Deena ElGenaidi
Published on:
December 17, 2021
min. read

What Does a Commercial Real Estate Lawyer Do?

When buying commercial properties, there are a number of different legal factors that come into play, necessitating a commercial real estate attorney. A CRE attorney’s job, though, involves quite a large number of responsibilities and expertise. Before hiring a real estate attorney, you may be wondering, “What does a commercial real estate lawyer do?” It’s a fair question. Here’s everything you need to know so you can be sure your real estate transactions are legally solid.

Is Commercial Real Estate Law Different from Residential Real Estate Law?

Commercial and residential real estate attorneys handle similar cases, working on real estate transactions between buyers and sellers, reviewing contracts, handling title issues and liens, and negotiating deals with lenders. However, there are key differences in the type of work a commercial real estate attorney does, versus the type of work a residential real estate attorney does.

According to Jo-Ann Marzullo, a commercial real estate attorney at Ligris + Associates, commercial real estate law is more complicated than residential, with more issues that must be dealt with. With residential real estate law, attorneys are typically working with single-family homes, and there’s “a built structure” that doesn’t vary much from case to case, Marzullo explained. The process of closing a residential real estate deal usually happens quickly, in about 45 days at most. “That’s not the case in commercial,” Marzullo said. “There can be lots of issues, so you need much longer to negotiate.”

Some questions that come up in commercial real estate law, Marzulla said, could include:

  • What do you plan to do with the property as a contingency to close?
  • Are there tenants on the property?
  • What are the buyer’s obligations to the tenants? Are there any agreements you’re bound by, or tenants’ rights to consider?

Marzullo added that the quickest deal she’s ever closed took 90 days. Essentially, commercial real estate law requires specialized knowledge about buying or selling commercial buildings, leasing retail space, completing construction, dealing with zoning issues, managing real estate development law and other commercial transactions.

What Does a Commercial Real Estate Lawyer Do?

Commercial real estate lawyers work on a variety of cases, all intended to help protect the rights of their clients, as they pertain to commercial properties, commercial lease disputes, title insurance, estate planning and more. The goals are usually the same. What a commercial real estate lawyer does, however, really depends on the specific type of commercial real estate that lawyer specializes in.

Zoning Laws

Commercial real estate lawyers are often asked to deal with zoning laws. In residential real estate, zoning issues rarely come up. With commercial businesses like restaurants, retail spaces or industrial spaces, zoning issues occur frequently. Zoning laws restrict the ways a property can be used. Property owners sometimes have to hire a commercial real estate lawyer to handle any issues around zoning, including rezoning, applications, appeals, hearings and more. Before purchasing a property, buyers and developers should consult a commercial real estate attorney as part of their due diligence. This safety measure will ensure their business won’t be restricted by any zoning laws they’re not aware of.

Real Estate Development Law

Commercial real estate lawyers also need to have an understanding of real estate development law, which entails land use laws and property development. For instance, attorneys might be called on to help with evaluating the property site, purchasing, securing financing, obtaining permits and leasing or selling the developed land.

Commercial Leases

Commercial real estate attorneys work with landlords to draft, review and negotiate commercial leases for your property. Drafting a lease without an attorney is not at all recommended, as you need someone who understands the ins and outs of commercial leases and who can spot potential loopholes or problems in the lease.

Title Reviews

A commercial real estate attorney will review your title and title insurance, negotiating the best deals to protect your interests and assets. Without an attorney to look at these documents, you may be putting your assets and your business at risk.

How to Hire a Commercial Real Estate Attorney

To hire a commercial real estate attorney, you first need to know what type of case you want that attorney to work on. “You’re trying to find an attorney whose experience matches what your project is,” Marzullo said. She noted that some of the bigger firms have attorneys who specialize in everything, but they also charge the highest rates. If price isn’t an issue, it might be easiest to just look for a big firm with a wide range of specialists. However, most people might want to do a bit more research to save money, especially if you’re not dealing with a complicated case. Marzullo advised that if someone is just looking to buy a commercial building, perhaps with a few tenants in it already, then looking for a commercial real estate attorney at a smaller firm who specializes in that type of property would be best.

“On the other hand, if you are doing multi-location deal, all across the country, with environmental issues, corporate issues, all sorts of other things, then that’s when you would turn to a bigger firm that has lots of specialists who could be called on to handle those issues,” Marzullo said. Once you have a clear idea of what your project is, Marzullo recommends reaching out to one or more attorneys to discuss the project, seeing what their experience is, how much they would engage with the project and what their terms would be. After you’ve reached an agreement, you can sign an engagement letter. An experienced commercial mortgage broker can help you find a commercial real estate lawyer using their vast network. A broker is necessary for connecting to a commercial lender, whether that be a bank, credit union, hard money lender or a debt fund, so they’ll be available to you early in the process.

How to Become a Commercial Real Estate Attorney

To become a commercial real estate attorney, you only need to be admitted to the bar as an attorney, Marzullo said, aside from a few states that might require additional specialization certificates. “You graduate from law school, you sit for the bar exam, you are an attorney,” Marzullo said. However, as an attorney, Marzullo added, “You’re not supposed to do anything that you are not competent to do.” So, to become a commercial real estate attorney, you need to acquire competence. To do so, you have to work with an experienced commercial real estate attorney to learn the ropes, as well as the basics of commercial real estate law.

Nonetheless, the learning process lasts a lifetime, as there are always new types of cases and clients that come up. “I’m still learning, and I’ve been practicing for decades,” Marzullo admitted.

Find a Commercial Real Estate Lawyer to Suit Your Specific Needs

If you’re buying or selling commercial property, then you should begin your search for a commercial real estate lawyer right away. Ensure that you’re getting the best possible deal and that all of your bases are covered. Make sure to research attorneys who work on your type of property, as you want to make sure to hire someone with the right experience.

What Does a Commercial Real Estate Lawyer Do? FAQs

How much do commercial real estate lawyers make a year?

The salary for a commercial real estate attorney varies widely, depending on the type of cases you take, your location, the firm you work for, and the number of years of experience. However, the national average in the United States is $133,045 per year.

How long does it take to become a real estate lawyer?

Law school takes three years, followed by passing the bar exam. Once you’re barred as an attorney, Marzullo recommends spending about five years working with an experienced commercial real estate attorney to learn competence in the field.

What are examples of commercial real estate?

Some examples of commercial real estate include retail spaces like shopping malls, multifamily residential spaces like apartment buildings, hotels, office spaces, restaurants and industrial spaces.