Heather Smith Michael has a service philosophy that starts with a question.
“How can I help? A lot of people view legal as the impediment to doing what the business wants to do,” she says. “I always take the approach of, let me give you advice and let me show you the risks. But how can I help you get where you want to go?”
Michael is chief brokerage relations counsel at JLL, a global real estate company that helps clients buy, sell, build, occupy, and invest in properties in the industrial, commercial, retail, and hotel sectors.
In her role, Michael assists business leadership with engaging and onboarding real estate brokers and brokerage teams for the company. She negotiates those initial agreements and the separations that can spark litigation. She also assists with issues related to broker ethics, licenses, and regulations and manages high-level broker-related litigation. It all comes with an approach that can prevent a crisis or mitigate one before it spirals.
“The litigation background is such an asset when negotiating contracts and generally advising on risk,” she explains. “I know what can go wrong because I’ve been on the other end of this. I negotiate contracts with an eye to what’s the worst-case scenario. What are the risks, and how can we minimize them?”
Her path to a legal career started in a place where the lights are bright and the audience is focused: the stage. Growing up in Miami, she started dancing at five years old and joined a professional children’s theater company at age twelve to perform at schools and charity events around South Florida. “You get to miss school and get paid,” Michael reminisces.
It was her life, six days a week, until knee injuries ended her performances when she was just sixteen. She never strayed too far from the theater, attending Broadway shows and other performances throughout her life.
The experience fueled her ability to work with a diverse group of people, be a professional, take direction, and engage in projects with serious focus. “You aren’t afraid to get in front of a big group of people and talk,” says Michael, who sits on the advisory board of Theatrical Outfit, a theater company in downtown Atlanta.
Michael earned her law degree at Emory University School of Law in 1995 and started her career in Miami at Morgan Lewis & Bockius, primarily handling securities litigation. Licensed in Georgia and Florida, she moved back to Atlanta to live closer to her soon-to-be husband and joined Long Aldridge & Norman (now Dentons) to work on securities and commercial litigation and domestic relations matters.
She moved to King & Spalding to handle high-level commercial litigation and then Arnall Golden Gregory to represent clients in commercial litigation, securities litigation, professional liability matters, real estate litigation, and bankruptcy cases. In 2013, she moved in-house at JLL. It’s a move that Michael, now the mother of two teenagers, wishes she had made sooner.
“This is what I was meant to do. What I was missing when I was working for a law firm was the connection with the client and their business. While I really liked being surrounded by smart, interesting people and walking down the hall and saying, ‘What do you think about this?’, I felt there was a disconnect,” she says. “I wasn’t involved in the process and strategy—and wasn’t getting a deep dive into the clients’ business. I was there to provide a service but didn’t feel like a partner.”
At JLL, Michael was part of the team in 2019 that onboarded and integrated hundreds of new brokers when JLL acquired HFF Inc., a leading capital markets firm. She helped navigate the existing broker employment agreements and compensation plans to create a new compensation plan for the combined entity, while honoring obligations to legacy JLL brokers.
That same year, she worked with the legal and human resources teams to convert more than six hundred JLL leasing brokers from employee status to a quasi-independent contractor status provided by the tax code for qualified real estate agents. The successful conversion provided tax benefits to the brokers and cost savings to JLL.
“I’m providing greater value than I was before,” she says. “I know the business well, and I like being involved in the decision-making, the advising, getting to know the business and its leaders, and getting to know what they need and what they value.”
She appreciates the culture at JLL and the foundation of civility and professionalism. “You’re not just there to serve a purpose. You’re there to bring your whole self,” she attests.
Michael advises young attorneys to “follow the path that seems right to you.”
“Sometimes we think, ‘This is what I have to do.’ And that’s not necessarily true,” she observes. “Find people who support you and your goals. If you’re not finding that, you always have choices. You always have options. I didn’t always know that as a more junior lawyer. It’s really about developing relationships. Follow what is important to you and find people who support that vision. That will take you further than, ‘I have to go to this law school and work for that firm.’”
“Heather is a strategic thinker and zealous advocate. Her wisdom and experience, combined with her ability to stay level-headed under pressure, makes her a great business partner.”
–Elizabeth E. Moum, Shareholder