The Lawyers You Call


The Great Recession has ground some sectors of the commercial real estate industry to a virtual halt, business-wise. Not the lawyers. Distressed assets, foreclosures, ownership battles—it’s all fodder for New York real estate’s topmost legal eagles.

Here’s a survey of some of the best in the field right now. - Jotham Sederstrom

One can only wonder if Benjamin Needell, 68, has taken advantage of his more glamorous real estate clients. Is he sitting poolside at the recently completed Standard hotel thanks to his work on behalf of celebrated hotelier André Balazs, for example? Or, instead, is he sharing drinks with Ian Schrager while listening to the famed hotelier reminisce about his heady Studio 54 days?

Either way, the St. John’s University alum deserves his spoils. After all, from his work on behalf of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, on which he helped to privatize the World Trade Center, to his involvement in the sales of the Carlyle Hotel, Mr. Needell has been around the block. Additionally, Mr. Needell has completed many of the largest headquarter transactions in New York City history, most notably for Reuters, Credit Suisse, Ernst & Young and the New York Board of Trade.

All the while, he’s dipped his toes in the media world by representing both Wenner Media and ING in its investment in The New York Times headquarters on 41st Street. Named among “America’s Leading Lawyers” by Chambers USA this year, Mr. Needell has no intention of slowing down anytime soon.

Throw a rock in a crowded real estate luncheon (not too hard, though!), and you’re bound to hit someone whom Jonathan Mechanic has represented at one point or another in his 30-year career: Steven Roth, check. Mike Bloomberg, check. Bruce Ratner, Douglas Durst and Mort Zuckerman, check, check and check. The list of clients goes on and on, and usually in connection with some skyline-defining deal like the $5.4 billion Tishman Speyer acquisition of Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town, the largest real estate transaction in U.S. history.

The wide breadth of connections has served Mr. Mechanic so well, in fact, that the acquisitions and dispositions specialist frequently is tasked with representing clients on both sides of the table, a conundrum that he claims goes smoothly, “because there is a sense of confidence in dealing with the up and up,” as he told The New York Observer last year.

A New York University School of Law alum, Mr. Mechanic joined Fried Frank in 1978 and became a partner at the Manhattan firm in 1987. Ever since then, his name has popped up on a near annual basis at real estate awards ceremonies and legal galas, including a Legal Media Group study in 2007 that named him the most powerful real estate lawyer in the world. With accolades like that, rest assured that Mr. Mechanic, 57, won’t be lacking in high-profile clients anytime in the foreseeable future.

As far as ego-boosting is concerned, developers need look no further than the city’s skyline as a physical reminder of what they’ve accomplished for themselves. With most lawyers, however, victories are all too often buried under the weight of arcane, jargon-riddled legal briefs, unseen to all but those few who toil in the same profession. Not so with Gary Rosenberg, who over a 25-year career as a founding partner of Rosenberg & Estis has argued some of the real estate industry’s most important appeals, many of them so significant that even laymen can feel the impact.

Take, for example, Manocherian v. Lenox Hill Hospital, in which Mr. Rosenberg successfully convinced the New York Court of Appeals to do away with a clause that allowed corporations to hold on to rent-stabilized apartments as an entity and, theoretically at least, occupy those coveted spaces even after a tenant had moved out. In Seawall v. New York, meanwhile, Mr. Rosenberg gave an assist to the city’s poor by successfully arguing against a moratorium on the development of single-room occupancy hotels in the early 1990s.

More recently, however, Mr. Rosenberg has been at the helm of Douglas Durst’s One Bryant Park, a state-of-the-art, 2.1 million–square–foot building for Bank of America’s headquarters. His expertise in assemblage and development has no doubt kept the tower on track.

When it comes to construction, Barry LePatner, 62, can sound a bit like Chicken Little, ranting to whoever will listen not that the sky is falling, but that the entire building trades industry is doomed to collapse under its own inefficiency. Listen closely, though, and Mr. LePatner starts to make a lot of sense.

