New York’s Top Real Estate Lawyers

Mar.March 01, 2004 12:03 PM

Leonard Boxer

Partner, Chairman of Real Estate Practice

Stroock & Stroock & Lavan

A court battle with the Twin Towers insurers is Larry Silverstein’s main legal priority right now, but the focus of the Ground Zero rebuild will eventually shift to real estate law when development draws closer.

For that task, one of Silverstein’s key lawyers will likely be Leonard Boxer, whom the developer also counts as a friend.

Boxer was the real estate lawyer when Silverstein bought the World Trade Center in 2001, in “one of the great real estate stories ever,” the lawyer says. Silverstein was hit by a car just days before bids were due, but the deal was completed. Six weeks later the Trade Center was destroyed on Sept. 11.

“We had to be there for him while he was recuperating,” Boxer said. “He was in the hospital under an assumed name so nobody would know.”

Silverstein called Boxer, “a great negotiator and unique in that he’s also a good businessman, too.”

Boxer also took part in the biggest lease deal in Manhattan in 2003, representing HIP as the insurer took 486,000 square feet at 55 Water Street. Another recent triumph he “had his fingerprints all over,” Boxer said, was the development and financing of the Bear Stearns Building at 383 Madison Avenue, which opened two years ago.

With 45 lawyers, Boxer’s group ranks among the largest real estate practices in the city.

Though most highly noted for its development work, “we encompass every dimension you would need in the real estate world,” said Boxer, who came to the firm 16 years ago. A smaller firm, by contrast, wouldn’t have enough deals to support such a multi-faceted operation, he said. “You’ve got to keep people busy,” Boxer said.

Marty Edelman

Of Counsel, Real Estate Department

Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker

“I’ve been asked about being interviewed at different times over the years, but I’ve declined,” said Marty Edelman, one of the top real estate attorneys in the city, during a brief conversation with a reporter recently. Edelman acknowledges that he doesn’t want to tamper with his formula for success so far. “Maybe I’m superstitious,” he said.

It’s a formula that has worked. Edelman has spent more than 30 years focused on real estate andécorporate law, doing pioneering work on financial structures such as participating mortgages and institutional and international joint ventures.

He’s put together deals on his own, too. Without any brokers involved, Edelman earlier this year reportedly put together a $425 million deal in which Paramount contracted to buy 1540 Broadway from Bertelsmann.

In recent years, Edelman advised on a $600 million land purchase in Manhattan, one of the largest assemblages in New York. The former Consolidated Edison property consists of four parcels on First Avenue, between 35th and 41st streets.

Edelman has also been active in the hospitality sector in Japan and Mexico.

Having absorbed leading real estate boutique Battle Fowler in 2000, his firm has a very large local, national and international presence, with over 155 real estate lawyers total. The firm is noted for property development matters and for the diversity of its practice.

Around 55 of the firm’s real estate lawyers are in New York, including another top lawyer, Paul Selver, who deals with land use matters. Selver has also been involved in advising on the redevelopment of the former Consolidated Edison site on the East Side.

Stephen Lefkowitz


Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson

If the Jets stadium is completed on the far West Side of Manhattan and a Nets arena gets built in Brooklyn, it will be partly thanks to Stephen Lefkowitz.

The Fried Frank lawyer represents the New York Jets and Forest City Ratner in their respective projects, both of which look likely to transform parts of the city pegged for development in the next decade.

“I think Stephen is the top lawyer in his field,” said James Stuckey, director of commercial and residential development for Forest City Ratner. “He’s a great sounding board, and brilliant.”

Work on the Jets project started a year and a half ago, when planning began. Juggling both assignments, Lefkowitz said, “it’s been pretty active.” But the long-term nature of the projects means the work “ebbs and flows. These things take some years to develop,” he said.

Another project that Lefkowitz worked on, that recently came to fruition, was the Time Warner Center, which opened last month. (Of course he was there for the opening gala, he said.) Lefkowitz represented Time Warner in the development of the 2.8 million square foot project, which was started in 1999.

