The Closing: Janice Mac Avoy

The real estate superlawyer on skyline-shaping cases, activism and how she found strength in relinquishing control

Jun.June 14, 2021 07:00 AM

Janice Mac Avoy (Photos by Axel Dupeux)

When real estate’s wealthiest and most powerful have it all on the line, they call Janice Mac Avoy.

Take the $5.45 billion sale of Stuyvesant Town. When bondholders sued to block the transaction, Mac Avoy successfully defended seller CWCapital Asset Management, enabling one of the largest real estate deals in U.S. history.

She represented Eli Tabak, Joseph Tabak, Joseph Chetrit and Arbor Realty Trust as they wrangled for a piece of the storied Ring portfolio of 13 prime Manhattan office buildings. And she’s provided legal muscle to real estate titans such as Aby Rosen and Michael Fuchs in their many showdowns with rivals.

The co-head of the real estate litigation department at Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, — where she’s spent her entire three-decade legal career — Mac Avoy has worked on multibillion-dollar deals that reshaped the city’s skyline. It’s a track record she illustrates by rattling off the story behind building after building while walking through Manhattan.

A devoted advocate for women’s reproductive rights, she was one of 113 prominent female lawyers who signed a remarkable amicus brief in 2016 that helped convince the Supreme Court to strike down a Texas law limiting access to abortions.

Mac Avoy sat down with The Real Deal at her Midtown office at the end of May — just a few days after the Supreme Court agreed to hear a new challenge to Roe v. Wade — to talk about her craft, her activism and how she found strength in relinquishing control.

Born: February 24, 1963
Lives: Bronxville, moving to the Lower East Side
Hometown: Seattle and St. Louis
Family: Divorcing, two children

 

I first want to ask you about the Supreme Court hearing this challenge to Roe v. Wade. I know that it’s a big issue for you.

It’s terrifying, frankly. You see all of these state legislators lining up and passing what are clearly unconstitutional laws. If Roe falls, they’ll be enacted, and you will have huge swaths of the south where there will be no access to abortion care.

It’s particularly devastating for black and brown women, but it’s devastating for all women. I’m on the board of The Center for Reproductive Rights, and we are the lawyers for the plaintiffs in that case.

There was this famous line in the filing from the 2016 case about how you’re not an attorney who had an abortion; you’re an attorney because you had an abortion.

That line wasn’t mine, but I think it spoke for so many of us who… I would not have become a lawyer if it hadn’t been for my access to abortion care. If I had been forced to have a child when I was 18 years old, I wouldn’t have gone to college. I wouldn’t have gone to law school. I would have had a shitty job and I would’ve been poor just like my parents.

It enabled me to wait until I was financially and emotionally ready to be the kind of mom that my kids deserve to have.

Did you have access to a legal abortion?

Yes, I did. I went to Planned Parenthood. There weren’t protestors, so I didn’t have to go through the gauntlet.

By the time I was in college by like ‘83, ‘84 there were protestors on a daily basis, and I volunteered. You’d wear a yellow vest, and two of you would come together and put your arms around the person who you’re escorting to the clinic and walk them through the gauntlet of people screaming obscenities at them and telling them they’re going to hell.

You’ve talked about your upbringing and breaking the cycle of poverty. What was your family life like?

Complicated. I’m the first person in my family to graduate from high school. My father worked at Boeing and my mom was a waitress. They split up when I was 3, and I lived with my dad and a number of stepmothers. My dad got married six times. I love my father. He was an amazing man, but he also had a really bad temper and was very violent and the house was chaotic.

 

When I was 14, I went to live with my mom. She got pregnant with me when she was 17. She had already quit high school because she had to work full time. So for me, education was always critically important and an obvious way to escape that.

And we were white, so it was so much easier. We already started on the 50-yard line. But there were so many things ready to pull you back, to pull you down.

You graduated Columbia in the late 80s, and you went to work at Fried Frank.

I started working in M&A litigation because that was the thing that you did in the 80s. And [M&A] literally dried up one day in the 90s at the same time that the real estate market tanked. And whenever real estate markets tank, people litigate.

That’s like being thrown into the wood chipper.

It really is. And it was pre-Blackberry days. So that was the one thing that in some ways was better; it was more intense when you were in the office, but when you were out of the office, you were done. Fast-forward to 2008, 2009, when, again, it’s just sort of like drinking from a fire hose in terms of crisis after crisis after crisis, but then you had the Blackberry, and it was never turned off.

Tell me about what happened with Stuy Town.

The litigation was very acrimonious. We were brought in just to broker a deal. Jon [Mechanic] was working on it. And we worked through the night, got it done, got the settlement arranged and then continued working on the transaction with the sale to Blackstone.

