Updated 6:16 p.m.
On days when he commutes by bicycle to the office, Jeffrey Lesk uses what he calls his Superman closet. In it Lesk, the managing partner of Nixon Peabody's Washington office, keeps suits, shirts and ties for a quick, post-shower change after his 25-mile roundtrip commute.
In 2007, Lesk started as the leader of the tax credit finance group. Two years later, he took over as managing partner of the Washington office. Lesk is also a U.S. Green Building Council LEED accredited professional, a certification related to green development. Looking back at the accrediation test, Lesk quipped that it was the hardest test he took, second only to the bar exam.
The office has three broad focuses – regulatory, transaction and litigation. All of those, however, play into the larger role of the Washington office, which largely interacts with the government in some way.
Legal Times sat down with Lesk April 26 to discuss the business of the firm, his own practice and yoga.
Legal Times: How do you manage your various responsibilities?
Lesk: It's triply hard, because I not only manage the office. I have my personal practice, but I've been the practice group leader for one of our largest practice groups for about eight years. The tax credit finance group is a specialized practice that focuses on finance and development of projects that have government assistance for social purposes. That's affordable housing, historic preservation, renewable energy, community vitalization.
I have a great bench in the practice group and a great bench in the office—a lot of people who help and I can delegate to. One of the things I've tried to do as an office managing partner and as a practice group leader is really break down silos. That, I think, is one of the keys. When we start thinking of ourselves as a law firm and collaborate and think collectively, it also makes it easier to manage. The other thing is, I really enjoy my practice and my leadership roles. It is really hard. They are all gratifying and I really enjoy them all. They complement each other in certain ways.
The practice is serving clients and industries. The practice group is focused on that but also profitability as a group. And the office is focused on all of those things plus a lot more focus on the people. There are 170 people, 85 to 90 lawyers. A lot of this is adding the people side. Put together, it's an amazing combination of challenges.
What are your thoughts on the current legal market?
I typically answer that by looking at the bigger picture. What is the state of the economy? What are the challenges for businesses generally? What are the issues for us as a country and globally? Law firms in one respect are different, because are a profession that is very specialized. But in many ways, we are not different than any other business. What are the challenges of law firms? We have a recovery that isn't anywhere near complete. We have a Congress that is fairly dysfunctional right now. We are dealing with enormous technological change. We are dealing with globalization.
These are all things that affect businesses, and they affect law firms as well. The firm and the office are doing very well in this context, but I caution everyone within the firm and outside the firm: Doing well is not following a formula and if it succeeds continue it and enhance it. The landscape is now on a constant change. We are in the thick of it. That is what gives lawyers the opportunity to do what we do best. In addition to our technical side, we are problem solvers and strategists. That is what we do for our clients. It creates opportunities but it is a real warning signal to those who don't.
What is keeping the Washington office busy these days?
Some of the strongest practices in the office now are at the intersection of government and business—whether that is government and real estate or government and finance. This is a government town. The busiest practices are ones dealing with transactions and litigation that are affected by or involve the government in some way. Not to the exclusion of other practices, but the most vibrant practices in the past couple of years have some connection there.
We also do an awful lot of work with public-private partnerships—transactions that are using government support in other ways to have the private sector deliver the socially important product. That really is a sweet spot for us. It is one of the grand themes in development and finance for 30 years.
How does this relate to your own practice?
I started practicing as a lawyer in 1979. I went to work for the general counsel's office of the Department of Housing and Urban Development here in D.C. After about two years, I went to work directly for the urban development action grant program. It was one of the archetypical public-private partnership programs. It was focused on HUD, recognizing that it had severe shortcomings in the amount and quality of things that it could produce.
Public housing was sort of disaster. It was a big bureaucracy at HUD. They really weren't equipped to develop and finance on a broad basis these very important projects. That was one program, and there have been many more since then where they recognized that if they provide funding under a regulatory regime and find the right intersection between requirements and flexibility, it allowed state and local governments to work with private developers to develop programs that met their needs rather than what the central government wanted them to do. It gave them this financial support to underwrite and execute projects. That has worked really well, in my mind. And that has been the focus of my personal practice.
What is an example of a public-private partnership?
There is a fairly recent program in the last 10 years called the New Markets Tax Credit program, which is focused on community revitalization. It is providing government incentives for financing projects within designated census tracts. There is a concept in the history of our country, which is a terrible one, called redlining. The concept was where banks and financial institutions looked where they were going to make loans in some of our communities and said those aren't very good risks because the wrong people live there, it's dangerous. We don't want to invest in those areas. They reportedly took out red pens and maps of the city and would say, 'We're going to lend here and not lend here.'
This program is sort of an anti-redlining program. We are only providing support for these communities on this side of the red line. It can be a variety of projects. There are some really great ones here in D.C. You take advantage of that financing. All developed by the private sector, but all financed in part by the federal subsidy.
What are some local examples of projects funded in part by the tax credit program?
For some reason theaters have been great projects. They are called catalytic projects. They tend to be historic buildings in neighborhoods that if you get that structure done, almost automatically it encourages restaurants, bars, things that support that.
The Atlas Theater on H Street—that is an example of financing that went into a neighborhood with the idea of a focal project that could spawn other development in the area. The Howard theater was a tax credit program and now look at all the cranes in that area and the development. The Hill Center at the Naval Hospital has been renovated and turned into a venue for community events. We've done charter schools, community centers, medical clinics. It's also an example of public private partnerships.
For the last few years, real estate has been really challenged. It is great that CityCenter is going up and we have development in these neighborhoods, but for several years there really hasn't been a lot of new development in the city. These projects have gone up through that because of the federal subsidies. That is what made the difference.
I understand you practice yoga. How did that start?
I am a real fitness guy. I love sports. I love fitness. Yoga can complement those sports. It's one of these activities is an end in and of itself. It's very precise and has great benefits for mind and body. But it's also a great complement to other sports. It's a great way to condition and focus on balance.
For me, at a relatively early age I started developing some back issues. I was a runner in a past life. I found it took a real toll on my lower back, joints and knees. After my first and thankfully only serious episode of a back injury, my doctor and physical therapist had me focused on stretching. At my gym, the stretching class was a yoga class. I started going to that, loving it and feeling the benefits of it.
I started for that reason, but I found for my other sports it keeps me in good physical shape. It builds strength, balance and core, and then the mental benefits are great. More than any other class I've ever taken at a gym or studio, it is the one that takes me most out of my daily life for an hour.
This is part of a series of Q&A sessions Legal Times is conducting with D.C.-based law firm managing partners. Photo by The National Law Journal's Diego M. Radzinschi.