Transactional lawyer helps guide change as Las Vegas develops and grows

Jim Mace has witnessed Las Vegas in all its modern-day iterations, from a midsized town of 650,000 to a sophisticated metropolis where developers deploy today’s most advanced design and construction techniques.

And as a transactional attorney specializing in gaming and real estate deals, Mace has had a hand in guiding the market’s evolution.

Mace moved to Las Vegas in 1992 after working as a general counsel for developers and retailers in New York and Florida. When he arrived, the city ended at Durango Drive.

A quick glance at Mace’s workload would show just how much Las Vegas has changed in 16 years. Mace is helping with transactional details at massive new projects, including CityCenter and Fontainebleau. He’s also directing his law firm’s up-and-coming practice in helping developers build to the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards.

Question: When did you know you wanted to be an attorney?

Answer: Probably when I was in high school. It was just my demeanor, and the thought of it appealed to me. The aspect I like the most is the ability to assist people with problems. As a transactional lawyer, it’s not a zero-sum game as it is in litigation. We can get to a win-win solution.

Question: What brought you here from the Northeast in 1992?

Answer: At the time, the country was in a recession, and Las Vegas was one of the few bright spots. California was going through a lot of issues, as were Texas and Florida, where I had been two years earlier. I was living in Buffalo, N.Y., where I was general counsel for a restaurant chain. The recession hit there, and I was taking apart deals I had done previously, which is no fun for a transactional lawyer. One of my law-school classmates called me and said he’d just gotten a job with a law firm in Las Vegas and that they were looking for real estate lawyers.

Question: What was the first thing you thought when your friend mentioned moving to Las Vegas?

Answer: I had never been to Las Vegas before. I was really kind of an East Coast guy, and there’s a bias against Las Vegas on the East Coast, that it’s not a real city. You read New York Times articles about Las Vegas and we’re always panned. They don’t take our economy seriously. But I got off the plane at McCarran (International Airport) and I fell in love with Las Vegas.

Question: What struck you about it?

Answer: How different it was from the East Coast, with the mountains, the Strip skyline, the neon lights, the desert, the wide-open spaces. It’s just such a unique place. And it’s not only the resort corridor; it’s the nice neighborhoods we have throughout the valley. I also think the people here are very friendly.

Question: When you first arrived here, what were some differences between the legal community here and the legal community back East?

Answer: Las Vegas is a young city, so it certainly didn’t have the number of lawyers Eastern cities had. We also didn’t have a law school in the state at that point, so there weren’t 200 law graduates per year coming onto the market looking for jobs.

Question: Was that good or bad?

Answer: It was good and bad. A lot of clients at that point were going out of town for higher-end work because they couldn’t find expertise here in some areas. That’s not to say there weren’t a lot of good lawyers in Las Vegas. It was just something larger clients were doing. They still do leave town for some work, but we’re seeing less and less of it as the legal market matures and the legal expertise they need is located locally.

Question: What deals are you especially proud to have worked on or helped complete?

Answer: CityCenter, for one. It’s a very large, very complex deal. We’ve been assisting with the legal architecture of the development side, and it’s been quite interesting.

Also, I’d say Turnberry Place, because at that point (1999), there were very few high-rise condominiums here. (Turnberry Associates principal) Jeff Soffer was really a visionary in what he wanted to do with that site (at Paradise Road and Karen Avenue), because everyone, including me, thought it was a gaming site. I told him, "I assume you’re going to put a hotel-casino there." He said, "No, I’m going to put a high-rise condominium there." I said, "Are you sure?" He said, "Yes." That’s why he’s Jeff Soffer and I’m Jim Mace. I credit him with really kicking off the high-rise condominium boom here. Because of his success, a lot of other developers followed him into this market.

Question: How has today’s softer economy changed your job or made it more difficult?

Answer: It certainly is challenging for developers right now. If you’re holding property, you have to carry your debt service. We’re seeing an uptick in commercial transactions, because people who can’t wait or won’t wait to develop are trying to sell. If you have cash (to buy), you can do fairly well in this market.

I should say we still have about $25 billion of development happening among CityCenter, Fontainebleau, Cosmopolitan, the M Resort, Encore at Wynn Las Vegas — there’s still a ton of activity in the market. People are focused on the negative aspects, but Las Vegas has proven resilient over the years and I’m still bullish on it.

Question: Do you have any sense we’re nearing an end to the market’s troubles?

Answer: I like to think Las Vegas is different from the rest of the economy. You really can’t bet against Las Vegas. It’s a unique city with a unique economy. However, we’re not immune to the effects of the credit crunch. I hate to make predictions, but I hope we’d see some upturn in the first and second quarter of 2010. The market has a lot of large projects coming on line at the end of 2009 and the beginning of 2010. I’m hopeful that our housing inventory would have been absorbed somewhat at that point, and that we’ll see an increase in employment numbers.

Question: Your firm also has a new and burgeoning practice in law surrounding the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design designation.

Answer: Yes. It’s a relatively new area, and it’s going to be a very large part of our practice. I think you’ve seen just the tip of the iceberg with LEED. I think more and more developers will construct green buildings because it makes sense economically, and I think consumers will want more green buildings. It will be the norm in the future.

Question: Where do you see local development going from here?

Answer: Mixed-use projects like CityCenter make sense for Las Vegas as land becomes scarcer. You have to concentrate a lot of uses in a small area, especially in the resort corridor, so I see that trend continuing once money is available to develop new projects. I do think the current downturn is temporary. I don’t think we’re going to roll up the sidewalks and blow away here in Las Vegas. It’s a unique city, and we will weather the storm.

Contact reporter Jennifer Robison at jrobison@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4512.

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