Origin Stories: Duval & Stachenfeld's Terri Adler On Intellectual Fearlessness And Doing Deals Without Precedent
This series delves into the myriad ways people enter the commercial real estate industry and what contributes to their success.
Terri Adler got hooked on real estate in college when a boyfriend's father introduced her to the wild world of property investment. In 1997, one year after graduating from law school, she and Bruce Stachenfeld formed Duval & Stachenfeld, a New York City-based real estate firm. She has spent the past 24 years there and serves as managing partner.
A Utah native who fell in love with the Big Apple and is an avid Mets fan, Adler said she loves doing deals where she has to draft contracts from scratch because no one has done anything like it before. Early on in her career, in the mid-'90s, she was almost always the only woman in the room. She sometimes felt in over her head, relying on mental toughness to get through any challenges — even math.
“It’s pretty hard to intimidate me (although they certainly tried),” Adler said. “I have something of a mantra that keeps me going — intellectual fearlessness. I don’t think I’m the smartest person in the room, but I do know that I’m not scared to do pretty much anything and I know I can figure things out.”
Bisnow: How did you get introduced to CRE?
Adler: When I was in law school, I worked as a paralegal at an entertainment law firm, working with a partner who handled real estate transactions for movie stars.
After I graduated from law school, one of the partners at the entertainment law firm introduced me to a friend of his at a small real estate law firm, which ultimately hired me. While I was only there for a year (and that firm no longer exists), it was where I met Bruce Stachenfeld. Bruce and I left that firm in 1997 and started Duval & Stachenfeld, which focuses exclusively on real estate law, and I have now been here for 24-plus years.
I love the real estate industry and have stayed in it for so long because of the people, the deals, the clients and the complexity involved. An added bonus, unlike other industries, you actually get to physically see the result of a transaction — a nice big building or revitalized neighborhood or new development!
Bisnow: What was your first job in CRE?
Adler: My first official job in commercial real estate was at the predecessor firm to my current firm, Duval & Stachenfeld. I started out as a lowly, in-the-trenches first-year associate, making maybe $65K a year, if that. I was not even making enough to pay my student loans (ramen, rent or student loans). I had other job prospects, but I’m driven, and I liked the idea of going to a small firm where I could dive in with both feet. Within several months of getting introduced to the industry, I was getting direct client contact and closing interesting deals. It was a much more intensive experience than I would have gotten at a more structured, bigger firm with multiple layers of partners, associates and junior associates.
Bisnow: What kind of education, certification or official training do you have in CRE? How critical was it to landing your first big role?
Adler: I went to New York Law School at night while working full time as a legal secretary/paralegal. The school has a strong regional presence, and it had sessions on NYC real estate in particular, which were very beneficial. Because I worked full time, I was writing and editing law journal articles at 1 in the morning.
Other than that, I do not have any certifications or training specific to real estate — my training was on the job, doing deals with talented people, getting direct contact with clients and being knee-deep in strategy.
The kinds of transactions that are Duval & Stachenfeld’s specialty, then and now, are not straight-down-the-fairway transactions. Our deals are complicated and a lot of them don’t have precedent in the industry, like complex JV financial structures or cutting-edge developments like PACE financing and opportunity zones. Early on, I found myself drafting documents from scratch because there was no precedent for what my clients were doing. My training was having the luck to work with incredibly smart people both on the lawyer side and the client side, and getting immersed in the industry by seeing these transactions come together.
Bisnow: What is one skill you wish you had coming into CRE?
Adler: It would have been helpful to have a stronger financial background. As real estate lawyers, our job is often to take a mathematical construct and convert it into words in a contract. Not understanding the underlying math is how mistakes get made.
Unfortunately, lawyers are generally lacking in that area. (I always joke with my clients: “Don’t let lawyers do math!”) So I had to learn on the job. I always viewed myself as not great at math, but I am now the Excel master at the firm.
Bisnow: What were you doing before you got into CRE? If you changed careers, did you bring anything with you from your past career that has helped you thrive in CRE, or, on the flip side, anything you had to unlearn in order to succeed here?
Adler: I got my first job when I was 15, in Sandy, Utah, and I’ve had a job ever since. I’ve worked at a fast-food restaurant, a country club, 7-Eleven, and as an administrative assistant at a biomedical research lab that studied transdermal skin patch treatments. While in college, I worked as an assistant and quasi-paralegal for two solo-practitioner criminal defense attorneys, working on cases, including a capital murder case. What I remember was the charm and poise they exuded, especially in court, despite the horrible subject matter. It affirmed in me the core American principle that everyone is entitled to a defense.
Looking back, I can see a natural progression toward law, stemming from my love of words. I have a brain that works in an abstract way, where I can grasp big concepts and boil them down.
My introduction and interest in the real estate industry was piqued by the father of a longtime boyfriend in college. He was a recovered accountant and lawyer who had gone on to own commercial real estate in New Jersey and the Tri-State area. He was the smartest, funniest and toughest guy I had met — and on top of that had an amazing family and was very generous and kind to me. He was born in Brooklyn, had polio as a kid and conquered the world (at least to a college kid from Utah). I loved how he talked about real estate and the deals he made. I was hooked!
