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Legal team of women helps build San Diego

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At the law firm of Sullivan Wertz McDade and Wallace there is an interesting trio of attorneys whose combined skills give clients virtually all of the real estate law services they need. The trio is talented, committed to their clients, passionate about their work, and they are all women: Sandra Brower, Kathleen McKee and Rebecca Michael.

Rebecca Michael, from left, Kathleen McKee and Sandra Brower

While women are making headway in the real estate industry, the field is still dominated by men. The odds of having three women at one law firm with the depth and breadth of talent as these ladies are probably about the same as winning the lottery.

The trio, who internally call themselves the "landladies," didn't set out to create an all-women team nor do they promote themselves that way. It was each attorney's interest in real estate that brought them to Sullivan Wertz McDade & Wallace and that interest is the foundation for their successful working relationship.

Brower enrolled at University of San Diego School of Law back in the mid-1970s after meeting people in law school and the idea of being a lawyer "grabbed" her. She chose real estate law while serving as deputy county counsel at the San Diego County Counsel's office.

"I really enjoy the real estate work, always have," Brower said. "Over the years, the laws have continued to change. As society changes, real estate changes -- you have to stay on top of it."

As an eminent domain litigator with 26 years of experience, Brower has represented her own who's who of clients, including San Diego Unified School District, Western Pacific Housing, D.R. Horton Homes, McMillin Cos., Westfield America, Wakeland Housing, San Pasqual Union School District, Grossmont Healthcare District, Vallecitos Water District, Bancone Capital Funding, as well as many individuals and other companies.

Her current caseload includes assisting the San Diego Unified School District in acquiring land for 13 new schools and representing Horton Plaza in its quest to build a hotel on the south side of the shopping center.

Brower acts as a mediator in eminent domain and related real estate matters. She also is a highly sought after lecturer, making several presentations a year to a variety of groups such as CEB, The Rutter Group, CLE International and Lorman Educational Services.

Michael is the entitlement and land use expert of the team. She works with the clients through the permitting and approval processes to ensure that their projects get off the drawing boards and become a reality. Having gone through the maze of zoning and permitting regulations that can make or break a client's project, Michael has been an advocate for change. She served on the citizen's advisory committee that updated the San Diego City zoning code to create the Land Development Code.

"The old code was extremely complicated and cumbersome to use; it subjected most development to a lengthy and uncertain process," Michael said. "The new code is much more user friendly and provides for a more streamlined and certain process in most cases."

Even before the new code was implemented city-wide, Michael was able to put into action the new code's concept of streamlining and certainty in a project, which is a highlight of Michael's 25-year career -- the Mission City Specific Plan. The plan, based on the new city-wide base zones and regulations, was the blue print for Fenton Marketplace in Mission Valley, home to Costco and Ikea.

"Using the new code, the plan sets forth the required regulations (uses, densities, landscaping, etc.), allowing the developer H.G. Fenton Co. to proceed directly to pulling building permits," Michael said.

Uncertainty in the law is what led Michael to her legal career.

"Toward the end of college, my grandfather's estate, our family farm, was the subject of numerous lawsuits. That experience led me to apply to law school. I chose the practice of land use because of my farming background -- in farming, your land is your livelihood," she said.

McKee took a different route to Sullivan Wertz McDade & Wallace. Unlike the other members of her team, lawyering is McKee's second career. She is a former English teacher and school district administrator, but the study of law, with its emphasis on the power of language, always fascinated her. Fifteen years ago she shifted her fascination with language from the profession of education to the profession of law. Transactional real estate law became her focus after firm founder Leo Sullivan, a well-known real estate and political law attorney introduced her to the creativity involved in documenting the path of a real estate transaction from beginning to end.

It's a path she's glad she took.

"Transactional real estate law involves taking a client's vision -- of a new building, a new school or renovation of a neglected area of a city -- and translating that vision into reality through a legal framework. I find satisfaction in helping clients express their vision in the pragmatic language of legal documents," she said.

McKee's areas of expertise include the acquisition, financing, leasing, construction and sale of commercial real property and school facilities. Her background in education has been an added bonus for such clients as the San Diego Unified School District and the Rancho Santa Fe School District.

"This area of practice still lets me be of service to the community," McKee said. "I especially enjoy working with school districts in all aspects of their facilities' needs to better serve the districts. The redevelopment work we do, where private parties, community members and government entities work together, gives new life to older and neglected areas of a city."

McKee also enjoys the cooperative efforts with which she is usually involved. Unlike Brower and Michael who often are involved with adversarial situations, McKee's typical matters involve "a goal with everyone working toward it." Over the course of her 12-year legal career, she has worked on many notable projects, including biotech research centers developed by Nexus Properties, McMillin's Torrey Highlands and Quarry Creek Shopping Centers, Chula Vista's Gateway re-development projects, ground leases for San Diego Unified School District projects, including the La Jolla High Aquatic Center and the building of a new elementary school in Menifee.

The "landladies" firm, Sullivan Wertz McDade & Wallace is well known for its real estate and land use practice. Founded 25 years ago, 12 of the firm's 18 attorneys have real estate experience. The firm has adopted the slogan "We know San Diego," which could also be "We build San Diego" having been a part of many of the major development projects in town, including Petco Park, Horton Plaza and rebuilding Lincoln High School.

As Brower says, "One of the best aspects of the practice is to see the fruit of our labors. We can drive around town and say 'We were a part of that high rise, a part of that school.'"

Warren is a principal in TW2 Marketing

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