A Thoughtful Look At Building A Diversified Real Estate Practice

Sunday, April 1, 2007 - 01:00

Editor: Mr. Sklaroff, would you tell our readers something about your professional experience?

Sklaroff: After graduation from the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1967, I clerked for a trial judge in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. After two years, I went on to private practice. In 1972, I was asked by Lynne Abraham (now Philadelphia's District Attorney) to be her Deputy, when she was appointed to serve as Executive Director of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority. In that capacity, I was in charge of Authority operations comprising six departments and 180 employees, including acquisition, condemnation, appraisal, relocation, and site improvements. After about 18 months, I returned to my former firm. In 1985, I and a small group of real estate lawyers moved to Ballard Spahr with the intention of building a top-tier real estate practice. Over a period of 20 years, the practice has grown from a handful of lawyers to 135 real estate lawyers distributed throughout the firm in nine of the firm's ten offices.

Editor: What attracted you to Ballard Spahr?

Sklaroff: When I joined, Ballard Spahr had a national reputation in public finance and a strong regional corporate practice. With Ballard Spahr's platform and client base, I believed that it would be possible to build a preeminent real estate practice.

Editor: How has that practice evolved over the 20 years you have been at Ballard Spahr?

Sklaroff: Oddly enough, much of the growth of the practice derives from the depressed real estate market of the late 1980s and early 90s. The state of the market during that period served to provide us with some significant opportunities. In 1992, for example, Morty Fisher and a group of lawyers, from the former Baltimore firm Frank Bernstein, joined us and brought to Ballard the top real estate practice in Maryland. Thereafter, we were able to attract lawyers of star quality from all across the country. Dick Goldberg came to practice in Philadelphia after having been real estate counsel with the Rouse Corporation in Columbia, Maryland for 23 years. Beverly Quail, a real estate partner in Denver with a stellar national reputation, joined us in 1996. Allan Winn and Paul Casey, who had national reputations in housing law, particularly with respect to HUD programs, joined our Washington, DC office. Paul, now in our Baltimore office, has built a dominant practice in HUD HOPE VI housing programs across the country in 40 different cities. One of the most prominent of these undertakings is the representation of the New Orleans Housing Authority, so Paul and his team are literally engaged in rebuilding the city. In addition, we have people like Steve Peterson and Tom Bennett in our Salt Lake City office, and Mike Clowdus and Chris Payne in our Denver office, who have built a national and, indeed, international, hotel and resort practice. Their projects extend to Mexico, the Caribbean, France and Italy. David Pollock also came to our Philadelphia office in the 90s. He is one of the premier bankruptcy lawyers in the country, with a particular focus on commercial retail bankruptcy and the representation of shopping center developers all over the country. A core of top real estate lawyers in our Voorhees, NJ office strengthens our Mid-Atlantic presence.

The experience and know-how that this practice represents is extraordinary.

Editor: Speaking of evolution, the firm recently opened three additional offices in Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Bethesda, Maryland. They all have strong real estate lawyers and prominent clients. What is the strategy here?

Sklaroff: This is not merely a real estate practice strategy, but rather firm-wide. You know the old adage that there are three things important in real estate: location, location and location. Well, Phoenix, Las Vegas and Bethesda have three things in common: growth, growth and growth. Bethesda is in Montgomery County, Maryland, which is probably the most dynamic development area in the Mid-Atlantic region. Roger Winston, in that office, is the go-to-guy for planned communities and condominium developments in Maryland, the District of Columbia, and northern Virginia.

Phoenix and Las Vegas are immensely important markets for real estate and for commercial activity generally. Just recently, The New York Times carried a front-page story on Maricopa County, Arizona (Phoenix), the fastest-growing county in the nation. We are particularly fortunate in having Karen McConnell and Steve Savage in the Phoenix office, which holds enormous promise for us.

In our Las Vegas office, Bill Curran and his colleague Stan Parry have been leaders in the community for many years. Bill chaired the Nevada Gaming Commission for a period of ten years.

