Michelle Kelban of Latham & Watkins: “Real estate is going green in a big way and I love to see progress that can benefit society as a whole”

Real estate is going green in a big way and I love to see progress that can benefit society as a whole. The stars are aligning, in that tenants and buyers are starting to want green buildings and are willing to pay a premium for them, and companies across the industry are getting good at […]

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Real estate is going green in a big way and I love to see progress that can benefit society as a whole. The stars are aligning, in that tenants and buyers are starting to want green buildings and are willing to pay a premium for them, and companies across the industry are getting good at building them. Every year, new buildings get more energy efficient, are built with healthier materials, and their construction produces less pollution. The world’s largest real estate asset aggregators have made a concerted effort to green their portfolios and their businesses as a whole, adding even more momentum to this industry-wide phenomenon.

As a part of my series about strong women leaders of the Real Estate industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michelle Kelban, Global Co-Chair of the Real Estate Practice at Latham & Watkins.

Michelle Kelban is Global Co-Chair of Latham & Watkins’ 100+ lawyer Real Estate Practice. Michelle has practiced for more than two decades and was recently elected to the American College of Real Estate Lawyers, an invitation-only organization comprising leading real estate lawyers across the US. She is consistently ranked among the country’s top real estate law practitioners by the most respected industry publications, including Chambers USA and The Legal 500 US.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the Real Estate industry?

My interest in real estate really started in college at NYU, where I majored in Urban Studies. I chose that major because I was drawn to the way cities work, how the environment in which we live — from architecture to infrastructure and urban planning — affects everyone and everything in society. After I graduated and started law school, I really connected with the concepts and professor I had in my property class, which led me to state an interest in real estate when I started at Latham in the unassigned program as a summer associate. I remember sitting on the floor pouring over maps and surveys and putting the puzzle pieces together of how this web of buildings and infrastructure intersect with the way we live and work. It was all tangible — hotels, power plants, warehouses, mixed use buildings. Practicing in commercial real estate deals in human reality. At the end of the day we are working with real-world assets in which people work and live and which power our economy and our daily lives.

Can you share with our readers the most interesting or amusing story that occurred to you in your career so far? Can you share the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

I think one of the most interesting and amusing things that I can share is based on perceptions and how they affect career path and trajectory. When I was a summer associate, I started working with the Real Estate Practice as one of my areas of interest. In particular, I started working with my mentor, Jamie Hisiger, a senior partner with whom I was staffed directly on a very complicated power plant project that required us to travel together to meetings every week. I was the only woman at the meetings and I was quite young at the time, 23 years old. I would attend the meetings, take notes, review the title and survey issues with the group, and return on the train from Philadelphia with my mentor. So it was quite an involved project where I had direct and tangible supervision from a senior partner in the group I was interested in.

At the end of the summer, when I received my offer from Latham, I also received some interesting feedback. “Jamie Hisiger says you should stop chewing gum in meetings and twirling your hair.” Who knew? Seems obvious to some, but when you don’t have any guidance or experience in a world that is alien, it might not be so obvious! In any event, I was upset and concerned that he didn’t want to work with me (which he did). Years later, when he and I discussed it, he told me he thought I would never make it because I was just so unpolished that I gave the impression that I didn’t really have what it takes to succeed. Of course, he barely knew me at the time and we laugh about it now.

But it is such a lesson in perceptions and reality. In reality, I was just inexperienced and rough around the edges. I never wanted to change myself and I think being a little rough around the edges is an edge in and of itself as it shows your true personality. But I did learn quickly to stop chomping on gum in meetings and twirling my hair to at least avoid giving a false impression that I have no idea what I am talking about!

