Karen Frostrom Proves That You Don’t Have To Go To War To Win.
When I was 12, the only thing I knew about attorneys was that they were trained to argue well. That seemed like a skill that I wanted to learn, so I decided to be an attorney. I changed my mind two years later when I lost my hearing because I thought that you could not be a good attorney if you had hearing problems. During college, however, I served on a three week criminal grand jury. Sitting in that room, I realized that with my hearing aid, I was able to participate in the process as well as the attorneys, and it made me realize, I could still be an attorney,” says Karen Frostrom, partner with Thorsnes Bartolotta McGuire.
From the minute you hear Frostrom speak, it is evident that this can-do attitude towards against-the-odds obstacles has been instrumental in her success in the highly specialized and male dominated fields of condemnation/eminent domain, municipal redevelopment, land use, business litigation and contracts. Equally as obvious is her courteous demeanor, which, as her record has proven time and again, is not synonymous with being a pushover. On the contrary, in Frostrom’s case, nice girls absolutely finish first.
Learning To Roll With The Punches
It was when Frostrom was in 8th grade in Pennsylvania that she first learned how to roll with the punches. She was diagnosed with otosclerosis, a rare ear condition which, in 99% of cases, can be corrected with surgery. Frostrom fell into the 1%, losing hearing in her right ear. As a result, she opted not to have the surgery on her left ear, deciding instead to use a hearing aid. Frostrom didn’t miss a beat, graduated from high school and set her sights on San Diego State University for undergraduate work.
Her efforts in undergraduate work paid off and Frostrom was awarded a full scholarship to California Western School of Law. During her third year of law school, an externship with the federal district court would prove to have a lasting impact on the way that Frostrom would practice law in the future. “My job was to review the civil motions and prepare memoranda for the judge to consider in making his ruling. I noticed that most of the ill-prepared briefing came from the plaintiff side of the case. The briefs had portions missing, typos, missing links and were very unclear,” she says. Laughing, she adds, “A lot of the time, it looked like people had just cut and pasted them together.” However, one of the cases stood out. It was being handled by Thorsnes Bartolotta McGuire. “The briefing provided by them was remarkably up to a better standard than I was used to seeing from the plaintiffs. It looked as if someone had actually sat down with a fresh piece of paper,” she says. As a result, Frostrom researched the practice, found they’d had a strong presence in San Diego since 1978, and when she finished her externship, she applied to the firm.
But Frostrom took another blow two days before she was scheduled to take the California summer bar exam, after which she planned to clerk for the Nevada Supreme Court. She was diagnosed with cancer. Again, in form true to her character, the diagnosis rolled off her; she sought successful medical treatment, preferring to stay with her doctors in San Diego, and was offered a job with Thorsnes Bartolotta McGuire. She accepted immediately.
Ready To Fight…Fairly
Thorsnes Bartolotta McGuire “usually represents the little guy against the big government or big developer types,” Frostrom says. Moreover, “we are trial lawyers, not litigators. When we take a case, we immediately prepare for trial. We do as much discovery and motion work as we need to, but trial is always our focus,” she adds. “This has given us the reputation of not being afraid to go to trial, so defendants know that if they don’t settle with us, we will take it to the mat,” she says.
However, what the firm won’t do is fight dirty. “So many lawyers think that you have to fight over everything or people won’t listen to you. Or that your success is measured by the number of motions that you file instead of working things out like a civil person. When I’m in court, I’m as feisty as can be, but when we’re just working out case issues, there is no need for gratuitous nastiness. Being a lawyer is stressful enough, without running around making up stuff. The ‘gotcha’ mentality bores me. If you’ve got a good case, put it on. If you don’t have a good case, get the best that you can for your client. But play fair. It is, after all, called justice.”
To that end, Frostrom, her partners and the associates with the firm take the approach of presenting their cases as stories. “Even if land is the central dispute in the case, there are still people involved and all of those people have stories and relationships with the land. There are lives being lived on or around the land. There is always something unique and we try hard to find and display those facts. We also try to simplify the facts. In land use cases, there tends to be a lot of lingo and industry terms. People try to impress the court and the jury by tossing those terms around a lot. We try to do the opposite, to break the process down so that a second grader could understand it,” she explains.
