Karen Scanna on Walking Negotiation Tightropes — and Her Dog
Karen Scanna with her dog, Sprout.
When Karen Scanna sizes up a New York City proposal for a public-private partnership, she knows just how to distinguish between the important issues worth fighting for and the distractions that can needlessly kill a deal.
Indeed, her more than two decades at the forefront of New York City development — including work on historic projects like the World Trade Center and Citi Field — have taught her to gauge just where that fine line is.
A partner in Stroock’s national Real Estate Group, Karen maintains a market-leading pipeline of milestone projects like the 1.9 million-square-foot Essex Crossing development on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Matters like these have earned Karen recognition that includes a spot this year on the list of “Notable Women in the Law” published by Crain’s New York Business — a designation that recognizes the “brightest and boldest” legal minds as well as philanthropy and civic engagement.
She’s also recently been named a “Leading Lady” by Real Estate Weekly, and she has been elected to the Urban Land Institute’s New York Mixed-Use Council, which addresses cutting-edge trends in mixed-use development in New York.
In this Q&A, Karen discusses her advice for young lawyers, her current day-to-day, and how pre-dawn dog walks set the perfect tone for her work.
Having recently surpassed several career milestones that were decades in the making, what do you know now that you wish you knew when you started out?
Be a sponge! As lawyers we are service providers, so it’s crucial to be fully invested in the client, the project at hand and the team that’s tackling that project.
Although a junior associate’s first priority is the assigned task at hand, she should take in as much as possible beyond that — asking questions, listening in on conference calls and, if the deal permits, taking a stab at drafting. This is the best way we can learn and grow in our practice.
You’re currently advising on several of the biggest projects in New York City. Can you walk us through some of the highlights of your current work? A typical workday right now?
One of the best things about being a developer’s lawyer is seeing your work in action.
Essex Crossing is a perfect example. Stroock first became involved with this project when we were asked to advise the developer’s team in the summer of 2013, after they responded to the City’s Request For Proposals.
We’ve recently seen major progress, particularly on the cultural and community aspects of this development.
This year I’ve been working on the International Center of Photography’s acquisition of two commercial condo units along with the conveyance of the newly constructed Essex Street Market location to the City. These are both major attractions, and they are crucial components of the success of this development.
I’ve also been involved in a number of developments in newly “hot” areas.
These include a public-private partnership in Coney Island that will be a 1,000-unit housing complex that is being described as transformative for the area.
I’m also advising on the purchase of two properties in New Rochelle, which are intended to be developed into a project containing about 450 residential units with retail space.
The deal comes amid a development boom in Westchester County, where town centers are being revitalized with a number of mixed-use projects.
What do you see as the keys to success in the world of Public-Private Partnerships?
Typically a PPP transaction involves a competitive bidding process, so the developer and their lawyer must be practical in the negotiations.
You don’t know if you’re the only ticket in town or are competing with other developers. The key is asking for what your client wants and needs without asking for so much that you lose the deal.
Also remember that you are usually negotiating documents that won’t take effect for several years. Knowing that every bidder takes on a certain amount of risk, you have to do your best to anticipate how to guard against those risks in light of future contingencies.
Lastly, always remember that you are structuring a potential partnership with the municipality you will hopefully be working with for years to come. Any deal that you reach has to work well for both parties.
What are some of the most common mistakes you see from lawyers in your field?
Lawyers are trained to identify every potential issue that can adversely affect their client. But not all risks are the same.
Good lawyers learn with experience how to differentiate between important issues and minor distractions that may overcomplicate and stymie the negotiations without serving a constructive purpose. When we properly identify the most important features of a transaction, we can inform our clients of the risks involved and how to best minimize them.
So we are both lawyers and dealmakers. I sometimes see lawyers who are excellent at issue-spotting but impractical or obstructive on how to get to the finish line.
With such a full plate, what do you do to maintain work-life balance?
Every day I take my dog for a long walk before dawn, which is a great wake-up that really gets my blood flowing!
I still get in early, so I’m on top of my schedule and ahead of the pack, and I try to get home at a reasonable hour to spend time at home with my husband. I also like to read books, and sometimes I play the piano as a diversion.
I have recently started volunteering with an animal rescue organization — doing something very hands-on, very different from what I do in the office.
I still tend to compromise on these things when I am gearing up to close a deal or if the unexpected comes up. But I’ve learned how important it is to maintain a good work-life balance; it’s particularly important in the long term if you want to be successful and also enjoy it.
Inside Look is an occasional series including interviews with our legal professionals, commentary and other analysis and insight. In a recent article about our national Real Estate Group, we profiled Essex Crossing and other megaprojects the firm is guiding. This article is for general information purposes only. It is not intended as legal advice, and you should not consider it as such.