It’s not quite Disneyland, but Dayton real estate attorney Alan B. Schaeffer’s current project is one of a kind
Published in 2011 Ohio Super Lawyers magazine
By Beth Taylor on December 13, 2010
Your grandfather started Pickrel, Schaeffer and Ebeling; your father managed it after him. Was it just assumed that you, too, would become a lawyer?
There was absolutely no pressure put on me to go into law, but from the time I was a little kid, Saturday mornings were regular work days in the legal community. So in the ’50s, I was down at my father’s office all the time on Saturday mornings—probably, from his perspective, bothering him. He had me do various errands, help file, things of that ilk. Then he’d come home at night and we’d talk conceptually about legal issues. So it was just part of my blood.
Before you went to law school, you served in the military?
I spent a year in Vietnam in the Army infantry. I volunteered. It was only a matter of time, and rather than continue to wait, I figured I might as well get the process started. It accomplished what I wanted to do, which was to get me in, get started, and I was out two years later. When I graduated in 1968 from college, the deferral had been removed. Some friends of mine who went on to law school were drafted out of law school. It was a roll of the dice; it worked out for me.
When you joined your firm, did you learn the ropes of real estate law from your dad?
My father repeated many times in his later years that [having] the child of a partner coming into the practice can work two ways: It either works really well or it doesn’t work at all. His father was a pretty strong-willed guy and spent a lot of time mentoring my father—but sometimes that’s not a great mix, father and son. My father’s approach, precisely because of his experience, was pretty hands-off. What he did do, though, was get me involved with another partner who had an extensive real estate practice. Most of what I know about real estate law, I learned from Dick Packard. He was an outstanding mentor: a great resource, a brilliant guy. Some people learn by reading; some people are visual. I have a good aptitude for looking at a detailed plot plan or development plan and it’s something I can identify with and work with, so this is kind of a match made in heaven for me. Real estate law and I just got along really well.
I believe you’ve played a key role in a number of big projects in Dayton.
Dayton is not a Chicago or even a Jersey City; Dayton is a midmarket. It’s not as though we have malls going up at every intersection. I’ve been involved in, I’m going to say—for Dayton this is a lot—probably 4 million square feet, plus or minus, of commercial real estate development. Most recently, I’m involved in a million-and-a-half square foot urban-lifestyle center [The Greene Town Center]. It has retail, entertainment, restaurants, apartments, some townhouses, a proposed hotel, all mixed together. But it’s more than a mixed-use development. It’s like you would go into a typical small town and take a 4- or 5-block area and transplant it. Each building has a different façade; it’s a real eclectic mix. Signage is pretty much anything you want. You might have an ice cream store and you might have a story-and-a-half ice cream cone out front. There’s a major department store that’s stand-alone; the movie theater is stand-alone. This is all located in about 70 acres.
Sounds like a pretty unique undertaking.
It wasn’t uncommon for the local jurisdictions to say, “Hey, doesn’t this have elements of Disneyland?” And the answer is, “Kind of, it does.” The unusual thing about a lifestyle center is that, even as it’s coming out of the ground, it’s changing. When you do a typical enclosed mall, when it’s laid out and they start building—baby, what you see is what you get. In this project, the residential [space] was doing so well that they made some changes and … added the townhouses in the second section. The office [space] went very, very well, so they were able to do some moving around and provide additional office space.
So the economic downturn hasn’t really affected this project?
In spite of the economy, it’s doing well. It’s the only one of its kind.
And in your spare time, you serve as legal counsel to two municipalities, Huber Heights and Springboro?
Yes, I’m their law director. Both of these cities have interesting real estate challenges, and if you looked at the legal business that a typical law director does in a municipality, you would find that at least 50 percent is real estate-related. From putting in sewer and water lines to all kinds of infrastructure, in some way, shape or form you’re dealing with real estate. You have zoning issues all the time. And if you have any sort of ongoing development in your community, then you’re dealing with development issues, and those get into, on the legal side, tax-abatement issues; and you’re often at least participating in creative-financing issues. In both of these communities, I interviewed for the jobs and clearly the selling point was that they needed help on the real estate side.
What’s the other half of the job for a law director?
Well, you have everything from an indigent who dies in your community—what do you do about it, what’s the law?—to the finance side. They have separate bond counsel, but you are involved in the process. And of course, you have HR issues: employment-employee relations issues, union issues, union negotiations—police and fire [departments] tend to be unionized. It’s very varied and it is very interesting. It certainly is not without its challenges.
If you have any downtime, how do you like to spend it?
I’m emeritus at WDPR public radio, a classical music station. I’m on the board and executive committee of Culture Works, which is an arts fund here in Dayton, and I’ve been on [the board of] the historical society. I have a wife, Beth, and three kids who are pretty much out of the house. Beth is also a lawyer. Until she retired, she was engaged primarily in probate estate planning work.
Do you have a particular interest in classical music?
I’m not a musician. My oldest daughter is a professional harpist, but I have no idea where it comes from, because neither my wife nor I can carry a tune. The nice part about classical music is that it’s nice to wake up to and it’s especially nice to go home to. After a long day, to be able to turn your radio on and listen to some nice, quiet music is a great way to relax on the way home. The way I got involved with them initially is that public radio stations do challenges. I got the Dayton Bar Association involved in one of their annual challenges, using our federal district judge as our spokesperson, so that we could promote the Dayton Bar Association in a positive fashion. [And] Culture Works is an arts fund that supports seven major arts groups here in Dayton.
What’s the formula for your success?
Understanding that, if you’re going to be in the private practice of law, if you’re going to be successful at what you do, your workday typically starts before 8 and ends after 5. There are very, very few, if any, wildly successful lawyers who can do this between 8 and 5 p.m. It’s a lot of work. You simply have to be willing to make the sacrifice. And it impacts your life. It impacts your family relationships, and that’s a real balancing act. You have to do your very best to find a happy medium.
Also, attention to detail is critically important, and if you’re going to do something you have to be prepared. There’s no substitute for being prepared. Truly, a key to my success, if it’s been nothing else, has been being prepared to the extent that I know more than the person I’m working with. In many cases I’m working with public officials, and knowledge is power. If you don’t have the knowledge, you’re at a disadvantage from the get-go.
Any funny moments along the way?
Early on in my practice, I receive a phone call from somebody and he says, “Look, my good friend has referred you to me and I need some assistance.” I say, “Great!” And we talk a little bit about what his problem is. Then, at the end of the interview, I say to him, “Well, who made the referral?” And he says, “Well, wait a minute,” and he pulls the phone away and yells out, “Hey, what’s your name again?” I’d been thinking, “Gee, this is great, I’ve got a great reputation out there,” and then this. … The practice of law can be very humbling.
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