Mary Murphy

An Executive Interview with Mary Murphy

The Executive Summary is a brief video series in which Bay Area real estate and land use professionals discuss the arc of their careers, personal interests, and the impact of ULI on their careers.

An Executive Interview with Mary Murphy


Mary G. Murphy is the Partner-in-Charge of the San Francisco office of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher and a member of the firm’s Real Estate Practice Group. She also is a member of the Firm’s Diversity Committee. Ms. Murphy represents a wide variety of developers and investors in real estate transactions and land use issues, with particular experience in historic preservation and tax credits for historic rehabilitation projects.

Ms. Murphy represented Treasure Island Community Developers in its successful negotiations to redevelop Treasure Island, a former naval base in the San Francisco Bay. She is also counsel to two of the largest proposed sustainable infill projects in the Bay Area, the redevelopment of 700 acres in Brisbane by Universal Paragon Corporation and the successfully entitled 312-acre Parkmerced Complex by Stellar Management. Ms. Murphy also currently represents Lucasfilm in connection with their properties in Marin County, and the Golden State Warriors in its negotiations with the City and Port of San Francisco for the development of a new basketball arena in San Francisco. She is legal counsel to Westfield America, the developer of the $420 million public/private retail and entertainment complex, the Westfield San Francisco Centre, an urban 1-million-square-foot retail and entertainment complex, and also assisted Westfield in its acquisition of the 350,000-square foot SONY Metreon, an urban dining, gaming, music, exhibition, shopping, and movie entertainment complex, located in downtown San Francisco.

Appointed by both Presidents Clinton and Bush, Ms. Murphy served two terms on the Presidio Trust Board. Ms. Murphy was named to the list of “100 Most Influential Women in Bay Area Business” by the San Francisco Business Times several times, including in 2012, and was named one of the Top 100 Lawyers in the State of California in 2011 and 2012 by the Daily Journal and the Recorder, respectively, as well as a California Lawyer of the Year by California Lawyer magazine in 2007.

Mary Murphy is very active in the ULI San Francisco District Council. She has participated in the YLG Mentor Program and the annual Learn from the Best program.

Full Interview Transcript

My name is Mary Murphy. I’m a partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher which is a law firm here in San Francisco.

First Job in Real Estate

Like a lot of young lawyers, you end up doing the work that your firm that you’re at is doing. We did a lot of real estate work at my first law firm. I found I really enjoyed it much more so than I would have expected because I had no background whatsoever. A lot of what I really enjoyed about it was not just the nature of the actual work but the people were fantastic. The clients were so great and so much fun to work with. I just really enjoyed the experience of working with the clients. I’ve got committed to doing real estate, really just because real estate people are so much fun.

Best Career Advice

I think a lot of the career advice that I would think about for myself personally really has to do more with trying to balance being a working mother and a career in real estate and as a lawyer specifically. I think that a lot of what, the best advice actually probably I never got myself of but I think it’s the best advice that’s out there at the moment, which is Sheryl Sandberg’s advice to young women generally in all sorts of professions which is to not work against yourself, to not contribute to sidelining yourself and your career too early. That’s her concept of leaning in and not leaning out. But I think that that notion that your kids are only young for a very limited period of time and that you need to keep your hand in and stay engaged and continue to grow intellectually. This too shall pass. People aren’t in diapers forever, your kids get older and things change.

Proudest Career Accomplishments

I think that that’s really good advice to people and that’s the advice I’d pass along to other similarly-situated women especially the younger women who are coming up that you need to play the long game. I think that, it’s just limited to a small group of people I realize. Women who choose to have families and are doing that juggling thing. But I think if more women kept the faith no matter what they’re doing in their profession, we’d have better representation of women in a lot of fields.

There are several projects that I’ve worked on over the years in development that I am particularly proud of. One is the Ferry Building. I represented the developers of the Ferry Building which I think is a fantastic amenity to the city. It’s beautiful obviously and a national historic landmark. But it’s really something that is giving back to the community, it’s really a gathering place. It’s really that concept of place making.

Another is the Presidio Trust. I was on the Presidio Trust for 8 years. I was on the original board. I was appointed by President Clinton and then re-appointed by Bush 43. I served on that board for 8 years in its infancy. I feel like we did a lot of heavy lifting to get a federal agency off the ground and get it running. We did a couple of very significant transactions which I was directly, personally responsible. The remediation agreement among the Army Department of the Interior and the Presidio Trust which I was the principal negotiator on that.

The Letterman deal with Lucas Film. I was the principal negotiator on behalf of the trust on that transaction. Those are really critical to the long-term fiscal health of the Presidio and preserving it as a national park. I think if I would say my great legacy project actually, is probably the work I did at the Presidio in the first 8 years of the trust’s existence.

Toughest Career Challenge(s)

I think the great challenge for people who do what I do which is development work in particular is dealing with the fear of change that people have. I think that’s not a challenge that’s, it’s not a once in time challenge unfortunately for those of us in development. It is a constant challenge because we’re always the agents of change. As a consequence of that, you end up dealing a lot, there’s a lot heat and often very little light around the issues dealing with the development, that was true with the Presidio.

