In early 2020, Southern Land Co. was moving toward closing on one of its largest multifamily transactions to date—the acquisition of an 18,816-square-foot property on Sansom Street in Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse neighborhood. But when the projected closing window arrived in early March, the COVID-19 pandemic had taken hold, creating a much longer and more complicated process.
At the time, Brontë Prins was six months into her position as associate general counsel at the Nashville, Tennessee–based multifamily owner and developer. She had begun her legal career with multifamily clients in private practice, first as an associate and paralegal at Clifford Chance in New York and then as an associate at Baker Donelson in Nashville, specializing in real estate and financial law. “I’m drawn to real estate because it’s something tangible,” she says. “You’re flipping through contracts, you’re working with language. And in multifamily you’re creating communities where people live, where they spend their days; you really make an impact on their lives. I think that’s a special thing to be part of.”
Given the state of the world, Southern Land elected to handle the transaction’s legal affairs internally. Prins took point in what would become a complicated and labor-intensive negotiation process. “As the world was literally falling apart, we were trying to navigate how to get to close. We had to make sure the equity partners were on board and make sure we as a company were comfortable doing this pretty significant transaction,” Prins says. “We ended up amending our purchase agreement many times. I was really able to take the lead, and it's rare for an in-house attorney to have that kind of leeway.”
The acquisition closed for $24.5 million, and Prins’ handling of the transaction and its legal complexities left a profound impression on her colleagues. In May 2020, Prins became Southern Land’s vice president of legal and, in January, was named to her current role as senior vice president and general counsel. But Sansom Street was just the beginning—and her rapid ascension over a year and a half follows an incredible course of accomplishments, in which she has materially improved the bottom line and built a powerful foundation for in-house legal expertise.
The Sansom Street acquisition is among the largest transactions in Southern Land’s history, matched only by the partial sale of Reve Boulder, another project in which Prins is deeply involved. The community sold for $151.25 million earlier this year, but, as both an unfinished and an Opportunity Zone project, the closure process is ongoing until at least September.
“I’m pulling out that contract two, three times a week, making sure we’re complying and hitting our milestones,” Prins says. “It’s a tremendous disposition for us. The purchase price speaks for itself, but it’s super complicated and it’s an incredible community.”
Outside of direct work on transactions, reducing the company’s outside legal counsel spending was Prins’ No. 1 goal as both vice president of legal and general counsel. After taking over management of the company’s legal spending tracking system, she has revamped it in order to maximize its benefits, and reads and analyzes every invoice and line item to track spending on a weekly basis. “Quarterly, I prepare reports for the C-suite, detailing all of the significant transactions, running through ways in which we can save or bring more work in-house, and then do some post-report correspondence with them to ensure everyone’s on the same page,” says Prins.
By the end of 2020, Prins had reduced Southern Land’s outside legal fees by 20% year over year. In Q1 2021, she reduced fees by 60% compared with Q1 2020—even as the company’s deal volume has increased. At the same time, she has developed an in-house legal team that can take on the issues once given to outside counsel.
“[Prins’] focus on bringing work in-house, getting the right people in place here in our legal department, and reducing the spend we have with outside attorneys has been dramatic,” says Michael Lonsway, chief financial officer at Southern Land. “She’s very much a working general counsel, and the number of hours she puts in really shows in our not having a need for outside attorneys. I’ve been very impressed with her ability to reduce costs.”
Prins also noticed that Southern Land’s in-house insurance program was having trouble handling its claims. “We were letting them lapse, because oftentimes each claim takes so much attention and so much follow-up. We weren’t collecting the money we were entitled to, or we were just too passive. [So] we reworked the whole program. We had an in-house risk manager who did all of our insurance, and I just didn’t think that was the right way to handle things. It needs to be collaborative.”
Under this new system, Prins has vastly increased the number of people involved in the processing of insurance claims—bringing Southern Land on track to 100% recovery on its hard and soft costs, totaling more than $5 million.
Prins’ ultimate aim within the company is to build the expertise and experience necessary to become its first chief legal officer—a position from which she can, in her words, advise key executives from more of a business standpoint. “I just need more time to learn this business, learn this industry, and develop as an attorney in an in-house role in order to eventually fill that position,” she says.
Even now, Southern Land’s key executives consider her an incredible asset to the company. “[Prins] has already become a trusted adviser to the C-suite. We’re a complicated company, so there’s plenty of other areas for her to get involved in and continue to broaden that advisory role for us. There’s lots of growth potential for her here, and I truly think the sky is the limit for her,” says Lonsway. “She’s first and foremost a great role model for all attorneys in real estate, but especially for female attorneys. Her accomplishments, her potential, her approach to work … I think she can be a great asset to the industry, as well as the entire legal profession.”
Tim Downey, founder and CEO of Southern Land, agrees. “I think Brontë is a really exceptional person,” he says. “She’s put together a significant number of joint ventures that were not only complicated but with very sophisticated people on the other side of the table. She’s built an entire legal department, and she really took her time and found good people. I think we have an outstanding legal department now that emulates her.”
With an incredible career in progress, Prins also intends to broaden the extent of her mentorship by developing a network of female commercial real estate professionals, particularly in multifamily, in the Nashville area. “I want to [have] a networking operation for women who want to be in the industry but haven’t broken in yet and people who’ve been in it for years, with a big focus on social connection,” Prins says. “Holding monthly gatherings, getting people together, and making sure that if you have problems, if you need guidance, you have this network of local women to connect to.”
When asked what she’d say to other young professionals, her focus is first and foremost on moving forward. “If you have a difficult day, don’t dwell on it,” she says. “Show up tomorrow with a smile on your face and a positive attitude, don’t think about the bad things that happened the previous day. Just hit the ground running and work hard, and your hard work will pay off. If you dwell on the negative … you’ll get stuck on it, and you won’t progress personally because you’re so focused on things that frankly you have no control over.”