Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Entering the land use field: a "lost generation," or an interdisciplinary opportunity?

Stephen Miller recently posted the compelling question whether there will be a "lost generation" of land use lawyers, due to the recession, the weak legal hiring market, and the related lull in the land development economy.  Jamie and a couple of other observent commenters added their thoughts.  This is a very well-founded and important concern.  

I share the concern, but I am somewhat less pessimistic.  One of the great things about land use is that it is so fundamentally interdisciplinary, and this in turn means there are many areas of practice that involve (and often require) a good undertanding of land use issues.  I have had a number of students report to me that they are meeting with some success as new practitioners in the current economy, including land-use related practices.  Here are some ways in which a new lawyer interested in land use can (or must) get involved in the field:

- Real estate practice.  This may be obvious, but a practice oriented around real estate transactions--both residential and commercial--needs to be able to navigate the land use system for clients.  Permits, variances, and servitudes are huge concerns in real estate transactions.

- Environmental law.  Even if you don't get a government or nonprofit job, there are more environmental concerns than ever in private practice, from compliance to impact studies to permitting, and consulting.

- Litigation.  You might be surprised how often land use issues intersect with general civil and commercial litigation.  This was the route I took towards conceiving of myself as a "land use lawyer."  As a new general litigation associate at a firm, I took on cases representing HOAs, local government entities, and businesses in all sorts of litigation ranging from siting disputes to HOA takeovers to eminent domain.

- General practice.  I know from my recent grads that the model of hanging out a shingle is alive and well.  Our communities need good lawyers to serve people who need help with real estate, contracts, small businesses, family law, estate planning, and so on.  All of these activities involve land use issues.

- Community involvement.  This isn't always--or even very often--a paid gig.  But every community has important land use issues, and one of the agreed-upon tenents of good land use today is that it requires community participation and involvement.  Smart lawyers can always be valuable in these processes, from charrettes to comprehensive plans to zoning and development code amendments.  Jamie commented that her students get involved in local planning commissions.  If you care about land use, you should care about getting involved in your community and offering your expertise (and don't sell yourself short-- if you've studied land use law at all, you probably know more than most people).  If you do a good job, there may also be networking benefits in addition to having served your community.

I know it's tough out there in this economy.  But my recent grads have given me some optimism that there is still a great need for smart lawyers out there, and that lawyers who are passionate about land use can find a way to apply that interest in practice.

Matt Festa

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