Douglas F. Wasser is a highly rated business and real estate attorney with experience in commercial real estate, corporate, lending, hotel, banking, estate and trust, fine art dispute resolution, co-op and condo, and business areas of law.
Wasser & Russ, LLP is an intimate but agile commercial and business law firm. They utilize a street wise but common sense approach to even vexing business problems and remain ever mindful that their clients have budget and cost pressures. Their firm size allows price flexibility and efficiency. Yet their network of similarly situated professional colleagues allows them to put resources at the disposal of their clients similar to what large firms may offer; but they can do so at a much lower price point.
MO: You describe being an “attorney as not a job, nor is it a career. It’s a “calling”. Can you recall the first time you knew that being an attorney was what you were meant to do?
Douglas: I clearly remember starting college and saying to myself that the one profession I was not going to choose was law. My sense of lawyers was pretty much the same held by most people.
However, that changed by the time I graduated from college. I was fortunate enough to deal with lawyers in college and they inspired me. What a surprise that turned out to be!
I saw lawyers as people who genuinely helped others through intense business problems. They provided business and emotional support and their compassion for their clients was authentic.
How more noble a life can one choose?
I’ve found that lawyers are truly likeable, smart and scrappy. The best lawyers want to see things from their client’s perspective and they have that burning desire to help.
No doubt, success at law requires hard work and long, lonely hours. It’s not the way the TV shows play it. There is more to it than simply dressing up all the time and eating fine dinners.
As Oscar Wilde said “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”
You have to go at 1,000 percent all the time. If you let up for an instant you’ll find yourself losing to another lawyer who refused to let up. You never forget that it remains your client who is at risk, and that motivates you to work even harder.
There are no boring days on this job. Every day is a challenge, but every day provides an opportunity to learn and grow, even after 32 years!
MO: What are some things that all businesses should know or consider before leasing office space?
Douglas: A great question!
The most significant decision a company can make is to hire a first class team to help you. Choosing space is a significant decision and there are people out there willing to help.
The most important advisor is the office leasing broker. The broker is often paid by the landlord after the lease is signed. Though the law imposes on the broker a duty of loyalty to the landlord, a good tenant oriented broker is an obvious asset.
The best office leasing brokers will want a deep understanding of your business. That curiosity should be encouraged. This will enable the broker to understand your space needs including your growth potential. The broker should know the idiosyncrasies of the market, any particular essential deal points which you require and should also steer you to those landlords who have established a reputation for first rate tenant service.
A good team of architects and engineers is also required. They will judge whether the proposed space can be made to fit your requirements, or whether the building has the necessary infrastructure to support your business. Contractors/constructions managers should also be consulted to verify the feasibility of tenant work.
Not to sound self-serving, but the earlier an attorney is brought into the picture the better. The attorney should have office leasing experience. The attorney’s commitment during the early parts of the space search may be limited, but the attorney may be ideally situated to help coordinate the work of the other team members.
As discussions progress towards an agreement, the attorney is the person who will help you translate those business terms into an acceptable form of lease.
MO: I didn’t know that there was a specific area of law devoted to art until visiting your site. Can you share what your most common cases reflect when it comes to dealing with the fine art community?
Douglas: It’s the glamour part of our business.
We have the usual stream of cases where one party or another claims to have been defrauded in an art transaction, or a party fails to pay the agreed upon price for an item of fine art.
However, our experience is that many fine art law cases involve issues of far more complexity. These cases often concern contested issues of ownership and title, and frequently start when the person controlling the artwork dies. That’s when family members, business associates and others come out of the woodwork to lay their claims against the artwork which they may have been eyeing for long periods of time.
The most compelling art law cases concern family collections which were looted by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Some families have committed generations to reclaim their stolen artworks and their victories, long in coming, are uplifting and inspirational.
MO: What are some trends in real estate law that you’re excited about or think that our readers should be paying attention to?
