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Feeling the Pinch in Posh Places

07/20/2010 04:48 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

As a real estate lawyer, I've spent almost 30 years closing in over-sized conference rooms, converted dining rooms, and even crowded lunchrooms. I tell my clients that "we go where the money is" -- whoever has the bulk of the closing money (usually lender's counsel) determines the closing's location. Throughout our recent boom years, the busiest closing attorneys for the largest lenders gave out mortgages in elaborate and expensive surroundings.

During the real estate market surge, a firm in my area did so many bank closings that it was often standing room only in their waiting room, and jockeying for copy machines with other closing attendees required speed and finesse. Successfully booking a closing there felt like scoring a table at an exclusive restaurant.

This firm, bursting at their physical seams because of their bustling real estate business, moved into just about the swankiest office space I'd ever seen. I'm talking plush this and posh that, with a lavish doo-dad wherever you glanced.

Times were good; to an occasional visitor like me, the partners, associates, and their vast support staff all seemed to be sitting pretty (on ultra deluxe furnishings). Though landing a coveted closing date and time took effort, I always found this firm efficient and pleasant. They never came across as arrogant or uncooperative, unlike some other bank closing firms on Long Island who became drunk with their own affluence and perceived influence.

After a long absence imposed by a sluggish market, I had a closing at Swanky-Town recently. The waiting area was devoid of both people and furniture, and the reception area was vacant as well. Without a receptionist or a passing staff member to guide me, I followed voices down a hall to reach the closing.

During the common closing lull, where the proceedings in the room come to a halt while someone in a cubicle in the lender's offices reviews the paperwork and authorizes the money to be dispersed, I caught up with the lender's attorney. We hadn't seen each other in years, and she was happy to confide how devastating the downturn in the real estate market had been for the residents of Swanky-Town.

Daily operations were done with a skeleton staff. Her status had changed from salaried associate on a partnership path to per diem counselor, and she did not mince words as she expressed unhappiness about the conversion. Remembering that she was talking to a colleague who was living through these hard times as well, she resignedly mused, "I've still got a job -- others who worked here weren't so lucky."

As I waited for the mortgage checks to be handed out, I found myself in the odd position of comforting this attorney. I told her to consider that at least she had it better than most of the real estate lawyers in our area, including me. Collecting a wage while surrounded by expensive appointments beats being unproductive and unpaid in an office where the carpet is worn and the paint has faded from a confident aqua to a wishy-washy celery.