From left: Lisa John-Basta, Jill Daitch Rosenberg, Jennifer Porter and Gemma Giantomasi are members with Chiesa Shahinian & Giantomasi PC and part of the firm’s real estate, development and land use group. — Photo by Jeffrey Vock for Real Estate NJ
By Joshua Burd
Jill Rosenberg has seen it time and time again: Even with improved gender diversity in commercial real estate, women are often outnumbered at a meeting or project site.
Frequently, she and her colleagues are able to tip the scales.
“There are so many more women getting involved in commercial real estate right now and they want to see somebody who mirrors themselves at the table,” said Rosenberg, a real estate and tax appeal attorney with Chiesa Shahinian & Giantomasi PC. “I can’t tell you how many meetings that I’ve been to or client developments where there’s just one woman and they’re so happy to see a few of us here.”
It’s a point of emphasis for everyone at Chiesa Shahinian & Giantomasi, also known as CSG, one that is highlighted by its team of real estate lawyers. Women account for nearly a third of the members and half of the nonmembers within CSG’s real estate practice, which includes about 27 attorneys. Across all groups, women represent about a quarter of the firm’s members, a total that has continued to rise in conjunction with its overall growth in recent years.
“It’s long been the cornerstone of the real estate group to pursue depth and diversity,” said Mitchell Berkey, co-chair of the firm’s real estate, development and land use group. “And we’re very happy that we’ve been successful at both.”
Based on annual surveys by the National Association of Women Lawyers, the West Orange-based firm is ahead of the curve. The group’s 2017 report found that women accounted for 19 percent of equity partners among those surveyed, which included 90 of the top 200 U.S. law firms. That percentage has ticked upward over the past decade, but still falls short of the association’s goal of 30 percent by 2020.
At CSG, management has been steadily building and highlighting that focus since a major reorganization about two and a half years ago, which had been spurred by a rebrand and a transition from its days as Wolff & Samson.
Dan Schwartz, who was named the firm’s first full-time managing principal in early 2016, pointed to when CSG put together a strategic plan.
“At its core, strategic planning is looking at your entire practice, figuring out what your strengths are and trying to capitalize on those strengths,” Schwartz said. “At that time we quickly identified that real estate was one of the core strengths of the firm, so we’ve been in a growth mode.
He added that, “as a firm — in real estate and all areas — we look for the most talented people we can find. And we’ve just been fortunate that, in real estate in particular, the most talented people that we’ve found over the last number of years have been women.”
Schwartz said a “key game-changer” was when veteran real estate attorney Frank Giantomasi joined the firm in late 2014. Among those who also came to CSG at the time or followed soon thereafter were Gemma Giantomasi and Lisa John-Basta, both members within the real estate, development and land use group.
Since then, the overall real estate group has more than doubled in size from about a dozen attorneys. That growth has been fueled both by new hires, including male and female attorneys, as well as an internal reorganization that brought specialties such as tax appeals under the umbrella of real estate.
CSG most recently announced that Jennifer Porter had joined the firm, bringing more than 15 years of experience representing builders and owners on development, zoning, land use, planning and permitting issues in the region. Among its other recent moves, CSG promoted real estate attorney Lisa John-Basta from counsel to member.
Those steps are all the more important as commercial real estate becomes more diverse. Female members of CSG’s real estate group say they had grown used to being the only woman at the table or in the room, but now see that dynamic beginning to shift.
“More recently, I would say within the past five to 10 years, you see the tide turning and the times changing,” Porter said. That’s especially true within the engineering and design sectors, she said, noting that “I’ll see it represented across the various fields.”
That’s not to say that the firm is trying to fill a quota. In fact, CSG’s leaders are adamant that they are not. Rather, they have reaped the benefits of expanding at a time when the talent pool is increasingly balanced between gender and other measures of diversity.
The attorneys in the real estate group see it the same way.
“I believe that the firm looked at me and that I was valued as person that contributes to this firm — and they looked at my work ethic and my relationships with clients — and that’s why I was promoted,” John-Basta said. “I think that this firm really values its employees and looks gender-neutral at everything, which is what I appreciate the most.”
Still, nothing will stop the practice from embracing that diversity and wielding it as a competitive advantage. According to Frank Giantomasi, it can only help the firm in meeting the needs of its clients in real estate and other areas.
“Whenever you lack diversity, you have a myopic view of problem-solving,” he said. “Once you ensure that a diverse team sits to address a problem-solving need, that myopic view disappears … because you get to hear what I would call a more robust response. And you’d be amazed at how the team-working environment benefits from having more diversity — whether it’s female or whether it’s ethnic — and we’ve made that effort here in the firm.”
Taking the initiative
Over more than a decade with CSG and its predecessor firm, Jill Rosenberg has enjoyed the flexibility of being considered part-time — even as she climbed the ranks.
Rosenberg recalls starting around 15 years ago soon after having her second son. What began as a two-and-a-half-day commitment ultimately grew over time, but she was still part-time when she was promoted to partner about five years later.
It was the practice’s first part-time partner, she said, “so we were a very forward-thinking firm from the beginning.”
Rosenberg, who recently moved to full-time, chairs CSG’s Women’s Initiative. The goals of the initiative include both internal strategies, such as promoting professional development through mentoring and educational programs, along with connecting with the region’s women business leaders. Externally, the firm actively supports groups such as Commercial Real Estate Women of New Jersey and the New Jersey Women Lawyers Association.
Those strategies, both internal and external, have provided a strong foundation for CSG’s real estate team.
“It can be a difficult industry to be in, but the firm really fosters putting us out there and allowing us to both be the only woman at the table — or one of many — and have a balanced family life and a balanced work life,” said Gemma Giantomasi, who practices in real estate and food and beverage. “It’s a great place to work that continues to get women out in places of leadership and prominence.”
A broader view
How does the overall commercial real estate industry stack up when it comes to gender diversity?
A long-term research project by the Commercial Real Estate Women Network, commonly known as CREW, has sought to answer that question. A study by the organization found that women represent roughly 35 percent of the commercial real estate workforce in the United States, while noting significant gaps in wages and aspirations for executive positions.
CREW highlighted barriers and challenges for women in the industry in a 2016 white paper, but followed up by touting 10 companies that are “getting gender equity right.” For the lone law firm on the list, Miles & Stockbridge, women make up 36 percent of the firm’s 240 attorneys.
The report also notes that Miles & Stockbridge’s roughly 50-person real estate practice includes 20 women. The real estate group is also led by a woman, Nancy Whiteman Greene.
The CREW report also offered case studies and success stories from other firms from across the real estate sector: CBRE, JLL, KeyCorp, Avison Young, The Bozzuto Group, Deloitte LLP, PNC, SVN International Corp. and Camden Property Trust.
“Each of the companies have benefited from improvements in gender equity and more diverse workforces,” CREW researchers wrote. “Many have seen increases in profits and stock performance.
Others have been more successful in recruiting and retaining women.
“All have experienced gains from the greater creativity, critical thinking and innovation that comes from diverse teams.”