This is the way summer days were meant to be spent. Top down in the BMW, sun shining, cruising through Sagaponack and Bridgehampton, gazing at the architectural and natural wonders that are Hamptons real estate. When you’re driving with Alan Schnurman, cruising takes on the old-time aura of leisure and appreciation of the surroundings, which is easy as Schnurman points to one notable property after another—“that one’s the head of Barnes & Noble, that house belongs to the old New York Jets quarterback Boomer Esiason”—with the informed glee of a tourism minister turned tour guide.
“I’d make a great cab driver, right?” Schnurman says with a smile. “I actually did drive a cab, when I was in law school. And I was exactly the same. I haven’t changed at all.” Perhaps just a little.
That kid behind the wheel in the 1960s no doubt had the wit and tangible enthusiasm that drives Schnurman today. That kid did not, however, have $150 million in Hamptons real estate dealings on his ledger. He hadn’t developed 26 acres on Ocean Road, nor a legendary 40-plus acres on Hedges Lane. He was not a Real Estate Broker with Saunders & Associates. Of course, neither was Schnurman until two years ago. But his roots in the local market run much deeper than just two years.
A renowned attorney who cofounded the firm Zalman Schnurman and Miner, he first came out to the Hamptons in 1986, drawn by an ad for a home in the back of The New York Times Magazine. He and his wife, Judy, “were looking at another investment, a house in Connecticut, and then I see this ad—$425,000 pool, tennis and ocean view. So we take a ride out, I saw the house, and I said, ‘I see the pool, I see the tennis, it’s a very nice contemporary home, but where’s the ocean view?’ He takes me up to the upstairs terrace and says, ‘You see that blue over there?’ I said, ‘That blue over there? That’s 2 miles away! He said, ‘Well, that’s the ocean.’”
“Anyway, I liked it, and I bought it. That was in Bridgehampton, south of the highway. I had no idea where Bridgehampton was, I had no idea what south of the highway was, but I was in.” He later sold that house for nearly 30 times the $100,000 he put down. It was his first Hamptons real estate foray, but only the latest in a string of others dating back decades.
These days Schnurman and his bride of 40 years live on Ocean Road in Bridgehampton, their home large enough for both his son’s family and his daughter’s family to each have a wing when they visit. It might have become a place to retire when Schnurman left litigating three years ago, but his leading a sedentary life would be like Socrates losing his inquisitive side. So he joined Saunders as a broker.
“I’ll never forget, a broker comes to me at one of my open houses, who I did not know, and he says, ‘Alan, let me ask you a question. I know of you as a developer, for years, and you developed major projects—why do you want to be a broker?’ I laughed and smiled and I didn’t say anything, but I thought, Why do I want to be a broker? I love this! Are you kidding? This is so much fun. I meet interesting people, in gorgeous houses, I have interesting conversations, I’m negotiating, and that’s what I’ve done for 45 years—I’m a professional negotiator.”
Nearly 20 years after that first Hamptons home buy, his legal practice still going strong in Manhattan, Schnurman’s presence in Hamptons real estate exploded. There was the 26-acre development in Bridgehampton, which he points out proudly as he drives past, where he led a group of family and friends to purchase it for $12 million in 2005 and which sold for $37.5 million in 2007. In 2005, the group also purchased 42 acres of Sagaponack farmland for $25 million that became the famous Sagaponack Greens, one of the most notable deals of the last decade, especially when he sold off eight lots in the most challenging real estate recession he ever experienced.
Schnurman is developing the final parcel of that property right now. Walking through the home—named “Breathtaking Sagaponack” (and listed with Saunders for $18,950,000)—as it nears completion, pointing out the workmanship and the amenities, he’s like a proud parent. But it’s when he’s standing on the roof deck, surveying the surrounding homes, the adjacent land he’s preserved, the ocean at the not-too-far horizon, that it becomes clear he isn’t so much at the end of a journey as he is ready to be off on another.
“Real estate is creative,” he says. “I’m not an artist, I’m not a sculptor, I’m not a musical talent. However, with all that said, buying a piece of land, hiring an architect, working with a builder, working with an interior decorator, working with a site planner, working with a surveyor, working with a land expert to figure out the best possible use of that property—it’s all creative process.”
If you’re reading this over breakfast, chances are Schnurman is already hours ahead of you. He’s an early-to-bed-early-to-rise adherent who greets the day with purpose.
“Every morning I have three quotes I say to myself, because I have to reenergize myself every single day,” he says. “First is ‘I can, I will, I must.’ I have to say that, because to take risks the way I do, you have to be strong and you have to have confidence in yourself and your whole decision-making process.
“Second is ‘Attitude equals altitude.’ You have to have a good attitude, you’re flexible, you understand how everything works in this world, everything goes against you before it goes for you, there’s disappointment at every turn. When I get disappointed—I don’t call it failures, I call it challenges—when I go through a challenge that doesn’t go my way, I know I’m that much closer to success.
