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One-time hippie keeps his cool at dealmaking table

12:48 pm, January 16, 2013

Dennis Russo

By Holly Dutton

Like most seasoned commercial real estate attorneys in New York City, Dennis Russo has papered mountains of deals on behalf of clients.

What distinguishes Russo from the pack is his business acumen, sharpened by the many real estate projects he has personally developed, owned and managed.

As with most things he is passionate about, Russo has taken a hands-on approach to real estate over the years, even gutting and renovating buildings himself.

It is this range of practical experience – from solving legal quandaries to understanding the complexities of financing, development and construction – that has enabled him to excel as co-chair of Herrick’s real estate practice.

He said he had always planned to go to law school, but imagined he would be in law for just a few years, to learn the legal side of the real estate business.

Instead, he found it hard to break away from the intellectual challenges and strong relationships he’d formed with large clients, including Vornado and CS First Boston.

His clients are broad and diverse collection of active real estate players. He regularly advises major owners such as Sherwood Equities and Walter & Samuels; funds including AEW Capital Management and Garrison Investment Group; and active lenders like Doral Bank.

He’s also carved out a reputation as one of the leading hospitality real estate lawyers in the city.

Last year alone he advised on more than ten hotel transactions and developments, including Hersha Hospitality’s $101 million purchase of the Hyatt Union Square and Gemini Real Estate Advisors development of the GEM hotel in Greenwich Village.

“The difference with Dennis,” said Sherwood Equities CEO Jeffrey Katz, who Russo is advising in a string of high-profile development site transactions around the High Line, “is that he understands what the client expects because he’s personally been there. He’s an experienced business partner with a top-notch legal background as well, which is rare.”

The son of an FDNY Battalion Chief – whose fire-singed coat and helmet sit in Russo’s office – Russo wandered into real estate.

“I read a book on real estate financing and investing,” he recalls. “Then I read another book, and then another, and then I put together the first of a number of limited partnerships.”

After finishing college in three years, he graduated from law school at the top of his class.

He told himself he would only be a lawyer for a few years and then go into business, but after starting out at a major firm, he found himself immersed in the business.

“I liked the intellectual part of it, I love structuring, I love deals,” he said. “It kind of went along and I got sucked into being a businessman real estate attorney, repping clients and picking up real estate.”

After working for Herrick for seven years, Russo left the firm and spent time at Sonnenschein, Nath and Rosenthal and Patterson, Bellknap, Webb & Tyler.

“When I left the first time, I left crying because I didn’t want to leave,” admitted Russo.

Ten years ago, when Herrick asked him to return to help with investments and to expand the real estate practice, it took a year of discussions, but he called it “the best move I ever made.”

One of his reasons for the switch was the investment committee they have, which makes real estate debt and equity investments.

As a member of the committee, he reviews acquisition sites, provides market and financial analysis, and structures and negotiates joint venture and syndicated investment terms.

Russo’s business philosophy is based on “being practical,” and having a mix of skills to bring to the table. “It’s about understanding the issues and how the deal works, what the economics are, and what the client should be doing from a business and legal perspective,” he said.

Before he was a superstar lawyer, Russo flexed his muscles in the creative realm, as a guitarist playing in bands throughout high school and college. “My friends went off and became musicians, I went off and bought real estate and went to law school,” he said.

Years later, he began seriously collecting vintage guitars, and now has roughly 150.

The most special of the bunch is his custom-made redwood Fender Stratocaster, made for him by Fender from 45-year-old wood from the deck of his Fire Island home.

His collection will be featured in an upcoming issue of Premier Guitar magazine.

“I used to have long hair and be cool, now I’m a pencil pusher,” said Russo with a laugh.

But he’s a pencil pusher with determination to grow. “We’re already a pretty big group at Herrick and probably the only group that is tremendously multi-faceted,” he said.

“What I’m hoping to do now is grow the department a little bit more, and expand the areas that we have business in. We represent a number of funds. I’d like to get someone here who has a whole practice of repping funds,” he said, adding that he’d also like to bring in someone who represents investment trusts.

The goal in bringing in specially skilled people is to complement the people they already have there, said Russo.

“That’s the kind of growth we’re looking for at the moment,” he said.

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