Dan Flanigan, chair of the Real Estate & Financial Services Department and managing partner of the New York office of Am Law 100 firm Polsinelli, sat down with the New York Real Estate Journal for a Question & Answer session.
Q: How and when did you get your start in real estate law?
A: In an odd way. I received a Ph.D. in History from Rice University and a J.D. on the same day from the University of Houston. It was a bespoke dual degree program from two different universities because Rice doesn’t have a law school. At the time I had no desire to practice law. I taught American Legal History and other things at the University of Virginia for a short time, but really wasn’t cut out for academia. Meanwhile, my father-in-law was a real estate developer who got caught in the interest rate volatility insanity of the 1970s and went bankrupt. What a horrible life, I thought at the time, from my academic ivory tower. Yet, I ended up in law with a heavy concentration in real estate, real estate finance, and bankruptcy, all those “horrible” things. Like a moth to flame, I guess. But, luck of the draw, what was bad for him has been good to me.
Q: Tell us about your most influential / top case.
A: As for reputation and all that, it’s really many, many cases over a long period of time. But the deal that stands out most in my mind, because it prepared me for a future when “instantaneous” would become the universally expected response, was a loan transaction that came in on Christmas Eve a long time ago. It was a very large loan secured by all of the rolling stock of a major railroad. The proceeds were to be used to settle a “bet-the-company” antitrust case scheduled for trial on January 2, so funds had to be wired on New Year’s Eve. During those few days I had to stand fast against some very respected lawyers telling my skeptical bank client that I was wrong in my advice that the transaction had to be approved by the Interstate Commerce Commission or the bank’s security would be worthless. We got a couple of the commissioners out of bed in D.C. the night of December 30 and they signed the approval in their pajamas.
Q: Your clients refer to you as a “master strategist,” can you explain why?
A: Thank you, clients, but I think that is just a rather grandiose way of describing someone who tries very hard to be creative in helping them solve problems—whether it’s a litigation strategy, a creative use of Chapter 11, or the efficient mobilization of talent required to execute a large portfolio transaction. Actually, my favorite compliment (if that’s what it was) was the overheard comment of another lawyer that, “Flanigan would throw himself in front of a truck for his clients.” A little crazy but I value that one most of all.
Q: We see that Polsinelli has just moved into a larger office space in Manhattan. Can you explain the expansion, and the need for more lawyers in the New York City area?
A: I don’t know if New York “needs” us, but we “need” New York. Just look around, who would not want to be here? But we have grown this firm from 96 lawyers at the time I joined the firm to 800 with 20 strategically placed offices, including all of the major financial centers, and we have developed several truly national practices. The Real Estate and Financial Services group that I chair (which, by the way, includes financial services broadly, not just real estate finance) has itself grown from something fewer than 20 lawyers to 180. We cannot be what we want to be without a vital presence here. What we do offer, to New York and everywhere else, are at least two pretty special things:
1.) A very attractive value proposition, especially to the “middle market,” based on a constant striving to keep our “pricing” moderate that has appealed not just to clients but to lawyers with middle market clients in firms where they can’t afford their associates, let alone themselves, at their stratospheric billing rates; and
2.) For clients, especially development, lending, and investment firms with a vision embracing both east and west of the Hudson, a tightly integrated, collaborative, and efficiency-oriented approach to legal services with a truly national footprint.
Q: What do you view as the top three legal issues currently facing the New York City real estate market and why?
A: Three very important places where the law and public policy intersect—affordable housing, infrastructure, and immigration (el futuro es en espanol). Oh, and did I say “affordable housing?” I should have said that three times. And it’s by no means just about the “poor,” it’s about everyone but the 1%. It’s not about a “social safety net” either, although that’s a good reason all by itself. It’s about the survival of a vital, unique, wonderful culture that is disappearing (for example, the vanishing of all the little special “Mom & Pop,” often unique, retail shops that used to honeycomb this town). I had the misfortune to experience an emergency hospitalization recently and I thought about all those vital health professionals taking care of me. How will people like that, of a lot more importance than I am, that’s for sure, manage to survive here so they can take care of the rest of us?
Q: Do you have any moments that you would consider “career defining?”
A: Nearly 20 years ago now, three of my good banker clients and friends embarked on a very risky start-up to originate and securitize commercial mortgage loans. I agreed to help with some seed capital and worked with them through some difficult times. Our first securitization was, I kid you not, the day of the Russian bond default in 1998 (long term capital, “flight to quality,” market tanked, losses followed). I don’t think I ever got my full investment back, but it led to a national CMBS practice and almost 20 years of an exciting, if often terrifying, ride on the “real estate capital markets volatility roller coaster.”
Q: What professional organizations are you involved with?
A: CREFC, MBA, REBNY, and the American Bankruptcy Institute.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: Chop wood, carry water. Keep helping to build a top-flight law firm and financial services and real estate practice, nationally but especially in New York, and, most of all, to keep “exploring strange new worlds.”
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