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In-house counsel for Simon Property Group embraces the legalities of shopping

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In-House Counsel

Going to the mall isn’t an off-hours activity for Jason Schiesser.

That’s where the Indianapolis attorney’s mind must go every day when he goes to work, as one of the many in-house corporate counsel for the nation’s largest shopping mall owner, Simon Property Group. The 34-year-old focuses on mall-specific legal issues and often makes a visit to the places where millions of shoppers spend their time either in person or online and pump countless dollars into the economy.

Not exactly where Schiesser expected he’d end up as a kid who grew up on “the wrong side of the tracks.” The 34-year old attorney said he often ponders how he ended up where he is today despite starting out on a much different path as a child.

“I was given the chance to shape my future rather than allowing my childhood circumstances to shape me,” he said.
 

schiesser Jason Schiesser serves as corporate counsel for the nation’s largest shopping mall owner, Simon Property Group. (IL Photo/ Perry Reichanadter)

Growing up on the outskirts of Valparaiso with little money, Schiesser had a dream of attending college ever since elementary school when he’d watch Indiana University basketball with his dad. Neither of his parents were college graduates, but they worked to make sure their son had access to the best schools and could move on to college, he recalls. Aside from being exposed to neighborhood theft, violence, and criminal activity, Schiesser suffered a kidney infection at age 9 and recovered after a few weeks, but then at 15 he suffered from a mal seizure and was put on medication that took him away from competitive sports.

College gave him a fresh start. He worked multiple jobs and received the Valparaiso Dollars for Scholars renewable $500 scholarship, which gave him a total $4,000 to use for his education at Indiana University in Bloomington.

Graduating summa cum laude in 2001 from Indiana University School of Law – Indianapolis, Schiesser went to work at Baker & Daniels where he had served as a summer associate. Working in the firm’s business and finance group, he says his responsibilities included primarily transactional work for cities and developers, such as the Circle Centre Mall refinancing, Lucas Oil Stadium financing, and the Conrad and Simon headquarters building projects.

“Now, I’m over here at Simon and get to see things from a little different perspective,” Schiesser said, noting that he went in-house in May 2006. “I’m doing something completely different than what I was doing on the other side, and I’m more of a corporate generalist.”

As one of more than 30 lawyers working in various legal departments for Simon, Schiesser is one of six in the legal operations department. Legal operations, he says, handles “pretty much everything” outside of the other divisions including legal finance on mortgages and acquisitions, real estate development, and leasing.

“There is a lot of overlap, but we work mostly alongside the folks in other groups that are more specialized,” he said. “We serve as legal advisors to executive management here at corporate, and also servicing the 400 shopping centers across the country.”

Schiesser’s work day may involve litigation or contract negotiation/review involving commercial, employment, or real estate matters of law as well as risk management policies and procedures. Schiesser said each attorney in his division handles on average 150 to 200 pieces of active litigation at a time that might impact hundreds of operations, including commercial shopping mall matters, lease disputes, or slip and fall cases.

“It all keeps us busy and on our toes,” he said. “We do a lot of work in-house and pre-litigation dispute resolution in our group before it might turn into litigation, and then we might actively manage it. In most cases, we get local counsel to handle the day-to-day litigation in that location.”

As the economy has worsened in recent years, Schiesser said he’s noticed an overall increase in litigation. But he points to Simon’s growth rather than the economy as a main reason for the increase.

In the past year, Simon has completed a $2.3 billion purchase of Prime Outlet malls that added 21 shopping centers to the company, Schiesser said, and it continues looking to increase its portfolio nationally and overseas.

“We continue to grow, which in turn results in more property to service and more work generally,” he said. “We’re fortunate to have weathered the recession well and like to view ourselves as a leader in the retail real estate industry. We’ve demonstrated through stock performance and growth and income that we deserve that distinction.”

Schiesser said his division spends a good amount of time on landlord-tenant disputes, since the shopping malls essentially become like mini-cities and “differences of opinion” often come up. Someone might call to ask how to remove a customer or tenant because of complaints, or how to deal with merchants selling merchandise that potentially infringes on another merchant and whether that qualifies as grounds to terminate a lease.

More recent trends in the shopping industry keep Schiesser on his toes, such as how real brick-and-mortar centers can compete with online shopping sites. Simon has been trying to connect customers more online, such as developing an iPhone application specifically for Simon Malls that offers discounts for shoppers. Another focus has been adding a tool that tracks customers going in and out of stores and giving shoppers an instant discount or coupon once they enter that store, Schiesser said.

Reviewing those shopping center legalities combined with security reporting issues has been an interesting challenge, Schiesser said. It brings a whole new level of understanding because you’re not only a legal advisor, but also a business advisor who must spot potential hurdles down the road.

“Technology is driving a lot of the changes, but at the end of the day people still want to come shop,” he said. “We’re trying to make these centers the places to go, but offer main street fairness for everyone involved.”

Despite the growth and activity level, the past year has been a tough one for the Indianapolis-based Simon – specifically because of the November 2009 death of one of its named founders, Melvin Simon, and continued litigation between family members over that personal estate. Schiesser said the company’s growth has kept most of the legal staff busy and focused and they don’t have much involvement in those ongoing legal issues, but losing Melvin Simon did hit many in the company hard.

