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Origin Stories: JLL's James Malone Switched From Law To CRE And Never Looked Back

This series delves into the myriad ways people enter the commercial real estate industry and what contributes to their success.

James Malone began working in commercial real estate in 1999, leaving behind a legal career. Now, as an executive vice president at JLL, he says if he had it to do all over again, he wouldn't change a thing. Malone took a circuitous path to CRE, but the stops along the way have helped inform his current career and contributed to his success. In December, Malone was added to the board for the African American Real Estate Professionals Los Angeles chapter. 

James Malone and his wife in Santa Barbara

Bisnow: How did you get introduced to CRE?

Malone: I started to really get interested in CRE after law school.  I was into my second year of practicing commercial litigation and I was thinking about making a career change as I wanted to do more transactional work.

Even though this was at the height of the dot-com era, I had a number of friends from law school and undergrad at UCLA that were working as brokers or real estate lawyers doing commercial real estate. They all seemed to really enjoy the business and when they are talking about the cool deals they are involved in, I got intrigued by the cachet of being in this business. That’s when I started to look for opportunities in CRE.

Bisnow: What was your first job in CRE?

Malone: Back then, it was hard to find jobs in CRE. I had an opportunity to go to another law firm but I would have focused on real estate litigation, not transactions. I was fortunate though to land a role at Catellus Development, which owned Los Angeles' Union Station at the time.

Bisnow: What kind of education, certification or official training do you have in CRE? How critical was it to landing your first big role?

Malone: Even though I was a practicing lawyer, I had a lot to learn about the CRE business. I took classes at UCLA Extension, attended a number of seminars and did a lot of self-study to earn my broker’s license. My law degree was beneficial, but not necessary for my first role. I was able to learn about all facets of the development business, from entitlements to master planning, design, construction and ultimately transactions.

Bisnow: What is one skill you wish you had coming into CRE?

Malone: My advice to anyone trying to get into the business is to learn how to underwrite and value assets. I think it gives you a good foundation and will help you find opportunities. I was an economics major at UCLA and took a lot of tax classes in law school, but never had formal finance training, so I had to learn it on the fly.

James Malone on a visit last year to the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Kentucky

Bisnow: What were you doing before you got into CRE?

Malone: I was practicing law. But prior to going to law school, I was pursuing my childhood dream of playing professional football. I didn’t jump right into CRE out of undergrad or do real estate internships, but my past experiences — I played linebacker and I was a lawyer — gave me a unique perspective on different situations. Both of those endeavors obviously require different skill sets, but sports in particular teaches you the value of hard work, preparation and dealing with adversity.

Bisnow: Can you remember a moment where you felt in over your head or you worried this industry wasn’t for you? 

Malone: Throughout my career, I’ve been fortunate to be involved in a lot of great projects and have been honored to work with (and against) some of the giants of this business. I have gained a ton of insight from those interactions; to be able to observe folks at the top of their game has been awesome. All along the way, I’ve felt comfortable being in the CRE business.

Bisnow: What were your early impressions of the industry, good and bad? 

Malone: I knew the industry was not very diverse when I got into it. It hasn’t changed in a significant way yet. There are some good signs for the future. I think there are real efforts being made to increase diversity in CRE and a realization that there are also economic benefits to hiring from a diverse pool of talent. I am encouraged by the investment that JLL is making in this area. I am also working with other organizations to help expose CRE to talented people who are often overlooked and help them find opportunities.

JLL Executive Vice President James Malone

Bisnow: Have you had a mentor or sponsor? How did that person shape your future in CRE? 

Malone: Absolutely. I have been lucky to have people who have influenced and guided me throughout my life including my parents and coaches, but as it relates to commercial real estate, Nelson Rising was the person who gave me an opportunity to get into this business. Working at Catellus and being able to see him in meetings, work on assignments for him and speak to him about the business was invaluable. From there, I could name a long list of people that I have worked with over the years that have advised and inspired me along the way.

Bisnow: What is a key lesson someone taught you, either kindly or the hard way?

Malone: That CRE is a relationship business and it’s a small world. It’s amazing how often you run into people years later on a different deal or different company. 

Bisnow: What do you warn people about when they join the industry?

Malone: Be patient. Early success is great, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy, and early challenges doesn’t mean it’s hard.

Bisnow: If you could do your career all over again, what would you change?

Malone: Not a thing. I actually love what I do.