Eager summer and new associates frequently sit across the desk and insist that they intend to work in a particular practice area that is often depicted fictionally and that sounds glamorous. When asked the canned question of "What is the best piece of advice that you can offer me?" I jump at the chance to advise, "Be open to opportunity."
At one time, I was a senior premedical major in college with organic chemistry research experience under my belt and a future as a doctor and perhaps researcher ahead of me when I chose not to pursue that path. After college, I worked in chemistry before deciding to go to law school to become a patent attorney. Thus, you might expect me to say that I built on my past experience and am now happily living my dream life as a patent attorney, but that is not how this story unfolds.
As an associate in the business group of a law firm, I had a world of opportunity before me. I had the good fortune of working across the spectrum of practice areas. For starters, I did due diligence for mezzanine financing, worked with science- or technology-based startups organizing their companies and working out licensing arrangements and tackled all of the assignment and consent documentation for a major reorganization of several affiliated entities. I also worked in an area that I had never heard of: affordable housing. What started as one assignment led to another and another until a big chunk of my time was spent on affordable housing projects.
This is not a common practice area. In my eyes though, it is sophisticated and interesting; I got to work on multimillion-dollar real estate development transactions that demanded compliance with state and federal regulations, involved a potential array of funding sources and had the feel-good result of creating housing for people of low-income. We typically represented public housing agencies. Because these entities are public agencies, they use a procurement process to hire counsel. Looking to the future, this looked to me like an opportunity for developing new business.
Despite its relative anonymity, the affordable housing field is quite broad and varied too. Within this practice area there have been several chances for opportunity as well.
One such opportunity came with my first Capital Fund Financing loan. I quickly learned that this U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) program allows public housing agencies to pledge (subject to the availability of appropriations) a portion of their future-year annual capital fund allocations to make debt service payments on financings. While I was wading into unchartered territory personally, I dug into the available research and closely monitored a frequently updated website on the program as guidance. This was an excellent opportunity to further hone my practice. Some of the innovations HUD tried on the client’s financing were ultimately incorporated into the regulations that came out a few years later. Since that time, I have helped other clients to utilize this program and have had the opportunity to speak about it on more than one occasion. I have served as legal counsel to public housing agencies on a significant percentage of the transactions using this program. Thus, one foray into an interesting financing program has led to a niche area.
Opportunity does not always simply fall in your lap. Sometimes you have to seize upon it on your own. The most successful lawyers that I know look down the road to see what is new and get ahead of the curve. During recent tough financial times — particularly for agencies that are largely dependent on federal funding to finance their operations and capital expenditures — such agencies are looking for financial and perhaps regulatory independence. The organization of affiliated entities by such agencies may be a means to achieve these goals, but it also brings into play HUD guidance as well as state law. Again, it is an area of opportunity to guide these agencies through best practices.
Another example goes to the heart of affordable housing as it exists today. Traditionally, affordable housing primarily received funding for bricks and mortar. Often, affordable housing developments were isolated from the community. There is a new school of thought to stop focusing on a single housing development and look at the bigger picture, the community at large with access to services, education, transportation and employment. The HUD has offered a funding source to help finance the costs of planning for and then implementing such a grand plan, called the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative. This may all be intimidating for clients and others working on traditional housing developments. The level of coordination alone to gather the applicable stakeholders and work together on a shared vision, goal and plan is daunting. Again, in uncertainty, there is opportunity. Like-minded professionals like an urban planner, a community consultant and a housing agency executive and I have twice presented at national housing conferences on this shift and the opportunities and challenges it presents.
Change is inevitable, life is unpredictable and opportunity is often unexpected. Be ready to seize it. Putting on blinders and sticking to a script is not always the most advantageous path. Keep in touch with your college and law school classmates or reconnect with them if your connections have waned. You never know what opportunities might come to your friends and, in turn, to you. Go to those "networking" events and meet someone new. Who knows what you may learn or what may interest you and set you on a new path. Embrace your interests. After your stress melts away in your favorite yoga class, you may strike up a conversation with the person on the next mat. Fellow parents of your children’s friends are another group of people outside of your normal circle that might ignite a spark.
My original plan to become a doctor led to my career as an affordable housing attorney, and the path I have taken was forged because of opportunities I encountered along the way. As lawyers, we may lean toward being risk-adverse and prone to mapping everything out with specificity. That means we simply need a nudge now and again to mentally trade in that lab coat for a J.D. and embrace opportunity when it comes our way.
Michelle R. Yarbrough Korb is a director at Cohen & Grigsby who practices corporate and affordable housing law. She has extensive experience in affordable housing matters with an emphasis on mixed-finance project development, including the utilization of low-income housing tax credits as well as state and federal financing programs.