Bisnow: Can you remember a moment where you felt in over your head or you worried this industry wasn’t for you? Did you ever think about quitting? What changed?
Adler: Early in my career, there were many times when I looked around a room with partners and executives who were all a lot older than me and male, while I was 28 and the only woman in the room. I found myself wondering what I was doing there. But even if I was in over my head, I never lost faith that I could buckle down and figure it out.
And even when I was not treated with respect by some of those individuals, I held my own and stood my ground. It’s pretty hard to intimidate me (although they certainly tried). I have something of a mantra that keeps me going — intellectual fearlessness. I don’t think I’m the smartest person in the room, but I do know that I’m not scared to do pretty much anything and I know I can figure things out.
When it comes to commercial real estate, I never had any hesitations. It’s a great industry, with dynamic personalities, and I continue to love working in CRE. As an industry, CRE is the backbone of every city in the United States, whether a major metropolitan area or a smaller city. I have faith both in the industry as it evolves and in New York City as it arises from Covid.
Bisnow: What were your early impressions of the industry, good and bad? How has your impression changed?
Adler: The industry does need to evolve in terms of diversity. When I was first starting out in the mid-'90s, I was the only woman in the room in virtually every meeting I went to. That still happens but with less regularity. Now there are more women in real estate, but we are still underrepresented in senior and decision-making positions.
Also, while the industry has pockets of diversity, it’s not nearly as widespread as it should be. Of course, I do acknowledge that on the industry level and the societal level, that is getting worked on, which makes me optimistic. As managing partner, I try to make Duval & Stachenfeld as diverse and gender-friendly as humanly possible, and to give people opportunities to succeed that people of my generation didn’t enjoy. I try to create paths to success that won’t only work for lawyers who are White and male. That has been a struggle across the industry, and I’m optimistic and hopeful that CRE will continue to progress in this regard.
Bisnow: Have you had a mentor or sponsor? How did that person shape your future in CRE?
Adler: Bruce Stachenfeld (the co-founder and chairman of Duval & Stachenfeld) and I have been working together for 25 years. When I started out, Bruce was a partner and I was an associate. He trained me for more than a decade, along with others, and now I’m the managing partner of a firm with some 40 real estate attorneys.
Bruce and I have been hugely influential in each other's careers. Who knows what would have happened if we hadn’t stumbled on one another? He drives me crazy and I drive him crazy, but any good relationship has that element.
Bisnow: What is a key lesson someone taught you, either kindly or the hard way?
Adler: The best lesson I learned was about empathy and I honestly just stumbled into it.
I had a high-intensity job, and was working a lot of hours managing things for high-intensity real estate clients. So when I was faced with deadlines that couldn’t budge, I would just put my head down, plow through the wall and get it done.
Then, when I had my first child at 39, I was forced to pick my head up and look around — and I was struck with the realization that I’m impactful on others.
It was something I had never thought about. And not only was my conduct directly impactful on this little creature I had created, but I realized my conduct was also impactful on the people with whom I worked.
That made me rethink the way I mentor people. I’m tough and being tough was the example I always set. I don’t yell, but I'm an intense person. I have that intellectual fearlessness and when I’m plowing ahead into things, that can be intimidating.
Having a baby forced me to look at things from the other person’s perspective. It made me realize that mentoring is more than just being a role model of what you can achieve and providing a platform. It also means looking at the person in front of you and saying: “What you want is not what I want; what you are is not what I am. How can I help you succeed in the way you want, with the skill set you bring?”
It’s made me a better boss, a better partner and a better parent.
Bisnow: What do you warn people about when they join the industry?
Adler: I think something that people don’t realize, at least on the legal side of the industry, is just how very tough a job it is. Real estate deals are fast-paced and hard-driving. There’s always time pressure. Always someone else competing for the deal your client wants. So, I tell incoming lawyers — be sure you like this industry, be sure you like the people with whom you work and be sure you actually like being a lawyer.
Do not be passive. You should be thinking about what you want and how you are going to get it. Don’t just ride the wave that is there. If you want to work in a certain practice area, go and ask and talk about it. If you want to go in-house, figure out why and where. If you don’t like your job, think about it now. Don’t wait 10 years. If you don't like what you are doing, that’s unfortunate because you will be doing this (whatever your work is) more hours in the day than anything else in your life. You will sometimes see the people you work with more than your family. You may not love it every day, but make sure it is fulfilling enough for what you want in your career so that you can do it for 25-plus years and actually still like your job.
Bisnow: If you could do your career all over again, what would you change?
Adler: I would do all the things I started doing after having kids sooner — becoming more engaged in mentoring, taking on more business development, speaking at conferences and community involvement. I would have loved to start looking outward and helping people sooner. But it was a little hard to do when I was working the hours I was working. It took something as dramatic as giving birth to make that change in me.
That being said, coming from the background that I had — neither of my parents went to college and I’m still the only lawyer in my family — I still feel like I won the lottery every day. I get to live in New York City. I have a great family. I’m doing cool real estate deals with really great clients, in an intellectually stimulating environment with people I like. At the end of the day, I just feel lucky.