March 01, 2018 GPSolo

A Property Lawyer’s Story

By Kim Sandher

For as long as I can remember, I wanted to become a commercial real estate attorney. If you asked me what a real estate attorney did, I probably couldn’t tell you beyond “writes contracts and stuff.” It was “and stuff” because I myself didn’t really know what the “stuff” was. Despite this, I knew, with bright eyes, this was what I wanted to do with my life.

Even before law school, I was fascinated by big buildings, cranes, and anything and everything relating to construction. A lot of this likely had to do with my dad working in construction when I was a child. I remember excitedly riding to pick him up after work when he worked on the teardown of the local Woolco. For anyone who doesn’t remember, Woolco was an American retail chain that shut down about 25 years ago. Seeing the building being torn down bit by bit was incredibly exciting to me—and it was equally as exciting to think about what was going to spring up on that lot.

The other part of my fascination with commercial real estate probably has to do with being raised on a mushroom farm in a small, rural farming community that eventually became the second-largest city in British Columbia, Canada. Watching Surrey’s transformation amazed me because it seemed so different. I loved watching buildings and infrastructure go up and down, and I wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to be high in the sky, without ever touching anything dirty to get there.

Now that I finally am a real estate attorney, I feel I should be able to define what “and stuff” is. I’ve met with countless attorneys to try to figure it out, brilliant folks who have become my mentors along the way. Even though I’ve been practicing for several years now, it’s when non-lawyers ask me what I do that I realize clearly that even with all my daily experience and all the people I speak to or work with, I haven’t come up with a succinct answer for what I do. What I do know is that I love it.

These are my takeaways for what I do and my best explanation for what it’s like:

Real Estate Is Male Dominated

I attended my very first real property conference in Stevenson, Washington, through the Washington State Bar Association. Like many firsts, it was a memorable experience. My sister joined me for the four-hour road trip from Seattle to what I thought were the boonies of Washington, near the Oregon border. We both were excited about being out in the wilderness for three days and living in the mountains. (The Skamania Lodge was actually a pretty gorgeous, fancy resort that just happened to be in the mountains.) But most of all, I was going to learn all about what it’s like to be a real estate attorney—with my non-lawyer sister by my side.

That weekend when I walked into the massive conference room full of roughly 300 people, my first thought was, “Wow, there are a lot of men here. They’re all white. They’re also all older than me.” Of course, not every single person there was male and white; there were several women and maybe a handful of minorities. Everyone there was definitely older than me. At the end of the day, I saw that most of them fit neatly into a certain type of demographic profile that I did not. I also learned quickly that most people had brought their spouse or significant other, not their sister.

I Am Different

Something I realize every day is that I am different. I am different from many of my peers, and I am different from many of my clients. I was born and raised in Vancouver. I moved to the United States a little over 11 years ago. My parents are immigrants from northern India. As a result, my skin is slightly tanned, I have long, dark hair, and I pronounce pasta as pass-ta instead of pah-sta because we say things a little different up in Canada. I get called out on it often enough that I consciously try not to “talk Canadian.” My experience in Seattle is that few people know to classify me as “Indian.”

Over the years, I’ve found I get a lot of the “so what are you?” question because people can’t place me neatly into a box. I look a little different, but I don’t have an exotic accent, and my name is “Kim.” They’re not being rude. They know that I am human. They’re often just curious, and maybe perplexed, because there are not a lot of real property attorneys who look like me.

The other thing I hear often is “you’re so young!” or “are you an attorney?” I personally don’t think this has anything to do with how confident I am or how capable I am. I do look young, and I take it as a compliment and will enjoy it for as long as it lasts. I choose to see it as a strength rather than a detriment. With the world having changed so much in the past decade or so, I have had the opportunity to live through the days of dial-up Internet where we would get disconnected when someone picked up the landline, to now having a smartphone attached to us every waking hour (and sometimes even sleeping hours).

Lastly, no one wants to outright say that I am a woman or a “little girl,” but a lot of times I know they are thinking it because so few women work in commercial real estate. This makes me even more passionate about my involvement with organizations such as the American Bar Association (ABA) and its Real Property, Trust and Estate Law Section (RPTE) Section, to be visible and to help other women and young attorneys excel in the profession. I want to give them a voice and encourage them to get involved in the section and pursue leadership roles. I want to be an example of a diverse woman lawyer passionate about commercial real estate, and I want to make it known that women belong in this field and can also achieve success.

Being Different Works

Being different works because I stand out. I’ve learned that using unique traits about yourself helps empower others—whether that’s growing up on a farm, being from a small town, looking different, or maybe even having a quirky laugh that makes you stand out. Using these unique characteristics is all advantageous because this is how people remember you and connect with you. This is what makes you real and what makes you human.