Douglas: In the short term, it’s always about price per square foot and the demand for space, whether leased or purchased. That demand, in turn, is governed by the business cycle.
However, there are interesting long term trends in real estate, which are reflected in legal practice.
On the commercial front, I think, a cutting edge issue has been climate sensitivity.
The race has been on in recent years to make buildings more energy efficient and “green” so as to reduce the environmental footprint of the business tenants. That’s been truly exciting.
However, in some respects, significant damage to the climate has already occurred and the impact for coastal business areas has already been felt. Past storms were warning shots across the bow. In the northeast, Hurricane Sandy was the broadside that shocked our false sense of environmental invulnerability. Some buildings in lower Manhattan are still out of commission some 7 months after that storm.
So, while “green technology” will continue to dazzle in the necessary evolution of techniques to reduce future climate damage, the real, and less talked about, nuts and bolts of climate sensitivity will be dedicated to environmental risks which have already occurred and may likely recur. Landlords may seek to relocate building systems from ground and below grade areas to locations less vulnerable to flooding. Tenants may start to dig their heels in, as never before, on lease terms relating to casualties such as flooding, and when they can be freed from their lease commitments to look elsewhere for space.
In residential real estate, the news seems to be good. I think the comeback from the Great Recession is in full swing in many United States markets. The markets may not be back to 2006-8 levels, but there is improvement. Development has been stimulated and people are buying. Interest rates remain at close to lifetime lows. Major stock indices are at pre-recession levels and these securities markets have usually been reliable real estate trend precursors.
MO: What tips would you give to someone conducting business as a hotel franchisee?
Douglas: If you own a hotel then the best thing you can do is hire a great manager, and then keep him. That’s because the hotel business requires close, hands-on management. It’s not for part-timers or those without experience.
The best operators have their pulse firmly on their immediate market and know when to nimbly adjust room rates to the penny, which they do on a daily basis.
Successful hotels are also in need constant renewal. Furniture, furnishings, bedding, wall coverings, floor coverings, etc. all have to be replaced at frequent regular intervals. Cash has to be reserved for this purpose or else the hotel will likely begin to look tired and lose competitive market share; and the hotel business is always competitive.
Operating as a franchise can be helpful because it may be easier to meet uniform standards. But franchise fees and requirements can be heavy at times.
MO: Over the span of your impressive career have you noticed any specific changes or trends in law since when you first started practicing 30 years ago?
Douglas: Thanks for the compliment!
The law changes and evolves every day. That’s why I love it so. At any given instant in time, the law is a snapshot of society writ large. As society changes, the law will follow.
I became an eager young attorney the same month in which Ronald Reagan was first inaugurated in 1980! So, things have changed a whole bunch since then.
For example, in just the last 5 years the law has taken enormous strides to grant even basic human dignity and compassion to same sex couples.
In 1980, it was unfathomable that that same sex couples would be ever be entitled to equal treatment under the law. That attitude had painful consequences in almost every aspect of life including, housing, employment, business, estate planning, travel and child care. Lawyers could only address issues on a piecemeal basis and could bend the law only as far as creative minds allowed.
In other areas of change, the information technology revolution has forced the workplace to evolve, for better or worse.
Hostile workplace environments are easily publicized, and thereby reduced. That’s a positive development.
But these days, worker productivity is no longer necessarily anchored to a physical office. More and more people work off-site. So, the “Mad Men” strict office hierarchal structure, where information could only flow upstream to the “suits” in the corner office, has become a thing of the past.
However, the very ability to detach from the physical office has allowed businesses to treat workers as mere fungible commodities. As a result, per diem workers can more easily fill the slots of replaced permanent workers. That may be a less desirable result.
I’m anxious to see how the law develops as the lines between business and home life continue to melt away. Nighttime workplace demands made by smart phone text these days seem almost to be de rigueur, and in some environments, may be ignored only at the employee’s peril. Thirty years ago those same demands would have been rebuffed and ignored, as an inappropriate breach of workplace etiquette, with no risk to job security.