Seltzer proves he's the pleader of the pack: Richard Seltzer, chairman real estate litigation group, Kaye Scholer LLP.
He grew up in the New Jersey suburb of Teaneck, attending Teaneck High School before matriculating to Harvard. While at Harvard, Seltzer didn't just limit his studies to pre-law classes. He majored in economics, but pursued classes in other subjects such as history and science, at one point even taking a biology class with the renowned JD Watson, one of the co-discoverers of the DNA double helix. This range of interests would later come to serve him well as a lawyer.
Andrew Seidman, a VP and general counsel for Studley, Inc., is a long time friend and colleague of Seltzer. They met while Seidman was at the property development firm Olympia & York, and he was instantly taken by Seltzer's broad knowledge base.
"We did many cases together over the years, and I saw Richard was more than a successful lawyer, he was an extraordinarily good draftsman. He was a renaissance man. He was very well read in a wide range of subjects outside of the law. As I came to be friendly with him, I came to realize he had a huge breadth of knowledge about subjects far afield from the law, be it American history, or music, or sports," said Seidman.
After graduating from Harvard magna cure laude, Seltzer entered Columbia University Law School, where he would eventually earn the distinguished position of Stone Scholar. When he finished law school, Seltzer began work for Kaye Scholer. It was there that he would discover his talents for both real estate contract law and litigation and would go on to head up Kaye Scholer's real estate litigation section.
"When I got to Kaye Scholer, I became a litigator and I realized that we had a very large real estate transaction section, but we always recommended our clients go to the smaller, boutique litigation firms," Seltzer remembered, "I realized that the main point people were arguing over was contract law, and since I got an A at Columbia in contract law, I figured I could do this, and we should stop turning away the real estate litigation. I started the real estate litigation section at Kaye, and now we have ten lawyers in the section."
It was in his capacity as leader of the Kaye Scholer real estate contract team that Seltzer would go on to distinguish himself as one of the most respected and feared lawyers in the field.
Seltzer's legal style can best be defined as a combination of outside the box thinking coupled with a measured, methodical courtroom style. Rather than engaging in emotional, histrionic courtroom displays, he elegantly deconstructs his opponents' defenses like an expert chess player.
One example of this was a case where Seltzer had to employ legal reasoning old enough to be considered history more than vital, current jurisprudence. "A client came to us with a 24 story building that they were going to demolish in midtown. All of the tenants had demolition clauses in their leases. This being New York, some of the tenants said they just wouldn't leave. They would take the landlord to court, and bleed him dry. If any of the tenants did as they threatened, if they held over without a lease, the landlord would be done for," said Seltzer, "I found a law that had not been used since the 1800s that said you could evict a commercial trespasser without going to court."
Ultimately, the courts ruled that law was still relevant today and the tenants could be evicted in the middle of the night and the building demolished. Seltzer then pursued the tenants for damages covering the month that the demolition was delayed and secured the largest civil court ruling on the subject ever, benefiting his client to the tune of $1.2 million.
However, Seltzer's career is marked by more than simply gaudy monetary returns. He has also argued twice before New York's highest court, and the result in one of the cases is widely taught in law schools today. In Wallace v. 600 Madison Ave. partners, Seltzer defended a landlord in a contested land valuation case, a subject he has since made his specialty.
"The landlord was concerned that if the rent was set during a land value depression in the 90's, they would be stuck with a very low rent. I found something in the lease that said if the parties couldn't agree on a rent, either party could demand arbitration no sooner than 12 months before the expiration of the renewal term. It said that you arbitrate at the end of the renewal term, not the beginning, and the land value will be far higher. Thus, you could get the rent retroactively set based on the later, higher value. I took it to court, and I moved for a ruling that the arbitration was demanded 25 years too early. The court of appeals agreed with me 7-0," explained Seltzer.
While those two cases highlight Seltzer's creative thinking outside the courtroom, his defense of JP Morgan against Sheldon Solow allowed him to show off his skill as a litigator. Solow had hired four law firms to sue JP Morgan after they moved out of his flagship building. Leading the charge was David Boies.
Boles, who worked with Al Gore in Gore v. Bush and was a special counsel to the Justice Department during their suit against Microsoft, was considered one of the best lawyers in America.
"I had watched a lot of David's cross examinations against Microsoft, and I realized that he trapped witness using Power Point, and I'll be darned if I'm going to be out gunned by him. He was like a modern day gladiator," said Seltzer, "I got my firm's litigation support group to get me all of the technology that David Boies had, and we were extraordinarily visual. We were able to walk the judge through what did and did not need to be restored."
Naturally, Seltzer walked away with the win. Ultimately, though, Seltzer's highest profile case pitted him against New York Real Estate institution, Donald Trump. He litigated against Trump in a brokerage fee dispute on behalf of the founder of the Corcoran Group, Barbara Corcoran. Seltzer ultimately won $4 million for his client and earned himself a place in the pages of her autobiography in which she writes, "Before finding Richard Seltzer at Kaye Scholer LLP, we interviewed the best litigators at other top New York law firms, but none of them measured up to Richard Seltzer."
Every weekend morning at the crack of dawn, Richard Seltzer walks to the lake near his home in Stockbridge, MA to row. This relentlessness filters into every part of his life. Right now, he is so sought after that he is booked for cases he might not work on for two or more years.
As Seltzer continues to become more focused on contested land appraisal, it is clear that he will bring his trademark style of methodical legal expertise to this field, and that his clients will continue to line up for the services of one of the most adroit legal minds in the world of New York real estate.