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An Interview with Small Business Owner and Real Estate Side Hustler, Marni Blank

I’ve devoted the past few months to various thought pieces on career planning for non-practicing JDs and even put together a quiz to figure out the best ‘JD Preferred’ path for you.  Now it’s time to get back into the swing of things by interviewing real people with real jobs. 

When I first started this blog, I didn’t realize what The Ultimate JD Preferred Job would be (or if there is such a thing).  But after conducting this month’s interview it dawned on me – and seems obvious even in hindsight – that being a small business owner is the ultimate JD Preferred job. 

If you ever dreamed of entrepreneurship and plan on opening your own business, then having a JD will allow you to reap dividends. Think of the money you save (and the empowerment you feel) by negotiating your own vendor and employment agreements, drafting organizational set-up and operating documents, client intakes and invoices, marketing literature, to name a few!  But even if you don’t take that big leap, the same logic applies to any freelance or side hustle.   

It was therefore very interesting to seek out this month’s interviewee who is a small business owner and side hustler (and another fellow Brooklyn Law School alumna), Marni Blank.  Marni owns a beautiful rental space studio in SoHo called Blank Studio NYC, while also hustling as a real estate broker on the side.  Below she shares her experiences and convinced me that she has applied her law degree in some pretty cool ways.

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1.  Tell us about your professional journey. How did you end up in your current role as business owner and realtor and what drew you to this (dual) path?

After law school, I began my career working for Judge Shira Scheindlin, who at the time worked as a district court Judge in the Southern District of New York.  My role was part clerk and part office manager working on both the civil and criminal docket.  It was a challenging but a valuable learning experience - one I stayed with for three years. From there, I went to the New York City Housing Authority as an attorney in their Labor and Employment Division.  While I find that area of law very interesting, I felt that at that stage in life, a traditional legal position was not where I wanted to stay.

From there, I decided to take a seven month backpacking trip around the world (highly recommended!). I got back not sure where to focus. I decided to try my hand at real estate.  As a lawyer, you are able to obtain a real estate license rather easily. I decided to learn the field and worked for a year at a startup residential real estate firm.  It was fun, I met all different kinds of people, but it was also highly stressful. The hours were often crazier than my jobs in government, and I knew that although I loved the field, I did not want it to be a full-time job.

Serendipitously, my sister, who is an apparel designer, had come to me with an idea to open a rental photography studio/event space. After months of coming up with a business plan and looking for potential spaces (easier as I could search for spaces in industry databases), we officially decided to partner together to create Blank Studio NYC.  Although we’re primarily a rental photography studio, we also host corporate off-sites, meetings, workshops, showroom appointments, you name it. People have everything in this city...everything but space.  And we always love to see what people create in our studio.  We have been open about a year and a half at this point, profitable, and excited to grow and potentially open a second location.  I have also transitioned my real estate career into working on more commercial deals, keeping my license at Tungsten Property.  I like having it as a side hustle, as building Blank Studio is my main focus.

2.  Would you categorize either real estate or business ownership (or both!) as "JD Preferred" pursuits?  If yes, how so?

Absolutely to both.  Real Estate and JD go hand-in-hand.  Reading/digesting contracts and clauses, being detail-oriented, knowing how to ask the right questions, being a problem solver and having negotiation skills are all highly attractive qualities to have already developed before entering the field.

As for being a small business owner, I have to wear all the hats in my business. I constantly use my legal skills - whether it’s through creative problem solving, client management, writing contracts, thinking about risk, negotiating with contractors, managing staff, knowing how to find the answers even if I don’t have them, and everything in-between. I definitely feel that having the degree gives me a degree of confidence that I can figure it out (whatever “it” is).

3.  Walk us through a typical workday.

My days change based on if we have a client in the studio that day.  When a client is in the studio, I work from our office which overlooks the loft space. I usually try and bake for our clients as a little something special to greet them in the morning.  I answer emails, conduct outreach on potential new leads, and just make sure everything is operating as it should. We do a lot of networking to engage potential clients. I wear all the hats at the studio - so I’m a barista, a lawyer, a PR and marketer, HR professional, studio manager, client relationship specialist, etc.  I’m also able to do real estate research while I’m at the studio because all I need is the Internet. The beauty of my current setup is that it is fairly flexible in terms of where I do my work. On days with no clients or when my sister is working, I work from a coffee shop or home or travel and work remotely.