In his book Broken Buildings, Busted Budgets, Mr. LePatner checks off dozens of tell-tale failures, including the fact that $120 billion is wasted annually as a result of construction overruns. The concise litany of complaints, in fact, has earned Mr. LePatner a reputation as a “construction reform guru,” an honor that no doubt will draw new developers and nationally known companies to his already impressive fold of clients, JPMorgan Chase, the United Nations and Goldman Sachs among them.

And with a new book on the way that promises to perform postmortems on epic construction failures like the Big Dig in Boston and delays at ground zero, it becomes clear that Mr. LePatner has bigger fish to fry than simply the day-to-day projects that give developers such headaches and droopy bottom lines. What isn’t clear is how he manages to write books and represent clients at LePatner & Associates while still finding time to appear with some regularity on cable news as the voice of construction reform. But that, we suppose, is why they call him the guru.

Shravan Vidyarthi.

Few have reaped more benefits from the city’s aggressive rezoning bid over the past eight years than Sandy Lindenbaum, a legal eagle who has expertly navigated the complicated neighborhood changes that have confused many a developer. From Williamsburg and Greenpoint to Chelsea and beyond, more than 100 neighborhoods have been rezoned by the Department of City Planning, and Mr. Lindenbaum is intimately aware of each one, from their floor-area ratios down to air rights and curb cuts.

Now an attorney at Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel, Mr. Lindenbaum has managed to balance a workload that has included one-name-only real estate titans like Macklowe, Solow and Silverstein with a steady flow of nonprofit work, namely for the Archdiocese of New York and the Museum of Modern Art, where he recently concluded an ambitious expansion deal. Perhaps even more surprising, however, is that the nimble, 50-year veteran, who was practicing back before the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure even existed, still finds the work exhilarating. The 74-year-old told The Commercial Observer earlier this month: “I love it. I love the challenge. I love getting up in the morning and coming to the office.”

Such verve goes a long way toward explaining Mr. Lindenbaum’s continued stellar success amid rapidly changing times. Indeed, Mr. Lindenbaum could rightly be called the city’s godfather of zoning.

Like Jonathan Mechanic, Robert Ivanhoe, 56, has worked with just about everyone who matters in the real estate world. From Larry Silverstein and his luxury Silver Towers on West 42nd Street to MetLife, which he represented in the record-breaking sale of Stuyvesant Town, the chairman of Greenberg Traurig’s New York office has secured financing and shepherded acquisitions for many of the city’s biggest players.

More recently, Mr. Ivanhoe represented El-Ad Properties in the headline-grabbing $675 million acquisition of the Plaza Hotel. Additionally, he represented SL Green in the acquisition of two office buildings, at 485 Lexington Avenue and 750 Third Avenue, in a $480 million deal. The latter is merely a continuation of an enduring relationship with the powerful REIT—and no surprise considering that Mr. Ivanhoe has been the longtime golf partner of Stephen Green, chairman of Manhattan’s largest owner of office buildings.

A Johns Hopkins University grad and an alum of American University’s College of Law, the longtime supporter of the Starlight Children’s Foundation has made the “Best Lawyers in America” list every year since 2006 by the peer-review publication Best Lawyers, and was named one of the 100 most powerful people in real estate by The New York Observer this year and last.

A lawyer, broker and developer, Edward Mermelstein is a certified triple threat in the real estate world. With offices in Moscow and Manhattan, and an ability to speak four languages (not to mention helming a staff that can speak 11), Mr. Mermelstein is among the few real estate attorneys to successfully grow and sustain what could fairly be described as a global boutique firm.

Despite his smaller operation, however, Mr. Mermelstein has drawn an eclectic international clientele year after year, most notably among the real estate and commodity elite in Eastern Europe, whom he has represented over and over again at 50 Central Park West. With rents averaging $5,000 a square foot—and a roster of residents that includes Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez and Goldman Sachs’ honcho Lloyd Blankfein—the luxury condo building is among the most profitable residential towers in the country.