In many cases, because Frostrom has such a narrowly focused specialty in an area of law in which not many people practice there are many things about land use and planning that are completely unknown to large portions of the legal community, including judges. This is particularly true for eminent domain litigation. “It has a special set of rules that are not used in any other type of case. We find that even judges will often be unfamiliar with the concepts and rules used in these cases. My job is to educate them,” she says simply. “I never try to intimidate a judge with statutes. Good judges know when they are in unchartered territory, so I just encourage them to step back and look at what the statue says.” Of course, occasionally, but not often, Frostrom has the luxury of working with judges who are extremely conversant in these highly specialized laws, which makes her job a bit easier.
However, Frostrom has never opted for the easy route just because it’s easy. Her position as the only female partner with Thorsnes Bartolotta McGuire, and often the only female in the courtrooms, on conference calls and in her specialized field of eminent domain, gives her a unique perspective when fighting for clients who feel outnumbered or intimidated by the government or powerful developers.
In fact, it was specifically this type of case that made Frostrom a household name when it comes to fighting land use cases. “In Mesdaq v. City of San Diego et al., I learned so much about the true inequities that happen when politics trump righteousness,” she says. In that case, Frostrom’s client, who had emigrated from Afghanistan due to a threat on his father’s life, had successfully completed his education in the restaurant industry, and had opened the extremely successful Gran Havana Cigar Lounge. “He did not know that when he bought the building that the city was working with a developer who had lost out in condemnation during the ballpark project to do a deal that would result in condemnation of the Gran Havana property. Our client knew the developer personally and was certain that the hotel he was promising to build would never come to fruition. We in turn told the city and the court that they should require more of a commitment and proof from the developer of its ability to build the hotel before crushing our client’s business. No one listened to us,” she says.
Immediately after the developer received possession of her client’s newly renovated building, the developer destroyed it and laid a parking lot. The parking lot remains to this day, and the city has come forward admitting that the hotel will never be built, due to the developer’s lack of resources.
Although a new fight, in which Frostrom’s team has asked the city to sell the property back to her client, is ongoing, this case marked a turning point in Frostrom’s career. “I was a young associate who hadn’t developed a niche yet. Mesdaq was one of my first eminent domain cases. I was surprised how much I liked them. I joined the real estate and eminent domain sections of the bar and started reading about the area of real estate litigation.” This highly specialized area was a natural fit for Frostrom, and her peers recognized it. In 2006, she was awarded with Outstanding Trial Lawyer for her work on Mesdaq v. City of San Diego et al. The next year, she made partner at Thorsnes Bartolotta McGuire, and received two more consecutive Outstanding Trial Lawyer Awards in 2007 and 2008, for Southern v. University of California and Anderprises adv. Caltrans, respectively.
But for Frostrom, the real rewards came from the knowledge she gained about the way the government treats individuals. Chuckling, she says, “If you think the government has problems, wait until you hear their solutions!” Fortunately though, her bird’s eye view of how land use disputes are typically handled allows her to be a tremendous asset for her clients.
“The problem with land use cases is that by the time these cases become visible, minds are often made up,” she says. “The lessons I learned in the Mesdaq case showed me that wherever possible, find a solution before it goes too far, and becomes too entrenched. I can protect my clients, and it helps the government save face as well.”
Plan of Attack For The Future
As for her future with Thorsnes Bartolotta McGuire, Frostrom has no desire to go anywhere. “We are on our way to the moon. It is crazy busy, and we’ve built a great team that can take it on. Our referral base is strong and growing. We have developed a great niche practice that we all enjoy. We try to make sure we’re on the ‘right’ side of a dispute, and that we can fight for a righteous result. A jury can tell when you’re just fighting and when you actually care. We get to know our clients as best as we can. Many times, even years after a case is over, we are still in contact with them and they share news with us about new business successes and important happenings,” she says.
For all of the fighting she’s happy to do for her clients, Frostrom prefers to handle cases without engaging in “warlike conduct,” finding it frankly, a waste of time. But as anyone who’s gone up against her in trial can attest, Frostrom may lay out the proverbial ‘welcome’ mat but those who try to walk all over her clients like a doormat had better be prepared for a friendly fight.
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About the Author: Jennifer Hadley is a Staff Writer for Attorney Journal