Future by Design
How real estate lawyer James Abrams has helped shape his adopted town
Published in 2017 Northern California Super Lawyers magazine
By Dan Fost on July 7, 2017
James H. Abrams gets to see San Francisco in a way few people do.
He doesn’t just enjoy visiting the newly enlarged San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; he helped get a fire station moved to make the expansion possible.
He’s not just another music lover enjoying the dazzling SFJAZZ Center—the first standalone building in the country designed for jazz—he worked with First Republic Bank on financing the project.
From the Presidio to the burgeoning port along the bay—both of which are included in the sweeping views from his 40th-floor office at Four Embarcadero Center—Abrams has helped shape the landscape of his adopted city.
A partner at Greene Radovsky Maloney Share & Hennigh, Abrams all but fell into the practice of law after early careers in government and real estate. He spends considerable time on pro bono work in addition to his paying projects, and one often leads into the other.
Even though he often serves in the classically capitalist worlds of finance and real estate, Abrams, 63, is just as liberal socially as in 1968, when he was a middle school student in St. Louis, knocking on doors for Eugene McCarthy. He maintains an interest in politics, and in the past five presidential elections has volunteered as a voter-protection lawyer, both in his native Missouri and in Nevada. In Missouri, he says, he saw voter suppression ranging from demands for photo identification when it wasn’t required, to forcing people to stand outside in the rain even though there was room inside.
Abrams came West to earn his undergraduate degree in political science at Stanford University, following that with a master’s in public policy at UC Berkeley. After working for the Urban Institute and the House Rules Committee in D.C., he returned to California as Ronald Reagan swept into office. He spent five years in Bank of America’s government relations department, then three years handling finance and planning for the senior executives in charge of real estate. “It was only three years, but I talk about it like it was forever,” Abrams says. “In terms of my current career, it was formative.”
He fell in love with real estate work, and as the bank was downsizing in the late 1980s, Abrams merged his interest in real estate with an old dream of going to law school. He pursued his JD at Berkeley’s Boalt Hall.
“I knew I did not want to work at a big law firm,” he says. Instead, he started as a summer associate at Greene Radovsky. More than 25 years later, he’s still there.
“At a large firm, you can get pigeonholed, but I’ve had the opportunity to do a lot of different things,” he says.
He has represented both lenders and borrowers, giving him valuable insight into how each side approaches a deal. “I think it makes me a much better lawyer,” he says. “More practical and results-oriented.”
His knowledge of real estate also helped him in his personal life. He bought his home in the South Beach neighborhood in 2002, just after the dotcoms went bust.
Abrams is a wine-lover and collector, and his firm has represented Francis Ford Coppola from the filmmaker’s earliest forays into the wine business. “He started small, with a small plot in Napa, and now he’s a major wine producer,” Abrams says.
It’s Abrams’ job to help Coppola buy and finance vineyards and facilities. “It’s the dirt,” Abrams says. “It’s the best part.” He also helps wineries with issues involving water—that all-too-precious resource in California—and negotiates easements, railroad track crossings, and all sorts of other real estate issues.
Abrams loves the performing arts and regularly attends the city’s opera, symphony, ballet and modern dance performances. He’s played the clarinet since grade school. Though he doesn’t perform publicly, he still takes lessons—at the Community Music Center, a little-known gem occupying a Victorian in San Francisco’s Mission District. Abrams is the CMC’s pro bono attorney.
As that neighborhood started to gentrify, the owners of the Victorian next door wanted to sell; Abrams helped the CMC close the deal. With acclaimed architect Mark Cavagnero on board, the nonprofit, founded in 1921, is now preparing to unify the two buildings.
Abrams’ pro bono work alone fills a long résumé and includes service for the Northern California Community Loan Fund and SFMOMA. He’s on the board of directors at Legal Aid at Work.
It helps keep his political ardor stoked. “In the era of Trump, Legal Aid is needed more than ever,” he says. Legal Aid, he notes, represented a woman fired by Abercrombie & Fitch in San Francisco in 2010 for wearing a hijab, and represented a girls softball team in Southern California stuck with shabby and even dangerous facilities while the boys baseball team enjoyed a world-class field.
“They do great work like that,” Abrams says. “I don’t do the work. I just help with the finances.”
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