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Sherry Cushman Helps Usher Law Firms Into Upscale, 21st Century Digs

Sherry Cushman at the CREW awards in 2015

As a 31-year veteran of brokering real estate deals for law firms, Sherry Cushman has racked up more than 152M SF in deals across the country. And she'll be on stage later this month at Bisnow's Real Estate Strategies for Associations and Law Firms event on March 29 at 7:30am at 2300 N St NW.

Sherry says one topic she plans to raise when she moderates the law firm panel later this month—with speakers from the likes of Baker Tilly and Skanska—is what must real estate do to support the legal industry’s challenges over the next 10 to 20 years?

After a short career as an interior designer, Sherry (snapped above receiving the CREW DC Impact Award last year) became a broker for law firms in the early 1990s so she knows whereof she speaks. Not only were there few such positions in the legal profession, there were even fewer women brokers in the business.

After more than two decades honing her brokering skills, three and a half years ago, she was recruited by Cushman & Wakefield to build a world-class law firm practice group. That national group numbers more than 200 today. Sherry specializes in creating strategies, benchmarks and consensus-building through thought leadership.

The goal, she says, is to assist law firms in the US and abroad to make smart real estate decisions that will support their competitive position for years to come.

With more women attorneys coming out of law schools than men today, and many more women in legal leadership roles, Sherry believes women in both sectors will continue to increase.

“Women innately have skill sets that make them very good as tenant advisers,” she says. Though men still outnumber women as law firm brokers, she insists—at least in DC—the women are at the top of the game.

No wonder she can laugh when Bisnow asks if she can recall an encounter with workplace sexism. Her answer: As part of a team of brokers years ago awaiting a big commission from a deal she had brought in, one of the brokers told her she shouldn’t get the same amount as the male brokers “because [one day] I could marry it.” 


Sherry, snapped with her husband, Don Schaaf, on their Annapolis-moored boat, says DC is still the place to be as a tenant. Ninety-six firms on the American Lawyer 100 list have offices in DC, almost all of them concentrated in the CBD and the East End.

In the past few years, almost 50% of those law firms have committed to relocations, seeking new, upgraded space following the “stand pat” era of the Great Recession. It’s no wonder Sherry says she's busier than she has been in several years.

“There were a lot of [lease] renewals in ’09, ’10 and ’11 and ’12,” she recalls, because law firms were “basically buying time after the market crash to gain back some confidence.” Many of the leases were 10 to 15 years old and in need of major upgrades or a new facility.

Now, with an improved economy, a greater level of confidence, and an all-time high in landlord concessions, the legal eagles seeking new aeries with favorable lease terms don’t have to expend as much capital as they once did to make a move.

“Now, they’re fleeing to new construction and buildings that have been or will be fully renovated in both the CBD and East End,” she explains.

As examples, she cites Covington & Burling’s move into 450k SF at One City Center in December 2014, and Arnold & Porter’s move late last year, signing a 20-year lease with Boston Properties for 375k SF at 601 Mass Ave NW in Mt. Vernon Triangle. And in early 2017, Venable will move its HQ into new construction across the street at 600 Mass Ave, leasing 245k SF on five floors from a JV of Gould Property Co and Oxford Properties.

Why the relocations? Law firms are “fleeing to quality,” Sherry says. They want floor-to-ceiling glass, limited columns, better column spacing, right-size floors and to have the ability to create collaborative spaces for lawyers and clients, all while maintaining profits and controlling expenses.

“It’s no longer about bricks-and-mortar; it’s no longer about being on Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s about creating real estate solutions that support a firm’s business and assists in recruiting and retention,” Sherry explains. Young attorneys are less interested in making partner, she says, than in having their workplace close to their living space and other amenities.