Upper reaches: Lawyer specializes in high stakes real estate finance

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By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News


Jim Simpson was Michigan opinion counsel for a $4 billion commercial real estate (CRE) financing that facilitated a major corporation’s exit from bankruptcy; and continues to serve in that role through successive financings and re-financings.

“I admit it gives me pause to sign opinions on multi-billion dollar transactions! However, the structures are fascinating,” says Simpson, Of Counsel with Miller Canfield and co-leader of the firm’s Commercial Real Estate Finance Group.

Other eye-popping amounts include a  $179 million three-bank multistate restaurant franchise financing facility; $150 million mortgage and asset-backed repo facility; $145 million five-bank stadium financing presentation package; $100 million whole asset-backed loan pool sale; $92 million multistate resort hotel loan restructuring and full re-documentation; $75.5 million multistate multifamily loan; $50 million corporate acquisition package; $48 million multistate retail facility; $45.6 million multifamily Freddie Mac loan; $39 million financing of a former Army Depot converted to offices and research; $35 million series of earnout, bridge, and mezzanine loans; $22.3 million airport parking loan; $18 million big box shopping center loan; $10.8 million participated manufactured housing property construction loan; $8.5 million syndicated hotel renovation loan; and several thousand other CRE loans throughout the country.

Real estate is – and always has been – fundamental to every society, Simpson notes.

“Each property has a story, linked to its past, present and future,” he says. “CRE finance involves me in every aspect of the properties we work on, and provides meaningful relationships with bright and focused lenders, investment and mortgage bankers and underwriters, all building careers or leading organizations.

“CRE also involves me with entrepreneurial and creative owners and borrowers – many of a second or third generation – often with visionary and intriguing plans,” he continues. “Both involve me with seasoned and expert lawyers and accountants, and complex capital and tax structures in financial and CRE markets that just don’t stand still. There is simply no coasting, and always a new challenge. The people are tremendously interesting, and lasting relationships build over time. What’s not to love?  This is the essence of a long and rewarding career.”

According to Simpson, the firm’s CRE Finance Group is unique in Michigan, resulting from both its national scope – with transactions in nearly every state – and depth and breadth of focus and clients: national capital markets financing – aka Commercial Mortgage-Backed Securities (CMBS) financing; national CRE financing by investment banks; national and regional CRE financing by banks; and regional CRE financing by state agencies.

“Over the decades, our clients have allowed us to develop a national practice and reputation, known for our solutions, best practices, efficient processes and technology,” he says. “My father always told me that our children would take us to new peoples and places, and they did.  Our clients do the same.”   

Simpson – who has been named to Best Lawyers in America, Michigan Super Lawyers, and Chambers USA: America's Leading Lawyers – considers himself fortunate to have been engaged to develop, from the ground up, CRE lending documents and processes for a number of national and regional loan programs. 

“Creating the documents requires me to stay close to and current with both the legal and financial markets,” he says. “For a tinkerer like me, this is fascinating stuff. Attempting to continually simplify them, and the related processes, is a constantly rewarding challenge.

“Above all, I’ve truly enjoyed developing and mentoring younger lawyers to become expert, and to lead and take over client relationships. Nothing is more rewarding than seeing them move to partnership or even to other great opportunities.”

Simpson notes that, in general, the climate for commercial real estate has improved since the near collapse of the CRE lending market, which spawned a huge bubble of foreclosures and workouts, particularly of securitized (CMBS) loans.

“The improvement has pulled many properties from the brink, and the sheer number of foreclosures has sharply declined,” he says. “However, improvement in many cases has resulted from historically and artificially low interest rates, and is still regional, local and property-specific. There is a large bubble of loans maturing in the next three years that will present renewed challenges – problem properties are likely to increase in number, particularly as interest rates rise.”   

It’s been a stellar career for a kid from Highland Park, who “grew up as a water rat on Pine Lake in West Bloomfield, back when it was an idyllic existence.”

After receiving his undergrad degree from Michigan State University, Simpson earned his J.D., cum laude, from Wayne State University Law School, where he enjoyed the urban environment, accessibility of the professors and openness of fellow students.

“I’ve always loved figuring out how things work, how the pieces fit together, and working with people who I admire and respect toward a goal that is important to them,” he says. “The law has given me all of that, continuous opportunities for learning and growth, including from others, and a measure of my own value.”

He has given back to his alma mater as a past chairman of the Alumni Association, and of the WSU Law School Fund.

He and his wife Kathy, a retired psychologist, have two sons, both in California: Aaron, who produces animation in Los Angeles, was nominated for a Daytime Emmy; and Rod, a writer in the Bay area. The Simpsons have four grandchildren – “As they say, ‘if I’d known grandchildren were so great, I would have had them first,’” Simpson says. “No lawyers – I always told them to do what they were passionate about, and they did.”

After living in Birmingham and Bloomfield for many years, where he served on the Birmingham Board of Zoning Appeals, Joint Cablecasting Board, Beaumont (Hospital) Foundation, and the Board of the Bloomfield Open Hunt Club, Simpson and his wife moved to Bonita Springs, Fla., 18 months ago.

“Kathy decided she was no longer a fan of Michigan winters – and I’m a pitiful bachelor,” Simpson says. “So I’m now based in Florida, which is lovely, and simply travel regularly to clients’ offices in New York, Birmingham, Lansing, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco and our offices in New York, Detroit, Troy, Lansing and Chicago. Getting to recognize familiar faces in the Atlanta airport is not necessarily a good thing,” he says with a smile.

In his leisure time, he enjoys biking, hiking, walking, especially in nature preserves and on beaches; golf, where he enjoys an 11 handicap; and working out – “It’s nice to finally have some time do this on a regular basis,” he says. 

He and Kathy are collectors of contemporary art and art glass.

“For a long time, we collected 18th century antiques, and I dabbled at reproducing them – now we’re entirely contemporary,” he says. “It’s all good.”