Shutterstock/Jon Bilous
Shutterstock/Jon Bilous ()

It used to be so simple. You go to the right schools, work your tail off at a Wall Street law firm and make partner. Then, to signal that you’ve arrived, you buy a grand apartment on New York’s Upper East Side.

Like your ascension in Big Law, you climb the real estate ladder gradually—and strategically. Maybe your early purchase was a tidy apartment on one of the side streets in the East 70s or 80s. But as you settled into partnership, you clawed your way to the ultimate prize: a “Classic 8″ apartment on Park or Fifth Avenue.

“There was a time when [big-firm] lawyers would only live on the Upper East Side,” says real estate lawyer Adam Leitman Bailey, who often represents lawyers in apartment sales and purchases. “It used to be they’d do anything to get on Park Avenue, even if they had to take an apartment on the second floor. They felt they had to keep with the Joneses or the Schwartzes.”

It wasn’t that long ago when young partners were salivating over prewar (as in WWII), doorman apartments on prime addresses on the Upper East Side. Nine years ago, when I first reported about lawyers and their real estate lust, youngish partners lamented that they were being outbid by bankers, hedge funders and other financial titans, forcing them to camp out on the Upper West Side, downtown or, God forbid, Brooklyn.

These days, however, young partners no longer pine for the same status symbols. Instead, they’re settling in far less pedigreed parts of town—like New York’s Little India, Hell’s Kitchen or Washington Heights. In fact, this new generation of partners seems to be thumbing its nose at the ultimate symbol of success: the right address.

“Our generation is looking for a broader array of neighborhoods,” says Duane Loft, a litigation partner at Boies Schiller. He grew up on the Upper East Side and lives in Tribeca. “There are now a lot of appealing neighborhoods.”

The shift, in part, comes from a desire for neighborhoods with more cultural texture.

“I don’t know anyone who has dreams of living on the Upper East Side,” says Ansgar Simon, a tax partner at Boies Schiller. “I’m impervious to status. I drive a Volkswagen Passat.” Now a resident of Washington Heights in upper Manhattan, where he lives with family in a 2,500-square-foot apartment in a 1910 building, Simon says he appreciates the ethnic and professional diversity of the neighborhood.

“There’s a shift in the partner population,” says an Asian-American partner at an Am Law 100 firm who recently bought a condo near Little India. “When I’m on the Upper East Side, I feel out of place,” she says, referring to a lack of diversity. “I saw apartments on Park with amazing views, but when I walk out, I thought, what do I do? How do I make friends?” She adds, “The cooler partners go to Chelsea, Tribeca or Brooklyn.”

There also seems to be an aesthetic shift among younger partners. Instead of a baronial prewar apartment, some are opting for (gasp!) new construction. “The new nouveau riche generation wants the latest in technology, open kitchens, services, floor-to-ceiling windows, big views that new construction offers,” explains Bailey. And because new construction is popping up all over the city, younger partners are spread across a wider range of New York.

What’s driving young partners to neighborhoods and buildings that older partners wouldn’t set foot in isn’t aesthetics but practicality, says a Sullivan & Cromwell partner. Lawyers are willing to trade cachet for convenience. And because S&C is located in lower Manhattan, lots of its lawyers live downtown or in Brooklyn, says this partner.

Is the fancy Upper East Side apartment completely passÉ? Not exactly. Some of the best private schools in the city, such as Brearley, Chapin and Dalton, are there. “Those with kids at the uptown schools still want to live there,” says an Am Law 100 partner. “Or those stuffy, younger partners who grew up there and can’t imagine living anywhere else.”