How I Got Involved with the American Bar Association

One day, fresh out of law school, while I was doing everything I could to land my dream job, I came across an e-mail blast for an ABA Young Lawyers Division (YLD) scholarship. I had been meeting people for coffees and lunches and volunteering for anything and everything I could to get the experience I wanted and needed. I had a vague idea of what the ABA did, but I was not too familiar with it, other than that it was an organization for lawyers—on a national level. Based on what I read, I loved the idea that I would get to travel to different cities throughout the United States a few times a year and meet motivated young lawyer leaders who were also going to help me be better at what I do.

I discussed the opportunity with two of my mentors, who both encouraged me to apply and spoke fondly of their experiences with the ABA. I applied, not sure if I would be accepted, because my research showed the amazing things past scholars had done with their local bar associations and other organizations. I didn’t think of myself as a leader at that point. Shy and reserved, I thought I was still figuring out what it really meant to be a lawyer. I didn’t think I was in any position to be a leader for other young lawyers. Thus, I was beyond thrilled to learn I was selected as a YLD scholar.

What Made Me Stay

More than seven years later, I have made so many meaningful connections and great friends through the ABA. Every single one of them has been extremely motivated and passionate about helping people, helping the profession, and bettering him- or herself along the way. I have had the opportunity to do things I never would have thought to do on my own, such as present in front of a group of more than 300 people. The first time I did this, I was nervous to the point where I couldn’t even hear myself think, but in retrospect, the experience was thrilling. Perhaps that’s why I’ve volunteered to speak and present many times again after that. My ABA experience has even made me more confident in court for trials and hearings, even though I am now mostly a transactional lawyer. I’ve made friends all over the country who are not only colleagues I can bounce ideas off or see a new perspective from, but people who are like family now. They often refer clients to me when they have someone needing help in the Seattle area.

What Made Me Join the RPTE

In 2014, when the managing partner at my firm encouraged me to attend the Spring Symposia for ABA’s RPTE Section, I knew I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. I was excited for the several days of learning all about current topics in real property. I was serving as chair of the Real Property, Trust and Estate Law Committee of the YLD, and I was very involved with my local bar association’s real property section. This conference meant I could experience all this at a national level with the “big bar” and not just young lawyers.

That May I went to Chicago. I met with an attorney friend, and we went to the conference together. I learned a lot about real property law. Seeing as it was my first RPTE conference, and I had only been practicing for four years, some of it went over my head, but I knew that I would pick it up one day. I wanted to become as knowledgeable as the people giving the talks at the seminars.

RPTE has a two-year fellowship program for young lawyers. It provides fellows with funding and a mentor and puts them directly into the leadership pipeline of the section. I was encouraged to apply for the RPTE fellowship at that first conference. Because I’ve always known that real property is the area of law that I want to focus on, it was a natural fit for me. I applied without hesitation and was excited when I learned I was chosen as a 2014–2016 RPTE Fellow.

I got paired with an amazing mentor who lived all the way on the other side of the country in Florida, but she met up with me in Seattle to introduce herself. She was so friendly, helpful, and well connected; she set up meetings for me with people she knew locally in the Seattle area. Today I work regularly with those same people. I am also now a scholar with the American College of Real Estate Lawyers (ACREL) and have made several local connections in Seattle through ACREL.

There’s a Lot of “stuff”

Through my journey, I have learned a lot of real property “stuff” through the courses I’ve attended at the ABA conferences, the local conferences I’ve attended, the leadership positions I’ve held, the people I’ve met, and the clients I’ve met as a result. I’ve learned that the field of real property law is diverse and can’t be put into a neat little box. It actually is like me. There are many things I get to touch and learn on a day-to-day basis, and every transaction is a little different than the last.

I’ve Still Got a Lot to Learn

I have been practicing as an attorney for almost eight years now. There’s still a lot of “stuff” I am learning every single day. This is why I never get bored of my job. I am constantly learning new things, and I hope to continue to learn and expand my knowledge every single day. Each morning I wake up excited to see what new challenge will present itself. I wouldn’t change this for the world.

Kim Sandher

Kim Sandher is an attorney with Pivotal Law Group, PLLC, in Seattle, Washington. With a background in litigation, she now focuses her practice on transactional commercial real estate and business law. Her work includes acquisition, purchase, sale, leasing, and financing of businesses and commercial real estate. She is a current young scholar with the American College of Real Estate Lawyers. She received a bachelor’s degree from the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, and a juris doctor, with a business focus, from Seattle University.