City Person

Pamela Duffy loves San Francisco, which makes sense—she’s behind some of its most successful developments

Published in 2010 Northern California Super Lawyers magazine

By Rose Nisker on July 8, 2010


Walking through the streets of San Francisco with land use and real estate attorney Pamela Duffy is like getting a backstage tour of the city’s past two decades of development. Yerba Buena Gardens, AT&T Park, Levi’s Plaza, Cal Pacific Medical Center, Westfield San Francisco Centre—she’s the power broker behind them all.

Duffy represents clients in all stages of development, and much of her energy is spent dealing with government agencies on everything from roads and sewers to big public-policy issues. When she served as lead counsel to Farallon Capital Management in connection with the $2 billion Mission Bay project, an urban infill that she lists as one of her favorites, Duffy needed to get 82 agency approvals. “I think every organization with a letterhead had something to do with it,” she says, rolling her eyes.

Sitting in her office at Coblentz, Patch, Duffy & Bass, just one floor above the Ferry Building’s lively commercial hub, Duffy contemplates the nature of a city. “Cities are organic—they crack and they sway. They’re exciting and alive,” she says. And for those city-dwellers who might be wary of a new restaurant opening in their neighborhood and increasing the sound quotient, Duffy shrugs. “Cities make noise on Friday nights.”

Now a happily settled Russian Hill resident, Duffy grew up shuttling between Los Angeles and northern Wisconsin in what she describes as a “chaotic” childhood. Her father died when she was an infant, and when her mother remarried and started a new family, Duffy was raised largely by an aunt who had nine children of her own. “I’m the oldest of four in one grouping and the middle of 10 in another,” she says.

She spent her childhood navigating between the worlds of the two states, where, she recalls, “Even the fashion ensembles were radically different. It was a very big deal to have penny loafers and socks in Wisconsin, but in Los Angeles that was completely uncool.”

For Duffy, the early chaos of her life contributed to her interest in law. “I was pretty fond of rules, and I liked to know the parameters of things, and why things happened.”

Growing up, Duffy says, “I saw that the law, at its best, could be a fair and dispassionate place where people of all economic, social, and intellectual backgrounds and capabilities could meet on a level playing field.”

Before pursuing law school, Duffy earned her undergraduate degree in political science from California State University-Los Angeles. She arrived on campus during the late ’60s, the height of the hippie era. “I had a very authentic experience,” she says with an impish look. After graduating, Duffy moved east to work on Sen. Ed Muskie’s presidential campaign, and then to Washington, D.C., where she was a legislative assistant to Sen. Alan Cranston.

During her stint with Cranston, the young political operative was introduced to the Legal Services Coporation legislation, designed and co-sponsored by the senator in an effort to provide legal assistance to the poor. Inspired, Duffy decided to go to law school at Loyola Law School.

During school, the budding attorney worked full time campaigning for the California Democratic Party. “All I did was work, study, and maybe sleep a little bit here and there,” she says, shaking her head. She received some scholarship money in her third year, but still continued to work part time. And she still found time to get elected to the St. Thomas More Law Honor Society and serve as a lead articles editor of the Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review.

She assumed she would pursue legal services work, but she took a corporate tax and securities course and enjoyed it. “I had never been exposed to that kind of stuff before,” she says.

After graduating in 1978, she took a job in corporate securities at the Los Angeles firm Manatt Phelps. Soon after, she got married and moved to San Francisco.

She knew about the Coblentz firm and its reputation for hiring lawyers with social policy backgrounds. “I came to the firm and was surrounded by a group of extremely smart people who were dong admirable things,” she says. “The lawyers at Coblentz introduced me to how real estate and land use are huge social policy issues.”

To this day, Duffy finds fulfillment in figuring out how to navigate all the elements that go into a development project, from social policy goals and economic goals to environmental issues. Whether she’s ushering through the development of a 43,000-seat park for the San Francisco Giants or helping to create an $18.2 million Presidio headquarters for the Family Violence Prevention Fund, Duffy says, “I love finding a pathway to a shared conclusion. Then we can build something great.”

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