Not everyone on the California real estate scene knows attorney Richard S. “Dick” Volpert.
There must be at least one or two property professionals out there who haven’t encountered the veteran barrister, whose client roster has included some of the most powerful and prestigious corporate and real estate industry clients as well as influential public bodies.
He’s the attorney L.A. County called when it needed legal advice pertaining to its interests in Marina del Rey leaseholds and the troubled Disney Hall performing arts center. And he’s the man the Metropolitan Water District hired when it needed legal assistance as it sought a new headquarters site.
Volpert has been a partner at three prestigious law firms: local powerhouse O’Melveny & Myers (where he helped develop the firm’s downtown L.A. headquarters tower), national giant Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom, and now another big local firm, Munger Tolles & Olson.
And the attorney’s sphere of influence goes well beyond the legal and real estate worlds. He’s been chairman of the L.A. County Natural History Museum Foundation’s board; president of the L.A. Wholesale Produce Market Development Corp.; and a governor of the Jewish Federation’s L.A. Council.
Volpert talked with the Business Journal at Munger’s offices in the IBM Tower atop Bunker Hill.
Q: Downtown L.A. hasn’t recovered to the extent we’ve seen in other local market areas. What do you see in downtown’s future?
A: The fact that the office market is overbuilt, that law firms and others didn’t grow as fast as everyone had hoped we would, doesn’t mean that it’s not still the heart of the region. If I’m not downtown for a week, I feel I’m not plugged into the center of the universe.
Goldman Sachs is still in the building next door, Morgan Stanley is nearby, all the big law firms, the financial entities and the rest of those people are still downtown.
While I’m a downtown fan, I still believe we haven’t solved the real issue, which is making it a 24-hour environment. I have a healthy skepticism about whether we have the wherewithal to do that, buy I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
I think the Disney Hall and the (new Catholic) cathedral will be two big shots in the arm for the civic center, as will the continued development at Union Station.
Q: Are you concerned that lenders and developers will forget the recession and build too much space again, even in the strong markets?
A: Right now there’s a lot of money available, but standards are very stringent. On the other hand, as money builds up, just as sure as we’re sitting here there will be some institutions that will begin making more liberal loans.
I don’t think we’ll see the extreme, the boom of the late ’80s, but we will see a loosening up of credit as pressure to put out more money occurs. And that will lead to more building.
We had people in the ’80s who’d never seen a downturn, who thought it couldn’t happen. But based on that experience, I think you’ll have better, smarter people (making decisions).
Will they loosen up? Yeah. But how far will it go? My crystal ball doesn’t see that far.
Q: How is it that you’ve come to represent so many public entities on real estate matters?
A: I’ve always done a lot of work for municipalities, starting with lots of land-use work back in the ’60s when there weren’t that many land-use attorneys around. During one two-year period, I appeared before 32 different city councils, from El Centro to Santa Barbara.
City attorneys know municipal law well, but when they have sophisticated or difficult real estate problems, they hire outside counsel just like they do in other matters.
In ’86-’87 when things were booming, for instance, Santa Monica needed someone to negotiate with developers on some very sophisticated real estate transactions.
Then in 1988, L.A. County hired me (as well as current L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan and others) to come in and help review (groundlease) rents and renegotiate the leases in the Marina.
Q: So where’s the bulk of activity in your private-sector real estate practice?
A: On the private side, there’s a pulse beat that wasn’t there last year and certainly wasn’t there three years ago. There’s relatively few new development deals out there. While there’s money, financing out there, the market isn’t there yet.
But there’s an awful lot of buying and selling of buildings and upgrading, and I think we’re beyond the bottom-fishing stage at least outside of downtown.
So I’m involved in working through sales of a number of medium-sized buildings at prices that are now attractive to owners, and the buyers see some upside or they wouldn’t be buying.
Q: A lot of real estate attorneys went to work for developers or other real estate firms when things were booming. What convinced you to remain on the law firm side?
A: When I finished building the O’Melveny tower a number of entities asked if I wanted to go into real estate. I thought long and hard about it and knew I would have made a whole lot more money doing that.
But I really enjoy being a lawyer and putting these deals together so long as there are good deals around where you feel you’re adding something and not just a scriber taking notes.
And even though I became a real estate lawyer, I’ve learned a lot about many different businesses. If I represent a pharmaceutical company it’s one thing, if a department store it’s something else. I learned a lot about the retail trade while putting together regional shopping centers.
Q: What else about your work keeps you going?
A: Putting a complex deal together, trying to take competing interests and accommodating both sides and still winding up with a done deal. And it’s not necessarily finding middle ground, but typically it’s finding new ways to solve difficult problems.
Every negotiation is different, every deal is different, so there’s that variety along with the inherent complications.
And nothing’s gotten simpler over the years.
For instance, there are some that you can’t solve to everyone’s satisfaction like a couple partnership break-ups I’m working on right now that are very difficult even if you take the emotional part out of it.
Title: Partner, Munger Tolles & Olson
Born: Lake Placid, NY, 1935
Education: B.A., Amherst College; LL.B., Columbia Law School
Most admired person: Parents, Samuel (deceased) and Julia Volpert
Hobbies: Travel, wine tasting, photography
Turning point in career: Creating the real estate department at O’Melveny & Myers in 1965, when he became a full-time real estate attorney
Personal: Wife, Marcia, two sons, Barry and Sandy, two daughters, Linda and Nancy