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Salvaging and reviving the hospitality industry is a major theme of my practice these days. I have been spending a lot of time working on large and complex restructurings and financing transactions that could be very impactful on the continued operations of hundreds of hotels, which employ countless people. The hospitality industry supports large swaths of the economy with benefits that affect many other sectors — and these companies need financing to make it through the pandemic and come out stronger and safer for visitors on the other side. This industry has a ripple effect given how many jobs it supports and how many American families rely on these jobs, which exist in all sectors of the economy and a broad array of geographic areas. And, of course, we want to preserve these assets that many of us will need when we are ready to get out and travel for work and for play when the pandemic subsides.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I am a Latham lifer. From my first days as a summer associate in 1999, Latham has continually impressed me with the caliber of its people and the resilience of its culture. You can fly thousands of miles, walk into another Latham office, and feel right at home. Latham people are open and supportive of each other. When something good happens in a colleague’s life, we celebrate. When something tragic happens, we rally around and support each other. As an example, for 12 years straight, I ran Latham’s New York Cares toy drive. Each year I was blown away by the rooms full of gifts we got to deliver to kids — the exact gift that they wanted, but that their family couldn’t afford. I also saw it personally when I had my daughter a couple of years ago. My colleagues selflessly stepped up to take over my matters as I was nearing my due date, some putting in more than 300-hour months to make sure we took care of each client’s needs (and of course, telling me not to worry about anything). They put their own needs aside to help me and that is something not everyone has at their place of work. Latham stands out because we go above and beyond for each other and as a result, it shows to our clients that we, as a team, will go above and beyond for them too.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My mentor, Jamie Hisiger, who retired from the partnership a couple years ago, stood out not only as an excellent real estate lawyer, but also as an exceptional person. He taught me early on that success depends on more than legal skill, which is really the bare minimum. Success depends on relationships — finding and forging common ground, being reasonable, and focusing on the big picture but also the little details. A specific instance comes to mind when I turned a draft for him as a second year associate. He brought the draft to my office with his comments and said, “Michelle, we cannot send things like this out to clients. You have to pay more attention to these little details. Otherwise, they won’t trust the substance is correct either.” Wow, was I devastated. But I always did a proofread after that!

Ok. Thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. The Real Estate industry, like the Veterinarian, Nursing and Public Relations fields, is a women dominated industry. Yet despite this, less than 20 percent of senior positions in Real Estate companies are held by women. In your opinion or experience, what do you think is the cause of this imbalance?

Breaking up the “boys club” culture is a long-term project across industries. The cause of the imbalance is ancient history, but inertia perpetuates it. And one way to reverse inertia is to keep pushing in the other direction.

Expectations of a woman’s role in family life continue to act as one of the major barriers to our advancement up the leadership ladder. I know a lot of women who experience an “all or nothing” dilemma as they reach a certain point in their careers — feeling as though they have to be all-in at work or at home, but that a balance feels impossible. And, that thinking can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I tell women whom I mentor now, it’s possible to take a break and come back, to negotiate for flexible time, to ask for what you need to make your family life work. But this can’t just be on women. We need men to step up, take paternity leave, and not be ashamed of it. To take on the emotional, logistical, as well as physical labor of raising children. We need to shift everyone’s expectations to a point where having a family and a career at the same time is normal for men and women, taking leave and sharing responsibilities is normal for men and women, and then I think seeing more women in leadership positions will also become more the norm.

What 3 things can be done by a)individuals b)companies and/or c) society to support greater gender balance going forward?

For individuals, my advice is to connect with people who, on the surface at least, are not like you. Achieving greater balance and diversity requires us to open ourselves up, which may be uncomfortable at first. Men and women alike can do a better job of opening their minds to the idea of seeing someone of a different background, race, gender, or perspective as a good leader for their organization.

For companies and society as a whole, again, we need the role of men in the process of raising families to be embraced. When men take paternity leave, it needs to be more than allowed. It needs to be supported and celebrated, most importantly by other men. We need to stop thinking of women as the primary parent, the default partner to step back from their career. We also need to stop the (oftentimes female perpetuated) race to the bottom in terms of who can do the most at work while still attending to their duties at home. For example, women should not feel the need to respond to work emails or get on conference calls while in labor, yet stories such as these are abound from female colleagues. Why is this? Of course, each decision is a personal choice but the pressure to “perform” in unnatural circumstances really comes from society as a whole. Expectations need to change, and I believe they gradually are changing as this next generation enters the workforce.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

Managing sexual harassment and the backlash from the Me Too movement is a real challenge for women that I don’t think is as pertinent to men, generally speaking. While the Me Too movement has been a huge positive in many ways, it also has caused men to be very cautious and concerned about one-on-one events with women or inviting women to events so that they do not feel worried about something happening that might be deemed inappropriate. We need to achieve a societal balance on this issue and I think it falls on men to help, but also on women largely of course to fend off sexual harassment and uncomfortable situations, and to help men understand what is and is not appropriate and acceptable in this regard.

Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the Real Estate industry?

Real estate is going green in a big way and I love to see progress that can benefit society as a whole. The stars are aligning, in that tenants and buyers are starting to want green buildings and are willing to pay a premium for them, and companies across the industry are getting good at building them. Every year, new buildings get more energy efficient, are built with healthier materials, and their construction produces less pollution. The world’s largest real estate asset aggregators have made a concerted effort to green their portfolios and their businesses as a whole, adding even more momentum to this industry-wide phenomenon.

Notwithstanding the devastating effects of COVID-19, the pandemic is accelerating some positive changes as well. Hotel rooms are cleaner than ever. Offices and multifamily buildings are being redesigned with health and safety as top priorities. Proper air filtration and good ventilation are now must-have elements of any building design. This shift in focus will yield healthier work environments well into the future.

Retail is also being completely reimagined through a process that is both painful and exciting. Yes, people have discovered they can buy anything online. But they’ve also discovered that some purchases are better made in-person, with a tactile experience. For example, I have eight extra pillows right now — and I hate all of them. The reason is that I couldn’t go to a store and try them out, so I had to order them. And now I have to return them or donate them. Post-pandemic, I think we will see a real explosion of creativity in the retail sector fueled in part by pent-up demand for a better buying experience. A retail revolution is percolating and I can’t wait to see the results.

Can you share 3 things that most concern you about the industry? If you had the ability to implement 3 ways to reform or improve the industry, what would you suggest?

We need to give a big push to renewable energy. Renewables are the future and the sooner we can create the infrastructure and train people to build, run, and maintain green energy production facilities, the better off our entire society will be.

Safety on construction sites is also a major concern. I am always shaken when I learn of construction accidents that occur on projects that I have worked on, including several that have happened recently. As construction activity picks up, I hope to see safety protocols improved. No amount of convenience or cost savings is worth loss of life.

While I’m optimistic about the industry’s long-term recovery from the pandemic, I do worry about the short-term effects. With so many businesses shut down, and with so much uncertainty, I’m very concerned about people who work in industries like restaurants and hospitality and people in general who are living paycheck to paycheck where those paychecks are now just not coming or are much, much smaller. They need support, and ultimately, we need to create new jobs or find a way to get these businesses back online quickly.

What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?

Be a human. I have flaws — some might say many! But I don’t try to be something I’m not, and that helps me form authentic relationships and connections with people. When you make a mistake, own up to it, with the knowledge that we all make mistakes. Lead by example and explain yourself in human terms. It’s okay to have feelings and express them, because it shows people that you care about them and the work you’re doing together.

Ok, here is the main question of our interview. You are a “Real Estate Insider”. If you had to advise someone about 5 non intuitive things one should know to succeed in the Real Estate industry, what would you say? Can you please give a story or an example for each?

1. Be yourself. Be a human being. It will make you stand out. Clients want someone who will work hard for them. But they also prefer to work with people they can relate to on a human level. The same goes for opposing counsel and people on the other side of your deals. When you develop good rapport and mutual respect, you tend to focus on solutions instead of problems.

2. Find common ground. Relationships and transactions are often challenging; there are always areas of disagreement and conflict. Instead of picking apart those problem areas, look for the areas in which you agree and build from there. Those good relationships you forged based on my thoughts in point one will really help you bridge the gaps.

3. Consider and provide to your clients and adverse parties the practical reality. Not every point is so important. Save your ammo for the big ones.

4. You will be around a lot of men all of the time, at least for now. That doesn’t mean you need to play golf or like football (if you don’t!). There are so many things that men and women have in common that are unrelated to gender. Find those things. I cannot tell you how many close male friends I have in the business who — on the face of it — seem like I have little reason to connect with. Get beneath the surface and you will find that connectivity.

5. Do your best work. Maybe that’s intuitive, but it’s important and not universally practiced. You have to work hard and hone your craft before anything else.

Because of your position, you are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Aside from respecting one another at all times, I would say that protecting the environment and dealing with climate change is a clear-cut win for everyone. Shifting to renewable energy will create good and sustainable jobs in broad geographic areas, improve our quality of life, address inequalities and injustices, and inject new life into the economy. Momentum is building in the right direction and I support it 100%.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can follow Latham & Watkins on LinkedIn.

Thank you for your time, and your excellent insights!

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