Amy McClain Talks New Ballard Spahr Real Estate Role

McClain is the first woman to hold this leadership role guiding 130 real estate attorneys around the country

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Amy M. McClain took the reins as chair of Ballard Spahr’s real estate department last month, and has hit the ground running, ready to tackle new deals across a number of property sectors.

Based in Ballard’s Baltimore office, McClain is the first woman to hold this leadership role at the firm guiding 130 real estate attorneys around the country, after serving as practice leader of the law firm’s Affordable Housing and Community Development Group. She replaces Bart I. Mellits, who in nine years helped grow the number of attorneys within Ballard’s real estate department and expand the firm to new regions.

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A University of Maryland Law School graduate, McClain has spent the past two decades at Ballard, beginning as a summer associate before becoming a partner in 2011. She has a deep background in affordable housing transactions, representing public housing authorities and developers to spearhead mixed-finance transactions.

McClain spoke with Commercial Observer about the path to her new role, the sectors she wants to focus on going forward and the markets Ballard is interested in expanding into.

Commercial Observer: What has the transition been like in terms of taking over from Bart?

Amy McClain: Bart has a very generous spirit, and he’s very gracious and supportive of his team. So when he asked me to consider this [role], I knew that I wouldn’t have to worry about it being challenging from a lack of information, because he would do everything he could to help impart his knowledge base and how he approaches the job. He still helps me with some of the transitioning. The role is invigorating, exciting and a little daunting, but it’s also pretty cool. I credit Bart and also our director of practice management, Annette Tranchitella, with supporting me [along the way].

What is the significance of your new role, with you being the first woman to lead this practice?

It’s something I didn’t necessarily anticipate when I started practicing. Frankly, I didn’t think I’d be [working] within a law firm when I started law school. So to still be practicing at a firm and enjoying that practice, then being asked to lead a department was really unanticipated. 

I’ve seen the firm from a lot of different angles, and I think that’s been very helpful leading up to this point. And I think for the firm, it’s just another testament to the fact that we are definitely a “rising tide raises all boats” kind of place and very engaged in the development of our attorneys, and what we can bring to the practice, regardless of what our practice is.

The firm engages attorneys across departments, across offices and both men and women, and we try to be as inclusive as possible.

You have been at Ballard since you were a summer associate. What is it that’s kept you there for so long?

I think it’s the engagement and the recognition that this work is not easy, but the firm does a really good job of trying to give you the tools to do the best you can, and to be challenged and fulfilled, but not burned out. And, I think the fact that we rely on each other. We are supportive and interested in our development, not only as good attorneys, but good people. It’s a good home.

When in your career did you know that you wanted to concentrate on the real estate side of the business?

I’ve always been enthralled with how communities function and how they’re put together. I went to school in [Washington,] D.C., and it was a really great place to come of age with all the different dynamic elements that a city like D.C. offers. I was interested in the community development aspect of it, so what do we do about the communities that are not as vibrant, but essential to grow and improve so that we maintain the vibrancy of our cities? 

How did your experience as practice leader of the affordable housing and community development group prepare you for this new expanded role?

It involves a good bit of goal setting, identifying opportunities and connecting people with others who could complement and expand our work and the value that we bring to that work. I really enjoy helping people make connections, and finding how to best use the tools and the gifts that they are given. So in some ways, I feel like I’m doing that but across a bigger group now.

Which other sectors are you focused on tackling?

I think that the infrastructure bill will be a game-changer for a lot of the different industries. We were already seeing — before the Build Back Better infrastructure bill came along — an increasing focus on revitalizing and developing for the first time, the industrial areas in our communities. You look in Baltimore, for example, there’s what is colloquially called, “the Under Armour campus,” and it’s been referred to as a city within a city, the amount of development that’s going to happen there. And our firm worked on that and did the largest [Tax Increment Financing] in Baltimore history for that development and there are a bunch of cranes in the sky for the first time. It’s bringing back a sense of development and vibrancy in Baltimore. Similarly, there are projects along the waterfront and industrial areas in Philadelphia [like] The [Hilco Redevelopment Partners] project, and our firm was recently selected to do revitalization along the riverfront a project in New Orleans.

I think we’ll see a lot more of that industrial type of work and I also think that there’s going to be a good bit of work around retail. We worry about retail being dead, but I think retail is just shifting. I don’t think it’s going to fully go away and some of our colleagues are reporting that they’re getting lots of different opportunities and queries about repurposing malls. Beyond that, there’s the warehousing with all of the distribution centers and Amazons of the world. We recently worked on something related to permanent lending on an industrial distribution center.

Are there any particular areas of the country you’re looking to expand into more?

We are always looking for smart opportunities and I think it’s more about — is there a group someplace that fits well with our firm’s culture and our firm’s footprint practice area. We don’t have offices in places like South Florida, Chicago or Texas, but we often work in places where we don’t necessarily have offices. For example, our housing practice has done work with the Chicago Housing Authority. If we don’t have the attorneys there we’re pretty good at developing strategic relationships and partnerships with other firms so that we can do that type of work. But it is true that where we do have offices, it allows us to expand our regional reach and to do more within those communities. And it’s helpful for clients who like to have that local connection.

Lastly, what are your long-term goals for the real estate department?

To continue to attract really good talent and to support that talent. And another thing — along the theme of making connections —  is to help ensure that we are always thinking about how we can help one another. So, what is it that I do that can tie into something else? So I’m thinking about ways of developing task forces for certain initiatives, things that we want to make sure we have the capacity to do, and that we could be doing so much better if we figured out how to expand the collaboration on that. I think a key is using our firm’s technology. We have this really great Ballard 360 program that our client value team has put together and it’s amazing the stuff that they can do — just thinking about the creative ways that we can use those technology platforms to foster brainstorming and collaboration, and facilitating the assembly of ideas and content and materials so that we can benefit our clients.

Andrew Coen can be reached at acoen@commercialobserver.com