Pamela Swidler Helps CoWorking Build Community as WeWork Expands
By Debra Hazel
Whether she’s overseeing a lease in Brazil or educating local site selection teams on her company’s mission, Pamela Swidler is a part of the team working to make WeWork a global phenomenon.
As global head of real estate transactions and special counsel, Swidler oversees the company’s real estate transactions and negotiations as WeWork continues its expansion across six continents, a significant shift from her previous work as an attorney at Kramer Levin. But in some ways, it’s not much of a shift at all.
“It’s a really unique opportunity for a real estate lawyer, to be able to leverage your expertise about real estate for a company that has a real estate foundation but has a much larger mission and vision,” Swidler said. “Real estate lawyers who join a developer, develop real estate. If they go to a bank, they negotiate loans. Here, you can be a part of building a company that has a greater mission, and the ability to achieve that mission is dependent on growing our global physical footprint.”
Swidler joined Kramer Levin as a summer associate in 2006, right after graduating from Cardozo Law School. There she went through a few practices, eventually settling in her preferred choice, real estate, when she joined the firm full-time.
“I liked real estate because it seemed very tangible,” she said. “Working on tax matters is important, of course, but after the transaction is done, you don’t see the fruits of it. In real estate, you see buildings come out of the ground. You can walk by a building and say, ‘I know all about how that building works.’ It was exciting from the very beginning to use that skill to be a part of building things.”
That isn’t to denigrate other types of law, she was quick to add.
“It’s important, no matter what kind of law you do, to understand the financial world and how it works. Everything is related – you need money to finance construction,” she continued. “But having the opportunity to learn about plans to redevelop cities was very exciting.”
Her early career saw her reviewing documents and supporting more senior attorneys, providing a solid basis in the industry. As she progressed, the firm increased her responsibilities, covering a wide range of commercial real estate matters, including representing Columbia University in its expansion into Manhattanville almost from her first day.
“The city and state were involved, and it was incredibly interesting,” Swidler recalled. “I was fortunate to have a senior attorney working on it who would teach me. It was very helpful to learn how to build and develop in Manhattan.”
From there, she began working on acquisitions, sales, financing and general development work, as well as complex condominium structures, eventually leading teams. Her career path seemed set at Kramer Levin. But then came WeWork.
Founded in 2010, the co-working space company has expanded rapidly not just in its number of locations, but also in its vision. What began as co-working spaces has now become “The We Company,” encompassing education, health and fitness, with one Rise By We location in lower Manhattan; WeGrow, for children’s education, located in Chelsea; the FlatIron School, a coding academy for adults; MeetUp, to build community; and WeLive, co-living residential spaces in New York City and Washington, D.C.; and Made by We, which adds retail to co-working spaces. As it was growing, so too was its need for broad-based legal leadership.
“The only job I’d ever had was being an associate at Kramer Levin,” Swidler said. “I loved the people, I loved the relationships and the work I was doing.”
Still, the unknown called to her and Swidler joined WeWork as senior general counsel, real estate. She eventually became deputy general counsel and then regional general counsel, Americas.
Transitioning from a well-established law firm to an in-house position at a start-up company proved a huge shift, she noted.
“I work with a large number of lawyers who also came from large firms, so we all had the same experience going through it,” she said.
In October, Swidler was named to her current role overseeing the real estate transactions team, overseeing regional teams of lawyers around the world, as the company combined the business and legal aspects of its growth plan.
And expansion has been rapid, perhaps too rapid, according to some observers. As of the end of 2018, WeWork has locations in 27 countries, comprising 100 cities around the globe.
“WeWork is probably the fastest-growing physical company taking office space in the world,” she said. “We are at an incredible occupancy level. The demand is there for the product, and we are uniquely situated to grow at this rate and continue to scale. We are still just getting started.”
The regional teams drive site selection, using local knowledge to suggest new locations, with local legal experts working with Swidler and her group.
“You have to understand the tax landscape, the permitting and construction landscape, and anything else that is specific to those areas,” she said.
WeWork’s expansion into other real estate sectors has been part of the mission from the beginning, with co-working the springboard for a total lifestyle experience.
“We’ve always been excited about the expansion of other product lines,” she said. “Now it’s just a matter of how and where we make it happen.”
The types of locations also have grown: in certain markets, WeWork can have locations in in buildings that also house shopping centers. Most famously, it acquired the former Lord & Taylor flagship on Fifth Avenue in February of this year.
“We have shown that we can utilize whatever the right physical space platform, be it WeWork, WeLive, WeGrow, or Made by We, which offers products made by members, or can be rented by the minute without having to be a member,” Swidler said.
Global expansion continues. And while that can keep Swidler’s schedule unpredictable, she clearly wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Every single day is different; it’s what makes my job so interesting,” she said. “Every day, I don’t know what’s going to happen and what surprises await.”