We’re currently working on some bigger projects. We are actively looking and negotiating on a second location which is exciting.  We also put on our own programming at the studio once a month where we bring in speakers to give talks/workshops around things that interest us.  We’ve had a class on Investing 101, Human Design, wine tasting, shifting power dynamics, astrology, etc.  We’re also putting on a holiday bazaar that will have a fundraising component.  Last year we raised over $11,000 for victims of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.  This year we are donating to RAICES to help reunite families at the border. 

4.  What value does having a JD confer on your work as a business owner? How about real estate? What skills do you use that you picked up in law school?

A JD adds value in that it gives others confidence that you are qualified (whether you are or are not) to do your job.   It absolutely has helped me deal with contractors who otherwise may have tried to screw me over because they don't take women as seriously.  Honestly, being a woman in business is an uphill battle, and I am constantly having to prove myself.  Having a law degree certainly helps me feel that I have the right to be at the table.  It gives me some authority over certain matters that maybe I wouldn't have been comfortable with confronting otherwise.  As far as practical skills, I think dispute resolution, critical thinking, organization and research, and being able to understand and tolerate risk are all important skills I honed in law school.

5.  What do you like the most about your current position? What is the most challenging?

I love so many things about my job.  I love that the studio is bright and airy and that I get to work in such a beautiful setting - the sun does magical things to improve a mood.  I love having created a space that allows others to be creative, artistic and inspired.  It is always amazing how people transform our space.  Being around creatives is completely different than those I interacted with in the legal field.  Not to say one is better or worse, it is just a refreshing change.  I have been extremely surprised (in a great way) how open and welcoming female entrepreneurs are in NYC.  There is a wonderful sense of community and a desire to help and nurture fellow women business owners/freelancers that is really inspiring. 

I love that I have control over my schedule: no one is telling me I have 2 weeks’ vacation a year.  There is nothing like being one’s own boss.  We take the clients  we want and say no to those that we don’t.  My sister and I have developed and continue to work on having a great working partnership.  We support each other’s outside interests and goals, and give each other the ability to take trips, time off or side projects.  

There are so many challenging  aspects of being one’s own boss.  There are no excuses if something doesn’t go well; it is on us to figure everything out.  There are so many trials and errors.  I also miss being in an office environment with a great group of coworkers.  It is also incredibly challenging to balance a sister relationship with a work/partner relationship.  We are constantly having to check in, listen, adjust communication styles and work on boundaries.  It has been amazing to see how we’ve grown as partners and how our individual strengths compliment the other.  I wouldn’t have done this with anyone else because it is a constant struggle and learning experience.

6.  What would you be doing otherwise?

Tough question. I want to say I would find an area of the law that made me feel more passionate or excited.  In reality, though, I have really loved the flexibility that being my own boss has allowed and I think it would be incredibly hard to go back.  In an ideal world, I would be working on a new venture in the health/wellness/mental health field.  I am particularly drawn to mediation and coaching in some capacity. 

7.  What advice do you have for fellow JD holders who might want to pursue a similar path in either entrepreneurship or real estate?

In real estate: find a great mentor who can help you learn the many nuances that go into deals.  Learn how to set boundaries around your time and stick with them.  Don’t get too emotionally involved in a deal.  Deals fall through all the time and you need to be able to compartmentalize the disappointment when things don’t go according to plan. Always be your authentic self, clients appreciate that and respond better to that than someone who is overly aggressive or pushy.  Stay on good terms with your opposing side.  Just as in law, you want to keep these relationships strong and try to work together.  Ultimately you are working towards the same goal; and you never know when you will have to work together again in the future.

In entrepreneurship: You will never feel completely ready or prepared to take the leap, but this doesn't mean you shouldn't try!  It’s important to talk to people in the industry of your choice, listen to both positive feedback and constructive criticism and make sure you have a solid business plan.  Do the research.  But at a certain point- just go for it. It’s also challenging going from a steady paycheck to uncertainty- so be sure to have your finances in order so that you feel secure in giving yourself that time to get started and not feel immediate pressure to be making money, as it takes time to get off the ground.  I think choosing the right business partner is the ultimate advice I can give.  That is a make or break in many cases.

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Thanks so much for sharing your experiences with us, Marni!  It's inspiring to see how life's various twists and turns after graduating law school can still make your JD degree feel very relevant and useful when doing something completely unexpected with your career. 

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