Farther back, Lefkowitz worked to find a new home for the Mercantile Exchange downtown, represented the stock exchange in its unsuccessful quest for a new home, and has done a lot of work for Douglas Durst, and, even farther back, Bill Zeckendorf, among countless other projects.

When Lefkowitz joined Fried Frank last year from Pillsbury Winthrop, it was considered a coup. He came to the firm “because it is the most interesting real estate practice in the city.”

Lefkowitz also served as an associate law professor at Columbia University and has worked in city and state government, including as special assistant counsel to Governor Nelson Rockefeller and for the state’s Urban Development Corporation.

Samuel Lindenbaum

Of Counsel, Land Use Group

Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel

When he switched to Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel from his old firm Rosenman & Colin two years ago, Sandy Lindenbaum got a higher-floor office with an even better view of the East Side than his former digs — and the skyline he’s played a big role in shaping.

“Look around, and I’ve had a hand in almost everything,” Lindenbaum said, looking out the window of his corner office on Third Avenue in the 50s. “Most of them are my babies.”

Lindenbaum has spent four decades as an attorney, and is considered by many the top land use lawyer in the city. He was practically raised in the profession by his father, Abraham (Bunny) Lindenbaum, whose first retainer came from Fred C. Trump. Perhaps it’s appropriate that one of Sandy’s biggest coups ever came for Donald Trump in 1999, when he won a city permit for the developer to build the tallest residential tower in the world next to the United Nations.

Sitting behind an immaculate desk (only three binders containing the city s zoning laws — his “bible”- are neatly stacked there), Lindenbaum says he has been working on a number of major projects this year, even if there are fewer “discreet, smaller projects.”

Some of the big ones involve Columbia University’s plans to create a new 17-acre campus north of 125th Street, which could involve three million square feet of buildings, Lindenbaum said. He is also working on a 3 million-square-foot office and back-office space project in Long Island City, for a developer he can’t name, as well as doing work on the former Con Ed site on the East Side for developer Sheldon Solow.

Two years ago, Lindenbaum’s seven-member land use unit jumped to Kramer Levin because his old firm merged with a Chicago firm, and there were cultural differences. Lindenbaum said he’s happy with his new firm.

The lawyer is hard-pressed to name his favorite project ever, because, as he says, developers have been known to call up and say “what about my project?”

But among those that were the most challenging, he mentions Park Avenue Plaza, a Fisher Brothers project completed in the early 1990s. The building ended up with a FAR (floor-area-ratio) of 31 — a very high number — thanks to Lindenbaum’s efforts. Developer Howard Ronson’s project at 1 Financial Plaza, which was completed in the early 1980s, was also great a challenge, involving street closings, landmark issues and a host of other hurdles. “It involved every type of city action imaginable,” Lindenbaum said.

Jonathan Mechanic

Partner, Chairman of the Real Estate Department

Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson

Prior to working for Fried Frank, Jonathan Mechanic was general counsel and a managing director of Howard Ronson’s HRO International, which was responsible for developing more than 2.5 million square feet of office space in Manhattan. He left the company in 1987, after working there for seven years.

As the most notable leasing lawyer in New York, Mechanic said it is this experience in business that gives him his edge.

“Having spent time on the business side, I have a sense of what all the parties to a transaction are looking for,” he said.

His former boss, and friend, agrees. “He has experienced first-hand both sides of the fence, the owner’s side and lawyer’s side,” said Howard Ronson. “It makes Jon one of the few all-round expert players.”

Mechanic’s relationship with the brokerage community is a good one, he said. “Seeing me on transactions, I get enthusiasm from brokers,” he said. A recent survey of lawyers also pointed out that Mechanic is known as a man who “does not suffer fools gladly.”

In terms of deals, ask Mechanic for his biggest in 2003, and he’ll tell you, “Where do we start?”

Mechanic was involved in advising 55 Water Street in the largest lease deal of the year, when HIP took 486,000 square feet in the building. He was also involved in the New York City Teachers Retirement System’s deal to take space in the same building, did work in connection with the AP moving into 450 West 33rd Street, played a part in the acquisition and recapitalization of 237 Park Avenue and advised Tishman Speyer in its acquisition of the Lipstick Building at 885 Third Avenue, to name a few.

