William F. Stevens, Dentons, Atlanta (Photo: John Disney/ALM). William F. Stevens, Dentons, Atlanta (Photo: John Disney/ALM)

Bill Stevens graduated from Duke University School of Law in 1970 and went to work for Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan aiming to be a tax lawyer. He found real estate to be more satisfying, and he went on to a long career in representing clients lending money for real estate projects and other clients purchasing completed projects. He helped start a predecessor firm to what is now Dentons, pioneered “conduit lending,” a capital source for real estate projects.

Here is our Q&A:

How did you become interested in real estate law?  It must have been very different when you started compared to what it’s like today.

I accepted an offer out of law school with the Sutherland firm due to their noted tax reputation. I had an accounting background and thought a tax specialty would be a natural fit. My first months with the firm were spent in their real estate group. I rotated through other practice areas in the firm, but when it came time to choose a permanent slot, I realized that I had enjoyed the work in the real estate group the most and chose to settle there permanently. The real estate legal practice was different then. You personally know most of the lawyers you dealt with. You had more face-to-face meetings and negotiations. And the pace of the practice was much slower.

How did you come to pioneer “conduit lending?”

In the late 1980s, I got a call from Sam Hatcher, then the general counsel of Equitable Real Estate. Equitable and its affiliated entity, DLJ, were setting up an entity to be known as Column Financial. Column was going to act as a conduit lender, making loans for ultimate inclusion in commercial mortgage-backed securities. Our firm created Column, prepared the forms to be used and closed many of their loans. A good part of my work representing Column dealt with explaining to borrower’s counsel the need for concepts required by the CMBS industry which were not then typically found in traditional real estate lending, such as single purpose entities, independent directors and nonconsolidation opinions. Based on the Column experience, I was asked to consult with two other entities to assist in setting up their conduit lending operations. At the height of the CMBS market, we were representing six different conduits.

How did you come to co-found Long Aldridge & Norman, and could you have imagined it being a part of a firm like Dentons?

I, along with three other Sutherland lawyers, left to form Long & Aldridge in early 1974. In what in hindsight is ironic, we all left because we wanted a smaller and closer professional relationship. (I recall that the Sutherland firm in Atlanta had approximately 30 lawyers at the time). Of the original four lawyers, I was the one who least wanted the firm to grow.

I obviously changed that view. Once a firm starts growing, it becomes hard to offer opportunities to younger lawyers without continued growth. While I could not have envisioned being part of the largest law firm in the world in 1974, with the reality of “Big Law” today, I am comfortable with that result.

What is one of your proudest accomplishments in the law, and what challenge did you have to overcome so you could achieve it?

One of my proudest accomplishments is that I still have a number of clients today that were clients of the firm when we first started in 1974. We have remained together with a strong working relationship throughout the 40-plus years. But, over that length of time, each of those clients has seen significant changes in their markets and business models. In order to keep those clients, I have had to keep abreast of changes in their markets, attempt to anticipate what new changes may be coming and convey to them that I am always thinking of them and working to keep them successful.

What part of legal practice should young lawyers pay attention to if they want to have success like you have in their careers?

Lawyers should zealously represent the interests of their client. However, I believe that lawyers should attempt to undertake this representation with a sense of respect for, and connection with, counsel for the other party. Especially in a transactional practice, I do not think a lawyer should have his or her name greeted with a groan when the lawyer on the other side finds out who is representing the opposing party. A reputation as a competent lawyer who takes reasonable positions for his or her client both promotes your client’s interest in achieving a successful result and has the added benefit of having opposing counsel think of you on future referrals.