Working on real estate related lawsuits, such as actions arising from construction projects or eminent-domain matters, is similar to putting together a puzzle, according to Smitha Chintamaneni, a shareholder at von Briesen & Roper in Milwaukee.
As a real estate litigator, Chintamaneni deals with complex cases involving a lot of witnesses and documents. The majority of the lawsuits are filed several years after the underlying real estate work has been completed and disputes arise.
“We sift through documents, whether it’s emails, change orders, handwritten notes or appraisals, to jog witnesses’ memories about the work that was done or the scope of damages,” she said. “You put all those different pieces together and form a case from them.”
Chintamaneni did not plan to go into real estate litigation, but her work on some cases during the early part of her career piqued her interest.
“Those early construction, lease dispute and eminent domain cases led me to where I am now,” she said, adding that along the way she had to learn a lot about the real estate industry, including its technical terms. “I rely on a team of experts to educate me on the technical issues, whether it is the client or an outside expert, such as an engineer, architect or appraiser. These are complex cases and I couldn’t do my job without a team of experts.”
Real estate and eminent-domain law are just two parts of her practice. She also handles real-property taxation, insurance coverage and probate matters. Chintamaneni admitted probate cases are very different from other parts of the law.
“It’s a nice juxtaposition,” she said. “In probate, I have clients who are personally tied to the outcome of the case and have complicated familial relationships, while the other areas are focused more on ‘hard facts’ and documents.”
During her probate cases, Chintamaneni said her priority is to counsel her clients as they work “to find an amicable solution on a difficult topic.”
Wisconsin Law Journal: What makes your work important to you?
Smitha Chintamaneni: Having practiced in the fields of construction, real estate, eminent-domain and insurance-coverage litigation for more than 15 years, I quickly learned no two cases are alike. The facts, legal issues, and client’s goals drive each case. So paramount to any case is ensuring I have met the client’s goals.
WLJ: Who is your hero in the legal field?
Chintamaneni: In law school, I had the privilege of personally meeting the former FBI (and later CIA) Director and current Chairman of the Homeland Security Advisory Council, William H. Webster. Listening to him tell me about his tenure as a federal judge, FBI Director, CIA Director and then his private practice, it was clear that the concept of service is what drove him in all of his roles. As a young and impressionable law student, his words and advice struck a chord with me. Sadly, he didn’t spill any national security secrets!
WLJ: What do you do outside of work to deal with stress from the office?
Chintamaneni: Outside the office, I love to spend the (warm and cold!) days outdoors with my husband and our 6-year-old son. Having grown up in Wisconsin, the four seasons provide so many opportunities to be active. Whether it’s going for a run or hike, catching the State Fair or traveling to a new city or country, being active is a great stress reliever.
WLJ: What’s one thing many people get wrong about what you do?
Chintamaneni: Many people assume the field of real property (whether construction or real estate) is mundane and document intensive. The latter may be true but it is certainly not mundane. It’s very much like putting the pieces of a large jigsaw puzzle of contracts, deeds, financials, appraisals, change orders and years-old oral conversations back together. It is fast-paced, full of twists and turns, educates me on nuanced technical aspects, and contains lots of interesting characters.
WLJ: What’s your favorite memory from law school?
Chintamaneni: My favorite memory of law school was my 1L Property Class at Washington University in St. Louis. The professor spent six weeks teaching us to analyze a one and half page decision of In Re O’Connor, a Nebraska Supreme Court decision. After six weeks, we had covered concepts of “freehold doctrine,” “life interest,” “fee simple absolute” and “life tenant.” I never knew so many concepts could be wrapped up into such a small decision.
WLJ: Is there a certain case that stands out to you?
Chintamaneni: Not that I can talk about! But I have had great opportunities to be involved in multi-week jury trials and arbitrations on complicated construction disputes, breach of leases and defending and prosecuting eminent domain cases. Having learned (and still learning) from some great mentors, the ability to effectively advocate for a client is first and foremost because each case has its own challenges and rewards.