Faison G. Sutton, a partner at the law firm Murchison, Taylor & Gibson, PLLC, was one of the speakers at The Inspiration Lab’s Real Estate & Marketing Intensive on November 14. Attendees had the privilege of hearing her speak on a panel titled, “High Volume & High Stakes — How Do They Do It?” Below, Faison, who specializes in commercial real estate and development, shares additional thoughts on the intersection of the legal and real estate worlds, as well as her perspective on being a working mother.
Keys to Success in High Volume and High Stakes Real Estate Transactions Have you ever seen this cartoon? It shows the different parties involved in a real estate transaction (buyer, seller, lender, broker, appraiser, surveyor, attorney, etc.) all seated in a rowing shell that is headed toward a closing. It perfectly illustrates the frustration that results when those parties aren’t rowing together in sync. The cartoon always makes me laugh, but if you work in the real estate world, you surely have experienced something like this. In my 16 years practicing commercial real estate law, I have identified a few ways to avoid the fate of those frustrated folks in the cartoon.
The first and most important key to success in a high volume or high stakes real estate environment is communication. When I’m the closing attorney, my clients are typically looking for me to be the leader of the transaction, much like the person in the cartoon seated at the bow of the boat who is using his megaphone to coordinate the power and rhythm of the other rowers. When working on a real estate transaction, I make an effort to communicate often and early, not just with my client, but also with my team and all the other parties involved in the deal, such as the brokers, lender, other counsel, etc. That communication begins when I ask my client about their goals and explain what they can expect during the transaction. I then typically create and circulate a deal-specific closing checklist that contains all of the requirements for the transaction and identifies the responsibilities of the various parties. This checklist serves as a living document that will often be revised during the course of the transaction as issues are discovered, tasks are completed, and problems are solved. I also make an effort to delegate tasks to others as early and as clearly as possible in order to avoid unnecessary last-minute panic. Clear communication enables all of the “rowers” to stay in sync while heading toward a common goal.
The second key to success in this high volume and high stakes real estate world is competency. That may sound obvious, but if you are capable of handling all aspects of your job, you will be able to handle (and even anticipate) a variety of issues that may arise during the course of a real estate transaction. In my first few years at my law firm, I conducted all the title searches and handled many of my own administrative tasks. So now, years later, I can better support my paralegals and legal assistants, because I have performed all of their jobs at some point along the way. It also means I can personally handle any of those tasks if my team is in a pinch. Being competent while always striving to learn more and improve my skills has helped me earn my place at the bow of the “closing boat,” and it gives me the confidence and credibility to lead and coordinate the other “rowers.”
The third key to success is being able to remain calm. When you have multiple issues at hand in a high volume or high stakes environment, you must be able to stay calm and level-headed in order to prioritize, triage, and form a plan of action. I find that staying calm is contagious both within my department and with my clients, and keeping a good line of communication helps us stay calm. If a team member is particularly stressed about deadlines, I try to stop what I am doing and help them slow down, analyze, and prioritize. Just like the rowers in our cartoon, when any of us lose the ability to stay composed, we end up making mistakes and missing things we would not normally miss, which ultimately causes further delays and stress both for ourselves and others. The Inspiration Lab provides me with great insight on how to keep calm and maintain perspective as a leader.
Keeping “High Stakes” in Perspective One of the greatest values I provide to clients is time — the time I use to analyze transactions, identify problems, and craft solutions. I can only delegate a certain degree of those responsibilities to other people, and so my time is a finite resource. The problem that many of us face — not having enough time — tends to intensify the feeling that our actions carry such high stakes. But attorneys certainly aren’t brain surgeons... so why do the stakes really seem so high? There are many factors that can make for a high-stakes real estate transaction. It’s not only based on the size of the deal or the dollar figures involved; there are often intense timeline-related pressures that have impacts on a client’s business, along with all of our reputations, referrals, etc. As attorneys, our training and ability to think critically can make it difficult at times to accept anything less than perfection in our work product and in our law practice.
But what about the higher stakes? There are other very important stakes to consider and prioritize. For me, these include my family, friends, health (both physical and mental), and spirituality. When you are involved in complicated high-stakes transactions, those other non-real estate stakes may not seem as demanding or as “noisy” as your clients or deadlines, so they can seem easier to put on the back-burner until you can just “finish that closing” or “meet this deadline.” But even though your family, friends, and health may not be pinging you with emails and calls all day and night, in reality, they should be the most important stakes of all. The truth is that clients may appreciate you, but they will never love you or need you like your family and friends do.
As Stephanie has discussed at Inspiration Lab events, the concept of “work-life balance” may not be truly obtainable for a professional who is also a parent, but we can strive for more of a “work-life rhythm” or juggle. Some days I may have to give 80% of my time and energy to work and 20% to family, while other days may be quite the opposite. As long as I feel like my time and energy somewhat even out among my priorities over the course of a week or even a month, then I think I am doing my very best to maintain a rhythm in this busy season of life. I also realize that I am incredibly fortunate to have an amazing support system of family members who are actively involved in raising our two incredible sons and encouraging me to achieve my professional goals. As a working mom, having the support of a “village” is probably my number one key to maintaining some semblance of a work-life rhythm.
Managing the Personal and the Professional Just like in the real estate world, we need to know in our personal lives where we are competent and communicate where we are not. I’m not great at cooking, for example, so that’s something I am best outsourcing, which also allows me to maximize my quality time with my family. I try to communicate early and often with my personal “village” regarding our sons’ appointments, practices, deadlines, etc. Just as crucial is slowing down and taking one thing at a time, instead of getting overwhelmed by all of the tasks on a to-do list. Similar to in an office environment, calmness is contagious and I see that in my home and with my children consistently. And we can’t forget the importance of self-care. Burnout will become a real possibility if we don’t take care of ourselves. Take note if you find yourself making careless mistakes, not taking the time to spot problems, or even wishing for a new career, as those are the times you need to find a way to step back and regroup.
Finally, it’s never too late to take advantage of mentorship, even a non-traditional mentorship. When I first started practicing law, I didn’t have a traditional mentor who had already navigated my situation (i.e., as a driven female on a partner track putting in long hours while also starting a family). But I’ve had many people teach me over the years. Each of my law partners has taught me their unique ways of practicing law; the paralegals at my firm have taught me the nuts and bolts of real estate closings; my mother has taught me how to stay patient and keep perspective; and my father, who has practiced law for more than 40 years, has taught me about leadership, humility, and priorities. I also consider some of my close friends who are also mothers with demanding careers to be mentors. Since we are all in similar chapters of our lives, we learn from each other through honest discussions about the struggles and success we are experiencing in real time. Even now, I’m learning from junior-level attorneys and newly hired team members who all bring fresh ideas and energy to our law firm.
The bottom line? In order to help our teams (both at work and at home) “row” in sync, we should communicate well, be competent, keep calm, and always be learning.