A Conversation with Warren Estis ’73, Gary Rosenberg ’74, and Deborah Riegel ’93
In a Q&A with Professor David Reiss, the partners at Rosenberg & Estis reflect on building a powerhouse real estate law firm and a family legacy at the Law School
When Gary Rosenberg ’74 and Warren Estis ’73 created Rosenberg & Estis in 1975, they never dreamed it would become one of the most prominent real estate law firms in New York City.
Forty years and more than a dozen Brooklyn Law School hires later, they have been instrumental in the construction of much of the city’s skyline. Deborah Riegel ’93 joined the firm’s litigation department in 1994, and she recently became equity partner. Rosenberg & Estis began with a focus on regulated residential housing, but today its 79 attorneys practice in all areas of commercial real estate, including transactions, litigation, development, and appeals. The firm was behind the construction of One Bryant Park, and the joint venture between The Durst Organization and the New York City Port Authority to build and lease One World Trade Center.
The partners have something else in common: a Brooklyn Law School legacy. Riegel and her father, Arthur Riegel ’94, were law students at the same time. Estis is the son of Nathan Estis ’34 and father of Alexander Estis ’17. Rosenberg’s daughter Jana is also a graduate, Class of 2006.
Professor David Reiss, who teaches a variety of real estate courses, recently sat down with the three graduates to discuss the creation and growth of their firm, the changing New York real estate market, and their strong connections to the Law School.
How did you balance being a manager of a business with developing your practice?
Gary Rosenberg: Out of law school I started my own firm, and I realized after a year or two that building a firm and going to court didn’t work. I just couldn’t service clients if I was in court—this was before cell phones. I decided I needed a litigator, so I hired Warren, who I had known since college.
What’s a memorable case you worked on together in your many years of practice?
Warren Estis: Within the first year or so, we got a significantly important case about whether certain housing units would be covered under rent stabilization. It was a jury trial over a period of weeks, and Gary explained to me the relevant issues of rent stabilization as it pertains to the case. The judge questioned some of our arguments, and Gary, for the first time, said to me: ‘Warren, this is my theory of what the law should be!’
Gary Rosenberg: But we convinced the judge, and in the next case we established in the Court of Appeals that single-room occupancy units are not subject to rent stabilization. But then the State passed a law stating that they are. I have a number of those precedent-setting “and then they passed a law” cases.
Deborah, you also teach landlord-tenant litigation at the Law School in addition to your busy schedule at the firm. Why do you make the time to teach?
Deborah Riegel: I would not be where I am if not for the Law School. I told this story at Convocation when I spoke a couple of years ago: When the construction hoist fell off 4 Times Square in 1998, I was still a fairly junior associate. Everybody was in crisis mode, and I had research to do and no clue how to even start organizing my thoughts. I had maintained a relationship with Professor Jerry Leitner. Then this little voice in the back ofmy head remembered Professor Richard Farrell’s ‘money-back guarantee.’ So I picked up the phone to call them. They talked with me for about a half hour without any hesitation and helped me get my thoughts together so I could start to do this research. That story exemplifies the remarkable community the Law School really is.
I never in a million years thought that I would land here at this firm, and I think you have to pay it forward, and that has been incredibly gratifying for me.
What is the most significant development in the practice of real estate law that you have seen in the last few decades?
Gary Rosenberg: Across the country, real estate is a service. In New York, it’s an industry. What has changed in the last 30 years is that it is now understood to be a practice of its own. The city used to be full of small boutique real estate firms, with two or three service partners who are in real estate. Now, real estate is a division of every New York firm.
Gary, you were one of the leaders in the relatively new field of green real estate when it first became a distinct practice area. What advice do you have for new attorneys who want to be leaders in new fields?
Gary Rosenberg: Follow the regulators. First thing you’ve got to do is figure out what’s going to go wrong, and that’s basically: What is government going to do? Our focus has always been how to make a deal and understand what could go wrong, not believe that you could prevent anything from going wrong, because if you try to prevent anything from going wrong, you will never make a deal. Clients are in the risk business. Lawyers are not. And the difficulty I see is lawyers who think their job is to eliminate any risk as opposed to explaining that risk to the client. We always look at what will put the client out of business as opposed to what will cost him money.
Deborah, your dad graduated a year after you, so I’m sure you wanted to give him some words of wisdom.
Deborah Riegel: Attending law school together was a great bonding experience for us. He is an example of somebody who had a job that he loved, with the New York City Department of Education, but always wanted to be a lawyer. And when the opportunity came, and it came late in his life, he jumped at it. He took a huge leap, and I don’t think he really needed advice from me other than how to navigate around the Law School.
What advice would you give to new lawyers?
Warren Estis: It’s really a growing process of determining what you really like in the law and what you want to do. Don’t decide in law school what you think you want to do. Go out, experience different aspects of the law, and then decide what you like and enjoy, because that’s the most important thing. To me, every case is a challenge or a game of chess or Monopoly, and I enjoy the challenge.
Management was never one of my skills, and it never grew on me. I just love doing the litigation and going to court, and I told my son Alex, who just graduated from Brooklyn Law School, that he should find whatever he truly desires and likes. It shouldn’t be just a job, and I could see over the three years of law school, he started feeling strongly that he wanted to get into litigation and do real estate litigation.
Gary Rosenberg: There is also a new skill that law students need to learn: how to talk on the phone. You cannot resolve differences in e-mail. Many of these students have lived theirlives being able to see what they write, and you can’t see what you speak. Once you’ve said it, you’ve said it. Right now, attorneys are coming out of law school, and they will not meet in person and they will not pick up the phone, and I think that’s really a skillset that people have totally lost. That needs to be taught, just like oral argument and moot court.
Your firm hires a lot of graduates of the Law School. What does the Law School do well to prepare our students for legal careers?
Deborah Riegel: They not only learn law, but they learn practice through the clinical programs—it’s useful to have students who walk in who have had some real experience. I also find that there is a real work ethic and a seriousness to how they approach what they’re doing. They are just smart, hungry, and collegial, and they all have a really good writing background as well, which is extremely important.
What is your greatest professional accomplishment?
Warren Estis: Gary and I started out with humble beginnings, and to be able to achieve the recognition and the reputation the firm has in the field of real estate litigation is something you could never dream of. When I look back and think about it, we made it in New York City, and Rosenberg & Estis is a household name when it comes to the field of real estate litigation. It’s quite an achievement.
Gary Rosenberg: One, the existence of the firm, but probably even more than that is the fact that the firm no longer is living or dying on Warren and myself.
Deborah Riegel: Becoming an equity partner here. It was a lot of work, but I made a conscious decision over the course of my career to make this my home. To watch the firm grow and then to have been honored to be asked to join the ownership is huge.
You’ve all been so generous to the Law School. What inspires you to give back?
Gary Rosenberg: The fact that I was able to afford law school is something that was very important to me. I owe a lot to Brooklyn, and I haven’t finished paying it yet.
Warren Estis: There have been three generations in my family going to Brooklyn Law School, so it’s important to us to give back.
Deborah Riegel: The Law School is the foundation for a lot of what I have done. I would love for every student to end up with a career arc like I’ve had, and to love what they’re doing, and to find their place. If I can help them do that, then it’s all good.