Fried Frank’s real estate practice, which includes around 35 lawyers working in New York, is considered to possess a broad group of excellent attorneys. In addition to Stephen Lefkowitz (see profile in this story), Joshua Mermelstein is a top performer. Mermelstein advised Brookfield in a recent deal in which PricewaterhouseCoopers signed on for a long-term sublease for 800,000 square feet of space at 300 Madison Avenue, a building developed by Brookfield.

Benjamin Needell

Partner, Head of Real Estate Practice

Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom

Benjamin Needell and his firm seemed to have a hand in much of the major development work in Manhattan in 2003. Known for both his quiet demeanor and confrontational style, depending on who is asked, Needell’s work last year read like a laundry list of developments planned or underway in the city.

“Clearly the biggest deal we did this year was representing Bank of America,” said Needell. The firm advised the bank in signing a 1.1 million-square-foot lease to be the anchor tenant in Douglas Durst’s planned $1 billion Times Square Tower, which many hope will serve as a cornerstone deal to turn the sluggish office leasing market around.

Needell, who is known as a legendary rainmaker, was singled out in one survey of lawyers for his “hard-nosed, rather confrontational style.”

Peter Riguardi, president of Jones Lang LaSalle, who worked with Needell on the Bank of America deal, characterized Needell as “quiet, but carrying a big stick.”

“Ben has great depth to his personality and lifestyle, which makes him interesting and pleasurable to work with,” said Riguardi. “He is a no-nonsense professional who is extremely bright and thorough.”

In other projects this past year, Needell and his firm represented Apollo Real Estate Investment Fund in the Time Warner Center project, investor ING in the New York Times headquarters project, and advised Madison Square Garden in its search for a new home.

Needell’s firm also continued to represent Larry Silverstein in the developer’s rebuild of 7 World Trade Center.

Three years ago, the firm worked on the other side of the fence, representing the Port Authority when Silverstein bought the Trade Center for $3.2 billion.

Skadden Arps has 40 real estate attorneys who work in the firm’s New York offices, according to Needell.

Joseph Shenker

Partner, Coordinator of Commercial Real Estate practice

Sullivan & Cromwell

Shenker is a slightly different breed than other top real estate lawyers on this list because he is more focused on capital markets and not working in the “dirt” as much as some colleagues who focus on development and leasing.

In a recent lawyers survey, Shenker was called “a big picture guy” who commentators said was “one of the best brains in New York” — appropriate assets given the magnitude of the deals he’s worked on.

“Our practice fits in with our firm s Wall Street-based practice,” said Shenker. “We do some development and leases, but only large ones.”

Shenker is currently representing Goldman Sachs in a joint venture looking to acquire Canary Wharf, the 14 million-square-foot office property in London, which started as a private project, is now public, and might go private again. He is also working for Goldman in its plans for a new headquarters in downtown Manhattan.

The record-breaking sale of the General Motors building last year also involved Shenker, who advised the Soros Funds in a deal to provide $250 million in equity financing to buyer Harry Macklowe. He also had a role in advising Canada’s largest commercial property owner in selling its U.S. REIT last year, worked on behalf of Vornado since 1983, has regularly represented the Tisch family, and advised Whitehall Funds on its $1.85 billion sale of Rockefeller Center.

Perhaps not surprising given his capital markets slant, Shenker sees three big trends in commercial real estate in recent years. One is the continuing shift of real estate from private to public ownership, another is the growth of private equity ownership funds like Whitehall, and third is the prevalence of commercial mortgage-backed securities, and a corresponding explosion in mezzanine debt over the last five to eight years.

There are around 30 real estate lawyers working in Sullivan & Cromwell’s New York office. The lawyers are part of the firm’s general practice, rather than forming a separate department, in order to foster a “broad-based focus,” said Shenker. “We want to be an adviser with a wide range of knowledge that we can bring to clients.”

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