From left: Matthew J. Schiller, Chris Murphy, Charles J. Wilkes and Kellen Murphy are the name partners of the newly formed Murphy Schiller & Wilkes LLP. — All photos by Ivana Vranjes Field/Courtesy: MSW
By Joshua Burd
An upstart, Newark-based law firm has expanded and rebranded thanks to the addition of two of the state’s rising commercial real estate attorneys.
In true New Jersey fashion, it’s an idea that took hold in a diner off Route 22.
The new practice, Murphy Schiller & Wilkes LLP, is an outgrowth of the firm formerly known as Murphy Partners LLP, which announced in early January that it has added Matthew J. Schiller and Charles J. Wilkes as name partners. The four attorneys who now lead the firm — Kellen and Chris Murphy, along with Wilkes and Schiller — recalled their weekly breakfast meetings at the Mark Twain Diner in Union starting in early 2019, as they grew increasingly comfortable with one another and with the prospect of taking such a dramatic step.
For the Murphy brothers, it would be the most consequential expansion of their fledgling law firm since its founding in 2017. For Schiller and Wilkes, it would mean leaving the security and familiarity of a powerhouse such as Greenbaum Rowe Smith & Davis LLP.
“We’ve grown quite a bit, but also conservatively, and we’ve done it as we’ve felt that there was a need,” said Kellen Murphy, the firm’s managing partner. “And I think the reason to take it to the next level now is really a combination of future growth for the firm, but even more important was the fact that Matt and Charlie were very unique, in my mind. This wasn’t that we wanted to bring on partners just for the sake of bringing on partners — we brought on partners because we thought they were the right ones.”
Such is the origin of the newly minted Murphy Schiller & Wilkes, or MSW, which became official Jan. 1. In unveiling its new name and leadership, the firm also announced that it has brought on Susan C. Karp as of counsel to spearhead its environmental practice group, adding a veteran attorney and another discipline to what is now a team of 11.
It all adds up to what the four principals, who range in age from 35 to 41, feel is a distinctive offering that didn’t previously exist in New Jersey — a full-service, boutique commercial real estate law practice, but one that could match the depth and experience of a large, institutional firm.
“The model, essentially, is that everyone has either big firm or big institutional experience,” Chris Murphy said. “And then we believe we can offer a better value just because we can be more efficient, we can streamline processes and can offer clients more cost-effective options.”
MSW now boasts a team of nine full-time attorneys who operate from a newly built-out, 6,500-square-foot suite at 24 Commerce St. in Newark. It’s a far cry from when the business consisted of just Kellen and Chris Murphy. When the brothers launched Murphy Partners at the start of 2017, Kellen had just finished six years at Riker Danzig Scherer Hyland & Perretti LLP, while Chris had spent six years in state government.
The practice, which initially focused on land use, governmental affairs and economic incentives advisory, emerged over the next two years, with revenue growing fourfold in 2018 and nearly doubling from 2018 to 2019. New Jersey’s commercial real estate industry was flourishing, but Murphy Partners’ success can also be traced to its commitment to running a lean operation and a knack for networking — helping to build relationships with clients and industry peers.
“I think that what has happened is that, whether it’s a smaller developer or very, very large-scale developers or businesses that we represent, they’re open to an alternative,” Chris Murphy said. “And they were open to an alternative when it was just me and Kellen sitting in a 500-square-foot office. And they gave us a shot … and when they give us a shot, we prove ourselves, and that is what our growth has been based on.”
Not surprisingly, Schiller and Wilkes came to know the Murphy brothers through a combination of industry events and working on projects and transactions together. Both initially balked at the idea of leaving Greenbaum — an institution in the New Jersey legal industry and a place where they could envision finishing their careers — but grew increasingly comfortable with the prospect of joining forces with Murphy Partners and becoming principals in their own right.
“It took an awful lot of convincing and an awful lot of research and due diligence to get us to the point in time where we’d be willing to do this,” said Schiller, who has practiced law for more than 15 years. “And the reality is: They’re doing it. They’ve done incredible work building the firm to where it is at this point in time today.”
He quipped that “there is zero chance that I would ever be able to go and start a law firm on my own,” drawing laughter from his three colleagues.