“My last quote, and my most important quote, is from Helen Keller: ‘Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence. ‘You have to have confidence to strive.”
Such mantras took seed while Schnurman was growing up in Brooklyn with a single mother, Ruth, who supported herself and three kids as a seamstress. “It was very seasonal work. Every Wednesday we went down to the unemployment office half the year, so I knew I wanted to always have something to fall back on, I wanted a profession. So first I became an accountant, and then once I became an accountant I went to law school, so I was a lawyer and an accountant, so I would always have a profession. Then I became a litigator.”
There is true reverence in his eyes when he speaks about his mother. About seven years ago, he found a way to honor her legacy and extend it to others. “It was impossible for my mother, she had me, my brother and my sister, she barely spoke English, spoke with a heavy accent, she worked in the garment district her whole life,” he tells. “She eventually raised herself up to be a teacher of other seamstresses in the shop, and it was very, very hard. So when we had the means, we started a scholarship at New York Law School for single mothers.”
Arriving at the point in life where such means were available required the same kind of focus and patience as real estate investing. It also took going down paths less traveled. “I always believed in marketing and advertising,” he says. “And the best way I thought to advertise was, if I had a TV show, people would see me and get to know me, and I thought eventually they would consider me their attorney.” With Judy producing and Alan on camera doing interviews, Lawline started in 1983 on cable access in New York City, moved to PBS and became the longest-running legal TV show in history. Alan earned the nickname “Larry King of Law” as it became must-see TV for the legal set, drawing the biggest names in the New York legal world—Attorney Generals (including Elliot Spitzer), judges, top lawyers. Schnurman even got the last interview with Civil Rights leader Bill Kunsler, who represented the Chicago Seven, before Kunsler died.
In 1999, Schnurman recognized the reach that the still-young internet could give to the lectures he’d been giving as part of continuing education to lawyers for years, and he launched Lawline.com. He kept it going after the internet bubble burst—even as others told him to close it down—and last year the site offered more than 1 million courses, and it remains the market leader. His son, David, also a lawyer, not only took over running Lawline.com in 2006, but has grown the company exponentially.
“Today he’s got 35 people working for him, including his sister, Michele, who’s a lawyer and in-house counsel,” Schnurman says. “Now he does lawyers, accountants, and real estate brokers. His mother and I always say, hopefully he’ll take care of us in our golden years.”
He pauses, the entertainer in him waiting a punchline beat. “We’ve said that for a long time, but Judy tells me, these are our golden years.”
And they are enjoying them in the Hamptons. They love dining at Red Bar in Southampton, and Bridgehampton favorites Fresh, World Pie and Bobby Van’s. For the man who has run 15 marathons and hiked to base camp on Mt. Everest, the East End offers many active outlets as well. “I walk the beach a lot. I love the beach,” he says. “I have my favorite areas. Shelter Island is one of them, I go to Mashomack Preserve a lot. On Sagaponack Road is a wonderful preserve, and I hike that all the time. It’s short, so I hike it around and around. Every season it changes, and I go continuously, and sure enough, I walk around and I see different things. I’ll see a leaf or an animal or I’ll see the water that’s bubbling differently that it was the last time.”
Perspective. Empathy. They informed Schnurman’s approach to legal cases no less than they do his Sagaponack sojourns. “I tried cases for 30 years, day in and day out. I always thought of myself as Robin Hood. I took from the rich insurance companies and I gave to working class people, and I changed their life. To me, it was almost like a religion.”
That desire to help the working class remains. He purchased the Mary’s Marvelous building in East Hampton with some friends “because we realized there was a dearth of supply of apartments for couples and single people working in this mecca of asset-based investors,” he says. “Whether it’s the schoolteachers, the people working in the shops, people working at healthcare and medical facilities, all these people need places to live. You could rent a house, but the rentals here are prohibitive.
“We need affordable housing,” he continues. You don’t need to look all that closely to see his passion rising. “People just cannot commute from the west….You’re going to have to have affordable housing or you’re going to have to put in superhighways. One or the other. And they’re not going to put in superhighways. You must give people the opportunity to work here if you want this community to continue to prosper and attract all we need to sustain it.”
Sustainability is a concept close to Schnurman’s heart. This does not waiver whether the source is people or property. “Every development I did, I had to set aside two-thirds of the property for agricultural preserve, to keep it forever for future generations. And I’m a firm believer in that. Land is the key, and if you’re not going to preserve the land, you’re not going to have the land. If you’re not going to preserve our beauty, you’re not going to have our beauty to attract future generations to come here and enjoy everything that we have. There is no place like the Hamptons. If you don’t preserve it, it’s just not going to be there.”