And with a frequently updated Twitter account, Mr. Mermelstein, 42, can fairly be described as one of the hippest attorneys in the city. Indeed, with 217 followers, each hanging on his every tweet—“Moscow’s mayor has pledged to stop snow by mobilizing the air force,” anyone?—Mr. Mermelstein has successfully positioned himself as one of New York’s most thoroughly modern real estate lawyers.

Ask an attorney, any attorney, if business is booming and just about all of them will swear to you that, yes, it’s never been better. In reality, some may actually be curled up in a ball in a dark corner of their office, waiting for the phone to ring, but they’ll never admit it. With Richard Nardi, however, one needs only to peruse the business section to surmise just how busy the Loeb & Loeb partner actually is these days.

Foreclosures are up and mortgage rates have sunk to a near all-time nadir—and despite all this, applications to buy homes have dropped to a 12-year low. As counsel to the Mortgage Bankers Association of New York, Mr. Nardi, 55, has been knee-deep in the subprime crisis and its fallout. Whether negotiating the sale of mortgages for distressed commercial properties or restructuring problem loans, the Fordham University School of Law alum has become one of the most sought out real estate attorneys among mortgage bankers and owners of distressed property.

Named a “New York Super Lawyer” by Law & Politics this year and last, Mr. Nardi became a partner at Loeb & Loeb in 2006, and has proved himself ever since.

Ross Moskowitz, 50, earned his chops in the heady days before Mayor Bloomberg rezoned much of the city. As an executive vice president of the city’s Economic Development Corporation under Rudy Giuliani, Mr. Moskowitz was instrumental in cleaning up Times Square, where he orchestrated a handful of public-private real estate ventures with companies such as Reuters and Condé Nast. Additionally, he helped negotiate business retention deals with such companies as Merrill Lynch, Viacom, Credit Suisse and Paine Webber, among others.

As a partner at Stroock & Stroock, he has continued to hone his reputation as a go-to guy for structuring complicated, multifaceted projects that involve public-private development and financing arrangements. To be sure, since 1998, he has represented a litany of financial services firms, including one transaction that resulted in the largest tax incentive package ever offered to a company that was moving its employees from Manhattan to New Jersey. More recently, he has represented Worldwide Holdings in a mixed-use project on 57th Street that is expected to begin shortly, and Alexandria Real Estate Equities in its highly anticipated East River Science Park project.

Most newsworthy, however, may be his work on behalf of the New York Mets organization during its successful negotiations for its new stadium. One of the few lists that go on longer than his impressive client roster is Mr. Moskowitz’ membership roll, which includes positions on the board of trustees for New York Law School, Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation and the Real Estate Board of New York, to name a few. Not too shabby for a former municipal employee.

From John Lindsay’s and Abe Beame’s all the way to Rudy Giuliani’s and Mike Bloomberg’s, Howard Hornstein has worked closely with the city’s mayoral administrations on zoning matters since the early 1970s, both as a member of the Board of Standards and Appeals and, later, the New York City Planning Commission. As a John Lindsay appointee, he made a name for himself by representing the BSA in a highly rare lawsuit against the city, in a case known at the time as “the Lincoln Plaza matter”; it involved a 14-story building on the Upper West Side that a judge eventually ruled could be built higher than others in the area.

The prolific St. John’s School of Law lecturer left government in 1984, and worked closely with real estate mogul Ian Bruce Eichner on the air rights transfer from City Center Theatre, which resulted in the City Spire Center shooting to 75 stories and becoming what is now touted as the tallest mixed-use building in the city. At Cozen O’Connor, the firm he joined in 2005, Mr. Hornstein, 72, has taken advantage of his nearly 40 years of city connections in his efforts to represent developers and nonprofits throughout the city.

A more recent project in Borough Park that involved a proposed eight-story apartment building initially caused a headline-grabbing rift with residents, who feared overcrowding in the area. With Mr. Hornstein’s assistance, however, litigation was completed in favor of one of his clients, the Wydra family, earlier this year.

Ryan Meehan.