“I don’t have that skillset, but the reality is what these two brothers have done over the past two years is truly remarkable,” Schiller added. “And having the ability to … really work together to do this and build something unique and special, at the end of the day, after all of our Mark Twain breakfasts, we realized that this is just a once-in-a-lifetime, unique opportunity that wouldn’t exist anywhere else.”
It didn’t hurt that the Kellen and Chris Murphy knew the feeling of leaving behind a stable, established employer. As Kellen noted, moving on from Riker Danzig was not about being unhappy, but pursuing a new, promising opportunity.
The same was true for Schiller and Wilkes, who spent five and seven years with Greenbaum, respectively, and both cited the difficulty of leaving the firm.
“When I left Riker, which is a firm that I love … I left with a heavy heart,” Kellen Murphy said. “But I left because I wanted to do something very exciting that I thought was unique and different than just going to a different law firm. And I think it’s probably very similar for Matt and Charlie, who I know have a great affection for Greenbaum, which is a great law firm, but this was something that’s different.
“They didn’t just parallel to another traditional player in New Jersey, which they could have, but they came to start something with us that’s going to be our own and a chance for us as the four principals to create our own vision.”
The attorneys also found common ground in the allure of building a “21st century law firm,” one that uses technology to control overhead and provide efficient, intimate service to clients, all while providing the service level of larger, national practice.
“Our clients are out there on the street, they’re doing their projects and … they’re trying to create value,” Wilkes said. “And I think that they value us and will value this law firm because we are also trying to create value for them. And they come in here and they say, ‘These guys are giving me a good bang for my buck while still doing top-quality work.’ ”
MSW can also provide a full-service approach, thanks to its hires over the past two years and the fact that Schiller and Wilkes have essentially brought new niches to the firm, as has Karp with her environmental practice. For instance, Kellen Murphy noted that, previously, the firm’s involvement in lending transactions was primarily focused on borrowers — namely, developer clients — but Wilkes will bring deep experience in representing banks of all sizes, from community lenders to multinational institutions.
“Charlie is now going to truly build a practice on the lending side, something that we’ll push big,” Kellen Murphy said.
Schiller, meantime, will not only spur a major expansion of the firm’s work in commercial leasing, acquisitions and land use, but will bring his expertise in the federal Opportunity Zone program. He noted that the two-year-old program, which provides tax incentives for investors who place capital gains in certain low-income or distressed areas, is now poised to grow in earnest after the recent release of the Treasury Department’s final guidelines.
“That is one area where we have not gone into as strongly, and Matt is a true expert in Opportunity Zones,” Kellen Murphy added. “And that is going to be a completely new practice area to the firm.”
That newfound focus on the federal program is just one example of why it’s important that MSW can offer virtually every service line under one roof.
“The reality is, in most of these development projects, you’re going to have to combine the ability to raise Opportunity Zone dollars with other economic incentives as the state evolves and makes different programs available — while negotiating (payments in lieu of taxes) in connection with deals, negotiating and getting the appropriate land use approvals in connection with any of these deals,” Schiller said. “All of that is critical for making any of these projects actually work so that you can get the benefits of the program.”
It’s among several public policy issues that MSW will be watching as it builds out the practice. At the state level, the team is monitoring the ongoing discussions between lawmakers and Gov. Phil Murphy over New Jersey’s expired tax incentive programs, which have been mired in controversy for more than a year, as well as potential changes to how municipalities can award tax abatements to developers.
The firm will stay active in governmental affairs in part by having a Trenton office, which it opened as part of the transition to MSW.
“In order to make that pro forma work from a financial point of view, having certainty on the tax side is absolutely critical for making the project pencil out,” Wilkes said. “And I think with our Trenton office, that’s going to give us the opportunity to speak up for our clients when issues arise. The reality is there is a lot of antibusiness legislation coming out of Trenton from time to time and we want to be in a position to defend our clients and to advance their interests.”
Speaking of locations, the notion of joining the Murphy brothers at their Newark headquarters was also a key draw for Schiller and Wilkes. For his part, Schiller said he was keen on being able “to go and create a firm and a culture of a firm where we can integrate ourselves into and be able to serve the community.”
That integration has been underway since 2017 and is now poised to continue.
“When we launched the firm in 2017, Newark was where we wanted to be,” Kellen Murphy said. “And thankfully, when Charlie and Matt made this decision for both of them, they just simply reinforced exactly what we had said, wanting to be in the major city in the state.”