of talent at the management level improves financial performance. That’s what every business, whether it’s a law firm or not, is trying to gain. The goal of the Women’s Initiative is to foster the development and growth in women so that the overall financial performance of the law firm can grow to an even higher level. 


MCC: As chair, what is your role, and what drives you to fulfill it? You mentioned a restructuring. What are your plans for the initiative in 2016? 


Barrist: My plans for 2016 include a functioning standing committee within the firm. We will have subcommittee chairs in each office and plan various internal and external programs to take place throughout the year. Internally, we will focus on educating both associates and partners, male and female, on the positives of gender differences and enhancing business development and leadership skills. Understanding implicit bias is one of the specific topics that I would like to address this year. Externally, our goal is to provide women with an opportunity to mingle with colleagues and clients in social settings and build confidence and comfort in their ability to “work a room” and build a network.


MCC: How does the firm help bolster the unified voice of this group, and what social opportunities exist?


Barrist: Senior firm management has been extremely supportive of my mission for Benesch WIN. We have our own budget, a key component, and I have no doubt that management and our most senior women partners will be present and engaged at our events. Our programming will not just benefit our women attorneys but many will be open to all attorneys.



Joy BarristPartner in the real estate and commercial finance and banking practice groups and the chair of Benesch’s Women’s Initiative. jbarrist@beneschlaw.com