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Lita Smith-Mines

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In A Canyon, In A Cavern

Posted: 11/17/09 04:33 PM ET

Over the course of my decades as a real estate attorney, I had many dealings with one particular lawyer's office. He was so busy representing lenders that I sometimes needed to beg one of his associates or paralegals to provide a closing date that wasn't two or more weeks away. The groveling would resume late in the afternoon before closing as I attempted to ascertain the next day's charges and costs from some member of his overwhelmed support staff.

This lawyer's office always had a full parking lot; more than once I scurried to a closing through rain or sleet or snow after leaving my car at a neighboring building. Upstairs, his waiting room was constantly jam-packed with borrowers and others there for a share of the mortgage money. The receptionist's cheery but robotic "please be patient until a room opens up" greeting always sounded eerily similar to an airline representative announcing an overbooked flight.

Those days have vanished; the busted bubble of real estate reduced most closing offices to chasms of inactivity. But now, in the throes of a November real estate boomlet, I called this familiar office on a Tuesday afternoon and set closing for Friday. As if that wasn't enough of a shocker, the attorney himself conveyed my clients' mortgage fees and expenses before lunch on Thursday!

When I arrived at the building, I parked perhaps 10 paces from the entrance. Passing the large "space available" sign in the lobby where a mortgage brokerage once held sway, I entered the waiting elevator as if it was reserved just for me. Upstairs, the unoccupied front desk was devoid of the tell-tale signs of receptionist taking a restroom or food break. There was no half-filled tea or coffee mug sitting besides the phone; absent was the frame containing a picture of a kid or a dog or that frazzled "I hate Mondays!' cat. All that greeted me was a notepad on which someone had scribbled: PLEASE SIGN IN. At 11:30 AM, it appeared I was the first to place my name on the pad that day.

Initially, I couldn't quite grasp why I felt so unsettled. I didn't actually hear wind whistling down the empty corridors, and the lack of employees and absence of chatter only vaguely brought to mind a high school lesson on the Dust Bowl. But there was no mistaking the echo as the closing attorney's voice bounced off the walls in greeting. This formerly haughty closing behemoth personally escorted me to a conference room and fawningly inquired whether I "needed anything" while I waited for the other parties to arrive!

My momentary sense of schadenfreude evaporated once I considered how many jobs had been lost in this office. The laid off paralegals, processors, and attorneys might have found other jobs, but they certainly weren't here to generate income for their boss while also buying bagels and beverages from the local deli. The absent workers couldn't pick up birthday cakes at the nearby bakery, and their non-patronage probably contributed to the shuttered dry cleaning store across the road. Darn, I really wanted to enjoy my fleeting feelings of karmic payback, knowing how many toxics loans were closed in these cavernous offices. But instead, I dreadfully pondered: how many jobs in our altered real estate landscape were lost and gone forever?

 

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