“I run the in-house department like a law firm, and the company is our client.”

When Geri Presti stepped in to lead Forest City Enterprises’ legal department, the group operated as generalists. She has spent the past two decades recalibrating the department to support the strategic goals and core values of the real estate developer, which today operates in 25 states and the District of Columbia and has completed such signature projects as the New York Times Building.

To make the company’s in-house legal department more like an independent law firm, Presti divided it into three concentrations: residential, commercial, and land.
To make the company’s in-house legal department more like an independent law firm, Presti divided it into three concentrations: residential, commercial, and land.

I was supposed to work at Forest City Enterprises for eight weeks in 1989. I came here to fill in for someone who was on maternity leave and have stayed ever since. I was immediately drawn to the culture and the opportunity to be in the belly of the business. I had worked in law firms, and I enjoyed working among talented lawyers, but here we work with talented professionals in many fields. Right away I saw how legal could really help drive the business forward, and that is why I stayed.

Forest City started in 1920 and went public in 1960. We’re a property owner, manager, and developer with some of the largest and most prestigious properties in the country. We’ve got a diverse portfolio of retail, residential, and land. We even own part of an NBA team, so the legal department stays busy.

The company began as a private family business and has retained that supportive and caring environment that attracts long-tenured employees. I had a great mentor in the previous general counsel, and he turned the job over to me in 2002 after holding the position for 50 years. Back then, we were more generalists. Today, we are a very hands-on department of 30 at the Cleveland headquarters. We do financing, leasing, development, litigation management, purchases, and sales. Our deals are complex these days, and that has led us to more specialization. I now have a dedicated leasing team. We also have a smaller legal department in New York and lawyers in Denver and Boston.

The Yards

In the 19th century, it was home to a brewery and sugar refinery. Now, it’s poised to become Metro DC’s next great neighborhood.

Forest City is creating a 42-acre mixed-use development near the home ballpark of the Washington Nationals. The project, known as the Yards, will include 2,700 residential units, 1.8 million square feet of office space, and 300,000 square feet of retail and dining.

Current signature spaces at the riverfront development include Twelve12, a mixed-use apartment community with an online manifesto, and the Foundry Lofts, built in an old industrial building. With apartments at Twelve12 now leasing, the development is scheduled for completion in the third quarter of 2014.

I manage the in-house department like a law firm, and the company is our client. My goal is for the legal department to be the company’s first-choice law firm. We should be their trusted advisors that support their strategic goals and core values. In setting the department up like a firm, I divided the group into three practice areas:  residential, commercial, and land. I also have a director of litigation and a director of insurance. This structure works well, and clients love it because the business also operates in strategic business units. The attorney teams in the various practices become the go-to lawyers for those who work in their respective business units. They don’t get a different attorney each time; they’re always dealing with someone who knows them and is familiar with their projects.

A few years ago, Forest City’s management team communicated three strategic pillars to achieve under the strategic plan. Our current focus is on core markets and products, operational excellence throughout the business, and a strong, sustaining capital structure. Legal supports these efforts by implementing cost efficiencies in our own legal services and assisting with financing transactions and asset dispositions, which results in a stronger balance sheet. We’ve entered joint ventures with strong partners who contribute equity into the assets and mitigate development or operating risk.

The strategic partnerships also help us activate our development pipeline, open projects, and achieve stabilization. The legal department assisted the company with its venture with Queensland Investment Corporation to invest in both existing assets as well as future opportunities. They acquired 49 percent of our share in certain properties. We’ll manage leasing, operations, marketing, financing, development, and asset management. These are examples of how the legal department supports the strategic plan and the business in a direct way. Together, we are achieving our corporate vision: to be the real estate leader and partner of choice in creating distinctive places to live, work, and shop.

Construction of Twelve12 began in late 2011, and when it’s completed, the mixed-use structure will contain 218 residential units and various restaurant and retail spaces.
Construction of Twelve12 began in late 2011, and when it’s completed, the mixed-use structure will contain 218 residential units and various restaurant and retail spaces.
Twelve12's terrace
Twelve12’s terrace
Twelve12
Twelve12