What do you think the saga of Stuy Town says about the state of affordable housing in the city?

I think that the repercussions from [the Tenant Protection Act] are going to ultimately be that landlords exit affordable housing and don’t take care of their existing affordable housing, but it’s going to take a while. It will create such a shortage of affordable housing if it’s not remedied. And it’s nice of government to say, “Landlords, you should take the hit.”

Personally, I think that the obligation of government is to provide subsidies for renters, rather than putting all of the burden on the landlords.

What is your approach to litigation?

I joke that I’m the anti-litigation litigator. I absolutely try to settle, because everybody hates litigation, including me.

I love being in a courtroom, and I love cross-examining a witness. There is nothing that feels more powerful and jazzes me up more than cross-examining someone and twisting them in knots and destroying them. I know I look like a nice person, but I love it.

But in order to do that, you have to do years of work and years of discovery. For every hour of cross examination, you have to prepare for like 30 hours. And while I love that moment at the end product, I don’t love all of the stuff that’s leading up to it. More importantly, clients hate it, they hate that process, they hate the cost.

And you don’t control your fate, someone in the robe is going to decide your fate. So I always tell clients that they should try and take control of their own destiny and settle.

You call some of the work you do the “betting the company” cases. What rises to that level?

The Ring case was incredibly important for Princeton [Joseph Tabak], and Joe [Chetrit] and Eli [Tabak]. It was the biggest deal that they had done up until then.

I would say most of the cases are “bet the company” cases. Frankly, we’re very expensive, so it takes a big dispute to justify our fees.

What do you charge per hour?

I don’t think I’m supposed to say. I was interviewed on my abortion rights activism, and I got a voicemail from some guy with a Southern accent that said, “I was going to hire your firm, but I’m not going to hire you now because you support abortion rights, and you can just take your $850 an hour,” and blah, blah, blah.

And I was like, “Dude. I’m way more than that.” And then I got in trouble for saying that.

Is there a difference between having a client who’s an entrepreneur like Aby Rosen or someone who’s institutional, like CWCapital or Fortress?

I would say that individual entrepreneurs are sort of cowboys. They’re much more colorful and don’t create bureaucracies around themselves. They’re great to have as clients because they will often fight and take it all the way to trial, even when it doesn’t make economic sense to do it, because they are invested in the project. I love working with clients like that. They’re a lot more fun.They swear like truck drivers and so do I, so it works out very well.

Is the Fried Frank holiday party going to make a comeback?

I think it will be back much the same as before. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. We once joked about doing it at Javits, but it’s just too institutional. Even though we have outgrown the capacity [at Cipriani 42nd Street], it’s such a beautiful room. It’s the Fried Frank party room!

Looking back at your career, what are the big things you got wrong?

I grew up with the Fried Frank thesis that a good litigator is a generalist litigator, and I believe that’s true, but you’re never going to become truly outstanding in your field until you concentrate on one thing.

It took until 2008 before I became 100 percent real estate. In some ways it was good, too, because I had two kids and I worked part-time for the first few years when they were born and tried to work less when they were little, and by 2008 they were a little bit older, and it was easier to dive in.

How do you define success for yourself?

Am I happy? That’s the most important thing. The pandemic sucked in more ways for me than for most people. First day of lockdown, our family dog of 15 years died. My marriage fell apart, my sister was murdered, and then my cat died. It really fucking sucked. I am on the other side of that, and I’ve just decided that being happy is the most important thing.

What happened with your sister?

She struggled with drug addiction her entire life and struggled with turbulent relationships connected to her addiction. She was in an abusive relationship, and he pushed her down the stairs and broke her neck in two places and broke her back and then didn’t take her to the hospital for two days and her organs started to shut down.

She lasted about a week, and my nephew [her son] — who has lived with me since he was 12 — we made it out in time to say goodbye to her. She was in a coma, but her doctor was like, “Look, we’ve done all of these brain scan studies. The hearing is the last thing to go. She can hear you.” And she died on the morning that we were leaving, so I think she really did know that we were there.

My dad kicked her out of the house when she was 16 and I was in law school. I used my student loan money to pay her rent, and when she wasn’t able to take care of her son anymore, I took him in. It was hard to let go of this illusion of control that I have, that if I only take care of her she’ll be OK. I thought that I could save her — and I couldn’t. I’m sorry. I haven’t talked about it in a while.

I don’t think anyone’s ever opened themselves up like this before in these pages.

I don’t understand people who are guarded and don’t want to talk about their feelings. Like, why? Everyone has feelings and everyone has shit that happens to them. I do a lot of work for victims of domestic violence, and I am helping other women escape abusive relationships.

Talking about it has been great because I have had such a tremendous amount of support from folks really being there for me. If you don’t talk about it, you’re not going to get that.


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