LAND DEALS MAY be made on the golf course, but it's not until the contracts and entitlements are crunched out by the legal department that they are realized. Crystal Miller, a search consultant for residential construction at Plano, Texas-based Kaye/Bassman International, says the industry is not hurting for lawyers. “Legal isn't going to be like a super[intendent] position … it's just not something a company needs a lot of,” she explains. Depending on volume, large builders may have only six lawyers for the entire company, as opposed to anywhere from 40 to 100 supers per division, she says.

Despite legal's critical land function, many companies choose to outsource the job. That decision often hinges on growth strategies. “If you have your land positions for the next three years, it may make more sense to hire an outside firm,” Miller says. However, when you're in a period of acquisition, having an inside lawyer makes sense because there'll be a lot of ongoing legal issues.

But for homegrown heroes in the legal department, a path has been paved to a profitable career. Top lawyers can etch out roles as division presidents. “Having that legal background just puts them one step ahead [of other candidates] because they understand the legal ramifications [of land contracts],” Miller says.

With land a priority, Miller says that the industry is ripe for legal gurus' picking. “[It's a] career path that hasn't been widely explored, and it should be, because it's a natural progression for them,” she explains.

The possibility for promotion also is a hefty bargaining chip in luring top lawyers from private practice. Industry expert Bill Carpitella, CEO of the Sharrow Group in Rochester, N.Y., says “It's sexier to an attorney to come and work with a big builder with some hierarchical potential.”

Vertical prospects aside, Miller says she doesn't expect a surge in demand to fuel a legal expansion in the future. “Where the top 100 [builders] are with their legal teams is probably where they'll stay,” she predicts.