Kenneth M. Lapine is a partner with the Cleveland, Ohio law firm of Miller Goler Faeges Lapine LLP. Ken’s practice focuses on real estate acquisitions, dispositions and management, investment real estate syndication, consumer credit, and regulatory aspects and operational facets of financial institutions. His clients include mortgage banking and financial institutions, developers and real estate investors. He is a nationally published author of books on consumer credit law compliance.
How did you get started along the path that has led you to this place in your career?
I was, as most young lawyers, commencing a career that had no direction. I started with a large law firm and went through the normal orientation process, spending time in various practice areas until I was asked to make a choice of a practice area in which to concentrate. I chose taxation because I thought that every issue was pretty cut and dry and that answers to problems were easily arrived at. I soon realized that that was hardly the case, and that as a tax lawyer you were not typically the lead counsel with clients; you were basically the “brain surgeon.” It was at that point that I realized that I wanted to be a transactional lawyer who had more contact with clients and more client responsibility.
I then transitioned to being a real estate lawyer and thoroughly enjoyed that.
As a consequence of practicing in the real estate area, I also was engaged in foreclosure work for a significant financial institution client of the firm. At one point, the general counsel for that client left, and I was approached to consider becoming its general counsel and vice president. I struggled with that opportunity because having the prestige of the law firm behind me as a young lawyer gave the impression that I had a lot more authority and heft in the eyes of opposing counsel. However, I considered that particular financial institution to be prestigious enough and the potential experience to be gained to be important enough to make the change. I joined the client as vice president and general counsel.
It was during that seven-year tenure that I became quite proficient in financial institution law, banking regulatory law and consumer credit law. I also became an adjunct professor at a local law school, which kept my professional legal skills well honed. I also became quite active in financial institution legal trade associations, developing an expertise in financial institution regulatory law as well as consumer credit law.
When the financial institution was sold to a rival institution, I elected to return to private practice and joined a medium-sized law firm, whose partners were contributing authors to the legal treatise, Current Legal Forms, published by Matthew Bender & Co.
As an attorney returning to private practice with this firm, I was given the editing responsibility for several volumes of Current Legal Forms as a contributing author. During the process I was approached by Matthew Bender to consider reviewing the manuscript of a proposed consumer credit set of volumes to be published by the company that was primarily being written in-house. I was invited to New York City to meet with the editorial staff about reviewing the manuscript. After a thorough review I concluded that the publication was woefully inadequate, with much of it having been plagiarized from other publications. Obviously, Matthew Bender was unhappy with that news and asked for my suggestions to remedy that situation. I advised that they basically had to start over and rewrite the entire treatise. Several weeks later, I was approached again by Matthew Bender and asked if I would consider undertaking that onerous project. It was with mixed feelings that I considered the opportunity and concluded that it was an extremely massive and challenging undertaking. Rather than flatly refuse the offer, I concocted a wish list under which I could take on this project. As I had very few private clients at that point in time, I structured my proposal on the basis of this project being the same as if it were for a client: I proposed that I undertake the work on an hourly basis; that Matthew Bender would provide with me all of my research and source materials, including treatises by other publishers, a subscription to the Federal Register and all other sorts of reference materials; I also required an annual trip to New York City to meet with the publisher’s staff, all expenses paid for two; I asked for spine credit and other credits as it relates to being the principal contributing author of a legal treatise. The hourly rate that I would charge would be my normal hourly rate. That, I thought, would be a deal buster. To my surprise as well as chagrin, my offer was readily accepted. And, so, for the last 35 years, I have been an author of what is now a six-volume treatise on consumer credit law that not only is a standalone set, but also part of the larger multi-volume treatise entitled Banking Law. After having committed, and obviously remained committed for 35 years, I am a principal author and probably the longest tenured author for Matthew Bender & Co., which is now a division of Lexis Nexis. I am now after almost 50 years in practice known as a banking law and real estate law specialist, with an emphasis on consumer credit law, as well as investment real estate law and practice.
How did you find your first job after law school?
Having clerked after my second year in law school in Chicago for Lord Bissell and Brook, I decided I would interview at the law school (University of Michigan) with firms from Cleveland, Ohio, which was my hometown. I figured I had nothing to lose. I already had a job offer from Lord Bissell and Brook, but figuring the practice of law in Cleveland was as vital as it was in Chicago (as well as the cost of living being much less in Cleveland), I elected to interview with several of the larger law firms in Cleveland. I was given an offer from Squire Sanders & Dempsey, the largest law firm in Ohio, let alone in Cleveland, and thought that that would be a wonderful place to start my professional career.
How did you get your next job/opportunity?
As a third-year associate at Squire Sanders & Dempsey, I was assigned to do foreclosure work for a large, prominent savings association in Cleveland. When their general counsel left for another position, I was approached to consider becoming the next general counsel of the institution. While it was a hard decision to make—to leave the prestigious firm of Squire Sanders & Dempsey, the opportunity to be the counsel at a large, prestigious financial institution was very appealing, as well as the juxtaposition that I experienced by being the client and not the lawyer, and having senior partners of my former law firm serving me as the general counsel of the client.
What helped you early in your career to become more knowledgeable and gain skills, experience and success?
