Mary Howell seems to be in a hurry as she enters her San Diego office. She speeds into the building, downing a cup of Starbucks coffee.
"I'm not sure if I'm about to have a heart attack," she says as she races up the staircase.
Like any good attorney, Howell is on the move, talking a million miles per hour until she sits down, leans back in her chair and takes a deep breath.
And then she's back into action.
Howell's demeanor is reflective of the job she's tasked with. As a partner with Epsten Grinnell & Howell law firm, she helps hundreds of homeowners associations manage their day-to-day business.
As quasi-municipalities ranging in size from three-unit apartment complexes to sprawling communities, the associations seek legal advice from Howell, who also helps settle disputes between community members and attends their board meetings.
So, in a way, she's like a motherly city attorney, right?
"Oh please," she says.
But Howell acknowledges that the attorneys in her office do act, in many ways, like city attorneys.
When asked what sort of tasks she performs for her clients, Howell spouts off a seemingly never-ending list of responsibilities.
Many of her duties include the more mundane functions of the homeowners associations, such as drafting the governing documents and organizing local elections.
But, Howell said, she also deals with more sticky circumstances.
"It's a tough business," Howell said. "Homeowners tend to be on the angry side and there's a lot of them out there that are pretty scary people.
"So every once in a while we have to go in there and get restraining orders saying, you know, 'Don't take your car and run it up on the curb where the director is standing and scare the poor gentleman half to death.' 'No, don't call in at midnight time and time again.' 'No, don't walk around the perimeter and stare into his windows late at night - that's a no-no.'"
Howell acknowledges that not all her business encounters are this dramatic. Oftentimes, she works with code compliance issues and various other forms of state legislation to help homeowners associations run their day-to-day business.
But whether she's mediating disputes or merely facilitating everyday governance, Howell says she takes a personal approach to every client.
Her desire to help is evident when she discusses the board meetings she attends. After the interview, she said, she planned to get on the phone with board members in the Coachella Valley -- where she attended a board meeting the previous night -- to make sure their dilemmas were smoothed over.
That's a personal approach for a firm that represents more than 700 homeowners associations throughout California. Howell herself has clients across San Diego and throughout the state.
Her diverse list of clientele reveals that she represents everything from high-rise condominium associations to senior communities in Rancho Bernardo. With so many clients, with such different needs, Howell always finds a way to stay busy.
"In any given day, you're primarily a corporate counsel -- you're telling people how the corporations code and the Davis/Stirling Act works," she said. "But you're also advising them on easement issues, contracting issues, some litigation, some mediation.
"So you get a chance to be very persuasive and to be a power for, hopefully, constructive solutions -- not beat 'em up and lay 'em out solutions."
And, she said, as long as there are communities in need of self-governance, there will be a need for homeowners associations, and the attorneys that go with them.
"There is no shortage of business," she said.