Interview by Shawn S. Dhillon, Esq. – e-News Editor
This month we are pleased to feature an interview with the incoming Chair of the Real Property Law section, Elizabeth Blair, Esq. In this interview you will learn more about Elizabeth’s legal practice, background, and things she enjoys outside of her legal career.
- Tell me about your law practice. What areas of law does your practice cover? What geographic areas do you focus on?
My firm, Blair Law, focuses on real property transactions and litigation, probate and trust litigation and conservatorships. I represent mostly individuals, families and small businesses on commercial leases, purchase and sale agreements, partition and quiet title actions and failure to disclose issues. I also represent parties in probate and trust litigation and conservatorship cases. I have cases in multiple counties in the San Francisco Bay Area but primarily in Napa and Solano Counties.
- You are the new Chair of the Real Property Law section of the California Lawyers Association and have been very involved in the section for several years. What are some exciting things in store for Real Property Law in 2021?
I am humbled and honored to be serving as this year’s Chair of the Real Property Law Section. I am really excited for the Real Property Law Section (“RPLS”) in the 2020-2021 year. Although the Real Property Law Section is still in the planning stages for 2020-2021, educational programming will continue to be provided virtually, we hope to increase the number of monthly webinars and to give the latest case and legal updates in this publication, the e-News. I am especially excited about the focused editions of the Real Property Journal coming out in 2020 and 2021. Later this year, the RPLS will publish the Real Property Journal issue on cannabis related topics. Next year, we will publish the Real Property Journal issue focusing on diversity related topics.
As members of the RPLS, the Executive Committee is here to serve you, our members. If you have ideas for panel topics, want to speak at a webinar or other virtual program or have an article idea you want to submit or want to otherwise be involved in RPLS, we welcome your participation! We would love to have you and hope that you will contribute to all of the great work that RPLS’s Executive Committee and members put on each year. Please feel free to contact me directly, or contact one of the RPLS Executive Committee’s officers, members or advisors. We welcome and encourage your participation and involvement!
- From some online research, it appears you served as a federal government attorney before starting your own law firm. Can you tell us a little more about that role?
Prior to opening Blair Law, I served as a Deployable Field Counsel for the United States Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). In this role, I travelled to disaster operations either just before or immediately after an emergency or major disaster declaration was made by the President of the United States. I provided legal counsel to the Federal Coordinating Officer (appointed by the President to lead and coordinate the federal government’s response) and FEMA staff and served as a member of the executive management team on disaster response and recovery operations. I provided legal advice on issues related to the implementation of FEMA’s Public Assistance program (which aids state and local governments and certain eligible non-profit organizations), Privacy Act compliance, wrote contracts and other Memoranda of Understanding and served as a Certified Ethics Counselor giving advice on government ethics rules and the Hatch Act. I assisted in New York following Hurricane Sandy, in North Dakota following the floods in Minot and was embedded with the federal team at the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency following the Boston Marathon Explosions.
- If you could go back five years, what advice would you give your younger self?
About five years ago was when I decided to open Blair Law. I am so glad that I decided to go out on my own. I think if I could go back five years, or maybe even longer, I would give myself the advice to do it. It will be the best decision you ever made.
- Do you remember when you first decided that you wanted to become an attorney?
In my third year of college at UCLA, I decided to take a quarter off and do a career program in Washington, D.C. I was an intern in Washington at the Superior Court of the District of Columbia in the juvenile probation department. In this role, I reviewed juvenile cases to determine placement until each child’s adjudication. I would review the child’s criminal history, any interaction that the child and his or her family had with social services and make recommendations to the court as to where to place that child until their adjudication – either at home with conditions, in some sort of youth group home with conditions or at Oak Hill, the juvenile detention facility in Washington. I was working primarily with one probation officer and one day, on our way downstairs to the courtroom, he informed me that I would be presenting in court that day. I told him no but he gave me so kind reassuring words to encourage me to do the presentations. I was so nervous, stumbled over my words, and it was completely terrifying. Somehow though, as the days passed and I continued to make presentations to the court, I became more confident and eventually the judges started asking questions and the presentations became interactive. I found that I loved it and that was when I started considering going to law school.
- What made you want to choose law as a career?
I really enjoyed being in the courtroom when I was in Washington. In my senior year at UCLA, I knew I wanted to go to graduate school. I was debating between wanting to be a forensic psychologist (criminal profiler) or an attorney. Ultimately, I chose to go to law school.
- After law school, you also completed a Master of Laws (LLM). Why did you pursue an LLM? What was the LLM experience like compared to law school?
My Master of Laws (LLM) is in International Law from the University of San Diego School of Law. I was interested in international work either at the United Nations or at an international tribunal. My coursework focused primarily on international topics: international trade, international arbitration, international business transactions, public international law, and international civil litigation. I was also able to do a summer program in Den Haag (“The Hague” in English) through American University School of Law completing courses in International Terrorism and International Criminal Law. During this summer program, the class visited all of the tribunals located in Den Haag including the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Court.