As general counsel for the savings association, I was charged with dealing with potential commercial borrowers of the association and, always having an interest in the business law and business in general, I was impressed with the knowledge and business acumen of the potential borrowers of the association applying for large loans to finance the acquisition or construction of commercial projects. This intrigued me and I thought that was something I would like to do—being able to combine the practice of law as well as the business of real estate investment and development. So, even though I was employed by the savings association, I approached a friend, a commercial real estate broker, about finding a potential real estate investment for me for which I could raise the money and syndicate, own, and manage on my own behalf. He did find an opportunity (a small shopping center) that I was able to put under contract, raise the equity funds from investors, arrange financing and acquire. Acquiring the experience of both knowing the workings of a lending institution and experiencing the triumphs and tribulations of owning real estate, I was able to become an expert of sorts in investment real estate and its financing. In my later practice, having these combined experiences, I believe increased the value of my work for clients in the real estate investment field.
What have been some of the critical turning points in your career including both successes and disappointments?
One of the most critical turning points in my career was when I left the large law firm as a young lawyer to go in-house with a financial institution client and became its general counsel. It was during that period of time that I became versed in banking law, regulation and consumer credit, on which I then built my legal career after I left the savings association and returned to private practice. It was obviously my experience with a financial institution that opened up the opportunity for me to acquire other financial institutions as clients.
My biggest disappointment, career-wise, was in the late 2000s when the real estate market collapsed. I was primarily a real estate lawyer, and the opportunity to develop a stronger real estate clientele was significantly suppressed by the depression in real estate. That market, fortunately, has turned around, and my real estate practice is once again thriving
Have you ever stepped off your career path for a period of time during your career, or made a significant career change? What was that change, and how did you do it?
I stepped off my career path as a pure lawyer when I accepted the position to become general counsel for a savings association that was a client of the firm. I was offered the position by the client at a very favorable increase in compensation and had the opportunity to become part of the management team involved in the business operations of the client, as well as serving as its chief legal counsel. It was a terrific experience and gave me the opportunity to not only use my legal skills but to learn about business and have a hand in running that business. Once the company was sold, I returned to the pure practice of law as a partner in a medium-sized Cleveland law firm.
What have you done to develop clients for your practice? What has been most successful for you? What advice would you give to a junior attorney trying to develop his or her client base?
One of the most important things that I have done to develop clients is to be active in trade associations relevant to the business of the clients I serve, such as NAIOP, which is the National Association of Industrial and Office Parks, the local chapter of NAIOP, BOMA, which is the Building Owners and Managers Association and other financial institution trade associations and the association committees. Basically, the best way to attract clients is to be among them and be active in their associations so that they recognize your leadership and organizational skills, interests and knowledge of what they do. My investment real estate syndication activities also attract attention from potential clients who became investors in these ventures and recognized the expertise and good work that I am able to do and demonstrate to them my ability to produce tangible benefits from being involved in projects that I sponsor.
While I am not certain that I have obtained any legal work directly due to my interest in magic, I will note that I have been a semi-professional magician, performing for children since I was eight years old. I always carry a small bag of tricks in my briefcase, ready to spring into action if the moment is right. People in the community know me as “The Great Kabuki” and many of their children were entertained by me at birthday parties over the years! Being an active part of your community in one way or another is always a plus for you, personally and sometimes professionally, and for others too!
How has the practice of law changed in the time that you have been practicing? How has it impacted your particular area of practice and your own work?
When I began my practice as a young lawyer with a large law firm, my expectation was that I would remain with that law firm for the duration of my career. That soon changed, as the practice of law became more competitive and financially-driven. Attorneys no longer have the same degree of loyalty to their firm, nor vice versa, and there is now a great deal of mobility in the practice.
If you were advising a young attorney today who was entering your field, what advice would you give them about how to find a job, how to develop their expertise, and how to be successful?
I would advise a young lawyer who is looking to enter the practice of law to try to be as flexible as possible in exploring all of the different practice areas, learn as much as possible during those first few years of practice and then commit to a particular field of law. Once having done that, I would advise the young attorney to observe in which industries the firm’s clients predominantly reside and become active in their trade associations, develop and maintain a high profile, participate in educational activities, speak at their conferences and become very well versed in the business of their clients. The goal should be to become a knowledgeable and insightful counselor, and not just an attorney for hire.
What are some of the biggest challenges that you see facing new lawyers today?
Learn as much as possible as soon as possible while practicing with a law firm. Try not to be one-dimensional. Have insight into your clients’ matters so that you can be more than just a draftsman of legal documents. Think strategically. Always think about adding value. Also, strive to develop a work ethic that sets you above your contemporaries and proves your value every day to clients and to colleagues.
What are some changes and challenges you see on the horizon for the practice of law?
Again, in order to succeed, the young lawyer needs to prove that he or she has capabilities beyond the traditional practice. Always strive to add value to your clients’ matters.
If someone had offered you advice about your career early on, what do you wish they would have suggested to you?
I wish they had suggested that, besides working hard and accepting every assignment that came my way, I should be observant and believe that my career path is as open as I want it to be, and that I do not have to be slotted into any particular practice mode. But, while being observant, that I should act on my observations. If I encountered, for example, an attorney who had an entrepreneurial streak and that appealed to me, then I should follow that lead. I suppose that is what I have done.
About the Author
Carol Ann Martinelli is national commercial services counsel for Fidelity National Title Insurance Company, and an active member of the ABA Law Practice Division and its Law Career Paths Task Force and Diversity & Inclusion Committee.