It’s been a quarter-century since four lawyers from the New York-based law firm Herrick Feinstein set up an office in Princeton. Since then, the team has grown to 18, and the Carnegie Center office recently expanded its business with an entire arm devoted to condo association law. And although that branch of the law may sound obscure, one of its lawyers believes it can actually save lives.
Ron Levine, head of the Princeton office, has been there from the beginning. “In the late ‘80s, we decided to locate our main office in the Princeton area,” he says. “Our firm has historically been very active in the real estate and high-tech industries, and the Princeton area was a very good location and centrally located in the middle of the Route 1 corridor.”
The ‘80s were a boom time for the Route 1 corridor, with businesses and office parks sprouting up all along the highway, many of them with “Princeton” in their names. The Princeton office grew alongside its high-tech clients. Herrick Feinstein was going against the grain when it set up in Carnegie Center — very few New York based law firms set up shop in Central Jersey, although it is common for Philadelphia-based companies to create Princeton outposts. Levine said the lawyers at Herrick truly consider themselves part of the larger New York-based operation, which has 165 lawyers plus myriad supporting staff.
“We think of ourselves as being another floor of the main office,” Levine says. The firm has technological infrastructure in place to support this vision of how the company operates, with videoconferencing software enabling easy meetings between New York, Newark, and Princeton-based staff. All of the Princeton staff are members of the New Jersey bar.
The Princeton office doesn’t just represent local clients. The firm caters to the needs of the many corporations that are headquartered elsewhere, but that become involved in lawsuits in New Jersey’s court system. Over the years, the firm has defended many large corporate clients from class-action lawsuits. It represented Firestone in a class-action suit involving run-flat tires, and a defunct company called Windstar Communications in a suit with Lucent Technologies, which resulted in a $320 million settlement from Lucent.
In one of the office’s earliest cases, in 1993, the firm’s lawyers represented the nation of Turkey, which was suing the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art to recover archaeological treasures secretly dug up in the 1960s and sold to the Met. The collection of artifacts, called the Lydian Hoard, was eventually returned to Turkey. The firm maintains many Turkish clients to this day.
Another major client of the law firm is the New York Yankees baseball team, much to the delight of Levine, who is a lifelong Yankees fan. “It’s a thrill to be on the Yankees case,” he says.
Levine says the legal landscape has changed dramatically over the last 20 years, with class-action lawsuits overtaking individual suits as the most important kind of case that arises, especially with pharmaceutical companies.
The newest part of the business was added last year, when the office added eight lawyers who specialize in representing condominium associations, handling suits about construction claims, leasing issues, and other disputes that arise with condos.
It is no surprise that Levine became a lawyer, given his family background. Levine, a 1974 Princeton graduate, grew up in Valley Stream, Long Island. His father was commissioner of labor for New York state, and is still active, the president of the New York college of podiatric medicine. His mother graduated from law school the same year he did. Mother and son were sworn in together by Milton Mollen, who is also still active, and who is of counsel to the firm. Levine says his mother was a secondary school teacher, when she started reading her son’s law school admissions materials over his shoulder and told him, “That looks interesting.” She graduated from Hofstra Law School the same year Levine graduated from Harvard.
Levine’s wife, Cindy, is a psychotherapist in Lawrenceville, and the couple has two daughters.
Litigation specialist David King has been with Herrick since 1999 and made partner in 2005. He grew up in Allendale, where his mother was a nurse and homemaker and his father worked for General Electric as a project manager. He and his wife, Nancy, have four children and also run a charity called Colin’s Kids, which is dedicated to helping children who are born with congenital heart defects.
King says some of the firm’s recent cases have centered on food labeling, and claims made by manufacturers in their advertising. Many class action lawsuits have been launched against companies disputing the health claims made in their marketing materials, and Herrick is defending some of those companies. Among Herrick’s clients with New Jersey connections are Bridgestone, International Flavors & Fragrances, Kushner Companies, Mercedes Benz Nissan Motors, NRG Energy, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Rite Aid Corporation, Toll Brothers, Unilever, and Wells Fargo.
One of the firm’s newest additions is David Byrne, who was head of Stark & Stark’s association and condominium law group before he joined Herrick in the spring of 2012. “I had wanted to take my people and our clients to a larger practice,” he says. “It required a law firm that had the infrastructure to accept that kind of move, and Herrick seemed like it was perfect.”
The firm now represents 220 associations, providing corporate counsel, handling meetings, and representing them in lawsuits and various other things.
One of the novel aspects of Herricks’ condo practice is the way the firm handles abandoned units in complexes. “We’ve worked hard in the past couple of years to deal with a plague of abandoned units in foreclosure,” Byrne says. The approach involves putting the empty units into receivership. In receivership, the condo association takes care of the foreclosed condominium even though it does not own it. The association then fixes it up and rents it out or sells it.
“Otherwise, it would really be a plague on people who live there, and devastating to property values. You would have squatters and nasty things going on in there,” Byrne says.
Byrne says the receivership beats a mortgage default for the previous owner, since they are able to preserve their credit and restart their life somewhere else.
“The condominiums in which these units are located are freed from having to increase assessments and/or common charges for everyone else, thereby protecting those units and owners from even less equity in their units and more chance on their own defaults,” he says. That protects a condominium or homeowners association from imploding on itself as unit after unit declines in value, the owners abandon it, and the cycle continues.
Byrne says this solution, which seems to be a rare legal outcome in which all parties benefit, has been widely adopted since he came up with it five and a half years ago.
“This can and I believe will be considered, when we look back, as one of the things done by regular, and ordinary citizens and business people (not by governments, or large financial institutions) that helped save and preserve the residential real estate market; so there is something left when everyone and every institution and politician finally get their acts together. And maybe this approach with respect to abandoned units and empty homes will save some lives along the way,” Byrne wrote in an e-mail.
Since abandoned buildings are vulnerable to fire, and fires easily spread in close-packed neighborhoods, having a tenant in a condo can be the difference between a fatal house fire and a peaceful night.
And that’s how real estate law can save a life.
Herrick Feinstein LLP, 210 Carnegie Center, Princeton, 08540. 609-452-3800. Fax: 609-520-9095. www.herrick.com