Editor: I gather that your practice is able to call upon other practice groups for support and that, by the same token, you are on call to support others in their work.

Sklaroff: Absolutely. The resources of the entire firm are available to support our efforts. Chief among those on whom we call are the environmental, litigation and business and finance practices. Of course, all of our 135 real estate lawyers are available to support the firm's other practice groups.

Editor: Has the recent slump in the real estate market affected the demand for legal services in this area?

Sklaroff: Neither the quality nor the quantity of our work has been affected by the downturn in the real estate market. We are sufficiently diversified - both in terms of our geographical reach and our areas of activity - to avoid being adversely affected by temporary changes in the market. In building this practice, we sought to create, both within our group and in the various practices that support it, skill sets that cover the entire range of practice competencies under the banner, "Ballard Helps Build the Nation." Our lawyers use cutting-edge techniques in acquisition, construction, development, finance, real property taxation, leasing, housing, hotel/resort, and so on. Our vibrant development practice is engaged in flagship representations for corporate America: corporate headquarters, office buildings, laboratories, port facilities, railway facilities, airports, distribution centers, public/private joint ventures and the like. Of course, with a changing market we see changes in some of our practice areas. In southeastern Pennsylvania, for example, the condominium boom has eased, but we are seeing a surge in the development of hotel properties.

Editor: Where does the practice reside?

Sklaroff: Our model is a practice uniformly distributed across the firm. We are in nine of the firm's offices, and in about half of those offices we are the largest practice area.

Editor: Do you find governmental experience is helpful for your clients?

Sklaroff: Very much so. Over the years we have been able to create relationships with officials in a variety of governmental agencies. These relationships derive, I think, from being both straightforward and cooperative in our dealings with government. Many of the projects in which we are involved are public-private joint ventures, which simply cannot happen without governmental support.

Many of our lawyers have governmental experience, myself included. Many are active in civic activities in their communities which, of necessity, bring them into contact with community leaders and public officials.

As real estate lawyers, we have a particular appreciation of the importance of government in development projects. We develop and conduct programs in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland which emphasize the role that government plays in providing incentives for development projects. Currently, we are in engaged in efforts with Governor Rendell's economic development officials to revitalize cities across Pennsylvania.

Editor: The firm has a history of being supportive of pro bono efforts. Does the real estate department have any significant projects or cases?

Sklaroff: Absolutely. Ballard Spahr is engaged in pro bono activities in all of our offices. The Department itself is engaged. We are involved in projects for Habitat for Humanity, a community-building effort in Mississippi's Gulf Coast and the work Paul Casey is leading in the reconstruction of New Orleans.

We are also engaged in historical preservation efforts to protect community assets ranging from Bartram's Garden, the colonial naturalist's homestead, to a Civil War era cemetery to America's first paper mill.

Editor: Over the span of your career what are the biggest changes you have witnessed within the real estate field?

Sklaroff: Technological advances have permitted lawyers access to information in ways that were unimaginable in the past, but they have intensified the necessity for rapid response to clients' needs. That is a dramatic change, and it impacts the entire profession.

As for real estate lawyers, we have evolved from being, essentially, transactional practitioners to a role that places us directly into the mainstream of the client's business concerns. In handling major development projects, we act like film producers. We coordinate a variety of professional disciplines to help accomplish the client's desires, on budget and on time. At Ballard Spahr we are, I think, particularly adept at coordinating input from a variety of disciplines and, in addition, we add a strong governmental relations capability to this portfolio of know-how.

Editor: What about the future?

Sklaroff: In our Mid-Atlantic offices, we have a very exciting platform, and we believe we are in a position to be the go-to firm for real estate services in this region. Our position in the West, where there are many opportunities, is equally exciting. We can shape our destiny in growing markets.

The challenge for us is to manage our national, regional and local practices and work them into a cohesive and dynamic framework that functions across the entire firm. To this end, we continue to look at expanding the platform, enhancing our expertise and entering new high-growth markets.

Please email the interviewee at sklaroff@ballardspahr.com with questions about this interview.