It’s even true of wildly popular projects like the Ferry Building where we had to do a lot of persuading of the Park Service to get them to let us do the program that we had planned for the building. Now it’s an enormous success but I think that there is always the tension of the fear that people bring to bear in situations. A little bit of fear mongering quite honestly that you have to try to be patient and explain to people. Eventually you’ll bring along a lot of people who are sincere and people of good will. The people who are not sincere, you just have to learn to live with the fact that you will never bring them along. I think that’s just a good lesson for life generally.

Impact of Forces: Past & Future

I think for the state of California, the California Environmental Quality Act is probably the thing that over the course of my career of practicing law has become the most burdensome to the state generally and to development in particular. It keeps spinning out. Every year, there are significant cases that come out. It’s a very busy and constantly changing area of the law. There’s been modest reform just in this last legislative cycle. But it’s very difficult to reform it. I think it has proven to be a really bad thing ultimately in practice. It had good intentions but it’s actually been used and abused quite a bit.

The truth is we spend a lot of time collectively as a society and a lot of money, and I’m saying this as somebody who collects legal fees in this area but I think it’s not money well spent. I don’t think it actually at the end of the day really does what it’s intended to do for the most part. Given how much it cost and how burdensome it is to the society, it does the benefits that, there are sometimes occasional benefits and real positive outcomes that attend it but the cost of that is much greater than the benefit. I think it’s something that really requires reform for California to be a competitive and really a more environmentally-sound place.

Ironically it’s used to block the sorts of developments that are exactly the sort of thing that you would want to encourage to have a more environmentally sustainable society. Yet, I must admit I’m a little discouraged at the prospect of that getting rectified anytime in the near future.

Favorite Places and Buildings

In the Bay Area, there are a lot of fantastic buildings and places here in San Francisco and in the Bay Area. A lot of the museums in town I think are just amazing resources not just for what’s inside and outside. I think the Golden Gate Park itself has become just with the [inaudible 00:07:27] being rebuilt and the California Academy of Sciences, they’re so great. The content is so great. The buildings are so great. I think it’s an amazing accomplishment that those things have been done.

As I mentioned earlier the Ferry building, I think the Presidio has been enormous, we’ve made incredible progress in beautifying and taking the place and bringing it forward to the public. We have a huge advantage here. Quite honestly it’s hard not to look around the Bay Area and be smitten by how gorgeous it is. It’s just so naturally beautiful. Years ago my kids went to Africa for the summer and they had to bring a present. They had homestays with families and it was very hard to figure out what to bring. Because it couldn’t be perishable and all sorts of stuff had to travel around in their, God only knows what else they had in that suitcase, a lot of dirty laundry. I decided to send these big color photograph picture books of San Francisco. The whole villages gathered around to look at these picture books that my kids had. They couldn’t believe my kids lived in this place. They kept saying, “You live here?” Because they couldn’t get over how gorgeous it was. My kids were like, “Yeah, we do.”

I think that’s something that, it’s really an unparalleled level of beauty. There are so many other gorgeous places in the world. I don’t mean in any way to give them a short stick. It’s hard to beat what’s right out the window there. It’s pretty incredible.

How do you unwind?

I enjoy spending time with my family which is really being in the outdoors in the Bay Area, something that is such a delight to be able to do that. I live very near the Presidio so I can just walk right out my front door and be in the trees in 3 minutes which is such a luxury. I just enjoy doing that, to just wander out.

I walk out to a beautiful cemetery overlook, a very moving memorial that was actually put in by Bob and Kathy Burke, who I’m sure you know, Bob from AMB and Prologis. It was such a generous thing to do and it’s gorgeous. I just love walking out there and there’s this beautiful Archibald Macleish poem that they have there. That is really a great thing to do and just hang out with my kids and my husband.

I have a very, very big family. My husband’s one of nine kids and I’m one of five. We have 12 siblings between the two of us and tons of kids and nephews and nieces. We spend a lot of time with family and that’s really, to me what it’s all about at the end of the day, and reading. I spend a lot of time reading.

ULI’s Impact on Career

ULI is such a great resource. It’s not only the sort of thing that you can go… it’s obviously such a resource to professionals in terms of providing great information and cutting edge analysis of things, they’re fantastic. When we (ULI) have a gathering, they are so well-done and the panels are so interesting. You get the best people. There’s a frankness that people bring to bear when they speak about issues. That’s really, it’s very helpful actually. We get people not selling you anything. They’re really speaking frankly about both the challenges and the rewards of the things that they’ve done, strategic things to think about.

I think that ULI has done a fantastic job of encouraging that kind of commerce among its members. It’s a very impressive organization in terms of being able to have sustained that high level of incredible program production and participation from people across the country. It’s so much fun because you get to meet people in other places and talk to them about what’s going on in their world and think about how they’ve come at challenges. I think it’s a very productive opportunity to exchange ideas. It feels like ULI has done something very magical in terms of being able to create this environment where those are the base rules. Like everybody is out there to help each other and to learn from one another. I think that’s a big accomplishment actually for ULI to have fostered such a great culture of its members.

The Executive Summary: Season 2 was developed by Rob DeWaters, Virginia Rocha, Ashley Camps, and John Means. It aims to foster wider professional and personal connections across the ULI San Francisco membership.