Attorneys Across America: Featuring Sarah Davis

From a tiny office in rural Alaska to a skyscraper in Manhattan, from The Sunshine State to The Prairie State, Ms. JD seeks to capture snapshots of successful women attorneys practicing law from sea to shining sea. Ms. JD had a few questions for Sarah Davis who practices law out of St. Louis, Missouri: 

Where do you practice law? 

I am in-house counsel for Clayco, a full-service, turnkey real estate, architecture, engineering, design-build and construction firm with offices in St. Louis and Chicago.  I work in the St. Louis office. 

 Describe your legal market. What is the size of the market? How would you describe the culture? 

St. Louis has a diverse legal market.  You can find attorneys practicing in a variety of settings: large firms, small firms, medium firms, boutique firms, public practice, non-profit practice, and in-house.  You can also find a number of attorneys whose careers have taken them in the direction of non-legal positions.  The Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis has over 5,000 members, making the legal market a significant component of the local economy. I have found the culture in the St. Louis legal industry to be consistent with traditional Midwest values: the legal community is supportive and collegial and attorneys maintain a healthy work/life balance.  Because employers encourage community involvement, many attorneys are on nonprofit and public boards and serve in a variety of other community leadership positions. 

What are the industries that produce work for lawyers in your area? 

St. Louis is home to nine Fortune 500 companies and dozens of other companies with annual revenue of more than $1 billion; these companies drive demand for legal work in their industries.  Recently, St. Louis has seen a flurry of start-up activity in the bioscience and technology industries.  Supporting these businesses, you will find attorneys in the energy and natural resources, health care, pharmaceutical, financial services, technology, and life-science industries.  The St. Louis, MO-IL MSA includes Madison County, a venue nationally known for its large asbestos docket, so you will also find toxic tort and product liability attorneys, both plaintiff’s and defense counsel. 

Describe your practice area.  

With an official title of Associate Counsel, Project Strategy & Implementation, I spend most of my time working on Clayco’s real estate development projects.  Our projects include office and industrial buildings as well as residential and mixed used development and master planned business parks.  We develop real estate throughout the United States, though a considerable number of our projects are in the St. Louis region.  My practice areas include traditional real estate law, such as purchase and sale of property and zoning matters, as well as financing and incentives.    

How did you get started in this practice area? 

I started my legal career with a large firm in St. Louis, mainly representing local real estate developers on local projects.  Many of the firm’s clients were involved in the redevelopment of downtown St. Louis. Their ability to finance projects was often dependent on utilizing federal, state, and local incentive programs such as tax credits, neighborhood districts, tax abatement, and tax increment financing.  It was through my experience working on these projects that I began to focus in the area of incentivized development.   

Do you think your practice is different because of where you live? If so, in what way(s)? 

I think my location in St. Louis does make my practice unique.  While there are a lot of real estate attorneys, very few have the opportunity to hone both traditional real estate law skills and the skills necessary to close complex public and tax credit financings.  These types of financings are so common in St. Louis due to the historic building stock and the challenges in attracting businesses and investment.  As a result, this practice area focus is essential in providing clients full service representation in St. Louis.

What are good resources for women attorneys in your area? 

The Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis has a Women in the Legal Profession committee and the Missouri Bar has a Women in the Profession Committee.  Specific to my area of practice, St. Louis has a very active chapter of CREW (Commercial Real Estate Women) and the Urban Land Institute has a Women’s Leadership Initiative Committee.  Another great resource that is not specific to the real estate or legal industries is the Professional Women’s Alliance.  Several law firms in St. Louis also host events for their women attorneys and women clients; many of these events focus on challenges that are unique to professional women and they are great networking opportunities.

What has been your hardest day on the job? 

I don’t know that I have had a “hardest day” but implementing a new project for a client can be challenging. Most projects involve a wide array of parties: tenants, lenders, investors, city officials and staff, community groups, and title companies, to name a few.  It is our job as a developer to bring all of these parties together and structure a deal that satisfies everyone, which can be very difficult when the parties don’t have the same goals and viewpoints.

What has been your best day on the job?   

My best days on the job always follow my more challenging days on the job.  While it can sometimes feel nearly impossible to tackle dozens of moving pieces, most of which are related and intersect, there is also a certain energy that comes from taking what was an idea and turning it into reality.  I have a great sense of pride in and ownership over the projects that I helped develop.  Having such a tangible result is what makes the real estate industry so exciting and rewarding.

What advice do you have for women attorneys following in your footsteps? 

Although not unique to women, I would implore young attorneys to take ownership of their careers.  If you know someone you work with or someone in your community who does something that you find interesting, do not wait to be approached.  Seek out these individuals and let them know you are interested in learning more or becoming involved.  This kind of outreach results in great opportunities because people love to share what they are passionate about with others, even total strangers.

Any additional stories, anecdotes, or thoughts on practicing in your practice area or location? 

At my old job I was involved in recruiting and hiring summer associates and as I advanced within the firm I delegated work to younger associates.  Transactional work can be challenging for young attorneys because they often begin their careers with little training specific to their area of practice. By asking questions and seeking explanation of a new subject matter, new attorneys can avoid turning in unsatisfactory  work product. In particular, when working with a fellow associate, junior partner, or even a senior partner with whom a good working relationship has been established, do not be afraid to ask, re-ask, and even triple ask a question if proper direction and/or a clear explanation is not being given.  There is no substitute for learning directly from the person asking for your  assistance on a project. 

Sarah Davis has been practicing law in St. Louis since 2006.  Her practice focuses on real estate development.  Prior to joining Clayco, Sarah was an associate with the law firm of Husch Blackwell in the Real Estate, Development and Construction industry group.  Sarah previously served on the board of Gateway Greening, a community garden and urban agriculture nonprofit, and chaired the organization’s annual fundraiser for four years.  Sarah has been involved with the Urban Land Institute’s Young Leader’s Group in St. Louis and has participated in other community leadership programs, including Leadership Clayton (2009) and Leadership St. Louis (2014-2015).  In 2010, Sarah was a St. Louis Business Journal “30 Under 30” honoree.  Sarah has been pursuing an LLM in Tax through NYU’s Executive Program; she is currently enrolled in her final class. Sarah graduated from Boston College in 2006 and received her undergraduate degree from Mount Holyoke College, where she was a Politics Major.

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