“Losing Melvin was a big blow to the gut, just because he was a founding father of the company,” Schiesser said. “But he hadn’t been as involved recently, and thankfully David (Simon, Melvin’s son) is an incredible visionary and a fantastic leader. The mantle had already been passed, and so there wasn’t a letdown at all and we have been able to keep moving.”

Schiesser said he sees the in-house world giving him a chance to become a more creative attorney than if he’d stayed in private practice.

“You’re no longer the revenue-generating part of the practice, you’re part of the overhead and have to prove and demonstrate your strategic value,” he said. “Some refer to in-house attorneys as the ‘business prevention department,’ but we don’t want to be an impediment. We want to work with our business people and help them succeed.”

Schiesser is a new board member of the Indiana chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel this year, and his colleagues there say he’s been an asset to the organization and his experience with Simon brings a valuable perspective for other in-house attorneys.

Mark Clark, general counsel at Finish Line and chapter vice president, says the group’s mix of fun and educational seminars give members a chance to interact with those attorneys like Schiesser, who might see a variety of issues statewide and nationally from a multi-lawyer legal department perspective and be able to communicate with small or solo in-house counsel about those matters. Schiesser agreed with that, and said he enjoys the opportunity to serve in that capacity.

Aside from his legal community work, Schiesser stays active as a mentor in the community to young girls and boys. He continues working with the Dollars for Scholars program and has been a Big Brother for almost 10 years, as well as staying involved in other community initiatives and his church.

“It’s always good to give back,” he said. “I have a soft spot for people working through their own challenges, and think it’s important that they have that same kind of opportunity that I did. People in this profession, sometimes we forget or lose sight of that. But you never know the impact you may have on someone else’s life, no matter how small or short the interaction is.”•

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  1. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  2. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

  3. Diversity is important, but with some limitations. For instance, diversity of experience is a great thing that can be very helpful in certain jobs or roles. Diversity of skin color is never important, ever, under any circumstance. To think that skin color changes one single thing about a person is patently racist and offensive. Likewise, diversity of values is useless. Some values are better than others. In the case of a supreme court justice, I actually think diversity is unimportant. The justices are not to impose their own beliefs on rulings, but need to apply the law to the facts in an objective manner.

  4. Have been seeing this wonderful physician for a few years and was one of his patients who told him about what we were being told at CVS. Multiple ones. This was a witch hunt and they shold be ashamed of how patients were treated. Most of all, CVS should be ashamed for what they put this physician through. So thankful he fought back. His office is no "pill mill'. He does drug testing multiple times a year and sees patients a minimum of four times a year.

  5. Brian W, I fear I have not been sufficiently entertaining to bring you back. Here is a real laugh track that just might do it. When one is grabbed by the scruff of his worldview and made to choose between his Confession and his profession ... it is a not a hard choice, given the Confession affects eternity. But then comes the hardship in this world. Imagine how often I hear taunts like yours ... "what, you could not even pass character and fitness after they let you sit and pass their bar exam ... dude, there must really be something wrong with you!" Even one of the Bishop's foremost courtiers said that, when explaining why the RCC refused to stand with me. You want entertaining? How about watching your personal economy crash while you have a wife and five kids to clothe and feed. And you can't because you cannot work, because those demanding you cast off your Confession to be allowed into "their" profession have all the control. And you know that they are wrong, dead wrong, and that even the professional code itself allows your Faithful stand, to wit: "A lawyer may refuse to comply with an obligation imposed by law upon a good faith belief that no valid obligation exists. The provisions of Rule 1.2(d) concerning a good faith challenge to the validity, scope, meaning or application of the law apply to challenges of legal regulation of the practice of law." YET YOU ARE A NONPERSON before the BLE, and will not be heard on your rights or their duties to the law -- you are under tyranny, not law. And so they win in this world, you lose, and you lose even your belief in the rule of law, and demoralization joins poverty, and very troubling thoughts impeaching self worth rush in to fill the void where your career once lived. Thoughts you did not think possible. You find yourself a failure ... in your profession, in your support of your family, in the mirror. And there is little to keep hope alive, because tyranny rules so firmly and none, not the church, not the NGO's, none truly give a damn. Not even a new court, who pay such lip service to justice and ancient role models. You want entertainment? Well if you are on the side of the courtiers running the system that has crushed me, as I suspect you are, then Orwell must be a real riot: "There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always — do not forget this, Winston — always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever." I never thought they would win, I always thought that at the end of the day the rule of law would prevail. Yes, the rule of man's law. Instead power prevailed, so many rules broken by the system to break me. It took years, but, finally, the end that Dr Bowman predicted is upon me, the end that she advised the BLE to take to break me. Ironically, that is the one thing in her far left of center report that the BLE (after stamping, in red ink, on Jan 22) is uninterested in, as that the BLE and ADA office that used the federal statute as a sword now refuses to even dialogue on her dire prediction as to my fate. "C'est la vie" Entertaining enough for you, status quo defender?

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