Obtaining a Master of Laws degree was much less stressful than law school. First, I had already taken and passed the California Bar Exam. Next, the coursework was similar to what I took in law school as the classes are also offered to juris doctor candidates. Surprisingly, I obtained the highest grade in one of my classes, international arbitration.
- It appears you have lived in several different areas of California. You completed your undergraduate degree at UCLA, law school in Sacramento, LLM in San Diego, and your law firm is in Napa. What is your favorite place and why?
I think each place has its own unique dynamics. My favorite is probably San Diego. I like how friendly people are in San Diego. You are also so close to the beach. When I was getting my LLM, I lived in Ocean Beach (part of San Diego) about half a block from the beach. One of my favorite and usual running routes was from my apartment along Sunset Cliffs to the end of Sunset Cliffs. Sunset Cliffs runs directly above the ocean. I loved to stop and stare out over the vastness of the ocean. It was so peaceful and calming.
- What other jobs did you had prior to becoming an attorney? Which of these jobs was the most interesting? Why?
My first job was at a frozen yogurt shop in Napa. I also worked in retail, at a pizza restaurant and when I was in college, I worked at the coffee and ice cream shop on campus. I would go back to my dorm room smelling like coffee and up to my elbows in stickiness from scooping the ice cream. After college and prior to law school, I worked at a mid-size law firm in west L.A. as a file clerk. After taking the bar exam, Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana. I went to my local American Red Cross chapter and volunteered to go help. Although it wasn’t a paid job, that was definitely the most interesting. I was in Baton Rouge for about a week before going up to Alexandria, Louisiana. It was so interesting to meet and talk to the disaster survivors and to hear their stories.
- Other than what you do now, what’s the most interesting or unique job you’ve ever had? Why?
My most interesting job was probably my role at FEMA. When I was in law school, I never would have imagined that I would be living and working in Manhattan helping with the federal government’s response to a hurricane that hit New York. Additionally, my assignment for the Boston Marathon explosions was particularly interesting. The legal issues that arose after that emergency declaration were unique in that the explosions were a man-made event and one that arose in the middle of a multi-jurisdictional endurance event involving multiple emergency response personnel from a multitude of various agencies and departments.
- What part of your law practice excites you the most?
What I enjoy most about practicing law is that it is dynamic. The law is constantly changing and evolving and there is always something new and different to learn.
- What are your hobbies outside of practicing law?
My hobbies are traveling, baking, hiking, biking, swimming and playing with our dogs, Maya and Wilbur.
- What do you do to try to balance your life with work? Does being a triathlete and the training that entails help?
Balancing work and life is important. Even though I started doing endurance events in 2008 when I trained for the San Diego Rock n Roll Marathon, I got accustomed to waking up early when I started training for my first triathlon. Being able to balance the triathlon training with work required a plan. I continue to do races because the training keeps me focused and grounded.
Playing and walking with my dog, Maya also helps me balance life with work. Maya and I get up early and go walk. I love how quiet and peaceful it is at that time of the morning.
- You were also Vice-Director for Disaster Legal Services of the American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division. Can you tell us more about that?
The American Bar Association’s Disaster Legal Services program provides pro bono legal services to those impacted by a major disaster through a Memorandum of Understanding with the FEMA. Disaster Legal Services is one of the component parts of the FEMA’s Individual Assistance program.
The American Bar Association’s Young Lawyer Division Disaster Legal Services Director and Vice-Directors help implement the Disaster Legal Services program directly with the FEMA. As one of the Vice-Directors for the Disaster Legal Services program, I assisted with the training for the District Representatives who were the ones who actually implemented the Disaster Legal Services program in a specific geographic location, answered questions that the District Representatives had about the program and participated in meetings with FEMA officials on Disaster Legal Services program implementation. Additionally, in my last year as a Vice Director, I became interim (unofficial) director and helped administer the Disaster Legal Services program in American Samoa after an earthquake struck the island.
Disaster Legal Services is generally established through a hotline set up by the District Representative for that particular area which is staffed by volunteer attorneys to assist those impacted by a major disaster. The legal questions do not have to be disaster related and there is no income limitation so anyone who wants legal assistance can get it. The volunteer attorneys are only able to take on the cases on a pro bono basis. Throughout the time that Disaster Legal Services has been in existence it has provided hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars of free legal help to disaster survivors.
- Who is the most famous person you have ever met? Tell me about the experience.
As I noted in one of my prior answers, I went to college at UCLA. Little known fact, or maybe widely known to those in the Los Angeles area, the film premieres for Hollywood’s biggest movies are held frequently (or at least they were when I was in school) at the two theaters in Westwood about a block from the edge of UCLA’s campus. There were consistently roads blocked off and big movie stars around for these premieres. I met several famous people while there.
I think the famous person I was most proud to meet was U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. Justice Kennedy taught at McGeorge School of Law prior to his time on the bench and continued to teach a class in Salzburg, Austria while serving as a Justice on the Supreme Court. It was amazing to listen to him talk about United States constitutional rights and how those rights differ from the rights under the European Convention on Human Rights which was the subject of the class he co-taught in Austria. I met him and his wife again at one of the State Bar of California annual meetings several years ago and told him that I had been in his class in Austria.