MLaw alumna heads Varnum's Real Estate Practice Group

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Photo by Cynthia Price

By Cynthia Price
Legal News

Some attorneys who moved from a high-powered New York litigation career to being a transactional real estate lawyer in Grand Rapids might find it a letdown.

But Melissa Papke, an alumna of the University of Michigan Law School who had already chosen to transition away from litigation before she ever considered working at Varnum, loves her job and receives continual reminders of how good she is at it.

“I believe law school prepares you a lot better for a litigation career —and you anticipate that, growing up watching TV. People who are interested in transactional work either had parents who were lawyers and did that, or had business degrees. But I think a lot of us had notions of justice in mind when going to law school, and  usually that plays out in the courtroom. I practiced and Stroock and Stroock and Lavan for two years litigating. I was very good at it, but what surprised me was I really wasn’t enjoying it. I realized that it emphasized parts of my personality that were better de-emphasized,” she says, laughing.

“My ex-husband was an architect, so there was this real estate connection. Corporate work didn’t sound interesting, but I thought, well real estate, there’s a piece of dirt, there’s something tangible.”

Though it was difficult to join Stroock’s real estate team, Papke succeeded, and has never looked back.

Born in Staten Island, Papke had a mixed heritage: her mother is Hispanic of Mexican descent, and her father is a Russian Jew. As much as she loved New York, Papke disregarded her dad’s “gung-ho” desire to see her attend Columbia, and took off for the “rolling green” of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.

After that, still seeking a less urban environment, she went to University of Michigan Law School. There she met her husband, who agreed to try out big city life so she could pursue the opportunity at Stroock.

But around 9/11/2001, both had an epiphany and decided to start their family, moving back to Michigan.

“I saw the second plane hit, and it was just a horrible, horrible time. But the one good thing about it was it gave me a “seize the moment” mentality. I’d been waiting to have children, but I thought, ‘Maybe I don’t want to wait.’ I don’t know, I suspect there may have been a baby boom after 9/11,” she adds.

When her first son was over a year old, Papke wanted to return to work. Interviewing with a number of local firms, Papke chose Varnum to be her legal home.

“Varnum didn’t have a real estate need, so I was a speculative hire. I just remember having such a good connection with the people here, an easy comfortable rapport with everyone,” she comments.

She now heads the Real Estate Practice Group at Varnum.

Papke praises the firm for its handling of her desire to work part-time when her second son was born in 2005. Though she says there was “not high unanimity” in opinions about her request, Varnum ultimately allowed her to go to 80% status. “That was a good balance for me,” she says. “I spent one day out of the office a week, although I still had to be kind of on-call to be sure the clients were served.

“Because of some champions including Nyal Deems, who truly mentored me, I had  excellent support and I was able to make partner at my 80%.”

 She also has nothing but praise for Deems, a partner in the Grand Rapids office who was highly influential in her being invited to become a fellow of the American College of Mortgage Attorneys (ACMA), for which she is currently the State Chair for Michigan. Deems was also a factor in her latest honor, an invitation to join the American College of Real Estate Lawyers (ACREL).

A former President of the Grand Rapids Bar Association Real Estate Section, and still a council member of the State Bar’s Real Property Law section, Papke has been recognized by The Best Lawyers in America, in Real Estate Law, Grand Rapids, for the past two years, and in their Women in the Law Spring Business Edition.

While still in New York City, in 2001, she received the Commitment to Justice Award from a pro bono organization serving domestic violence victims.

But it is when she talks about her legal work that Papke’s passion shows. She says her clients run the gamut from those who know exactly what they want to do and need her legal help to do it, to those who have a piece of property and want ideas about what opportunities are out there. Her focus areas include real estate financing (which she says is about 25% of her practice) and uniquely structured secured loans, acquisitions and leasing, development and redevelopment, and construction law. She says she often advises clients on zoning and other municipal ordinances.

“It’s certainly the most fun when I have a client who comes to me with land and no ideas, or an idea but no land, Papke says. “You say, ‘Let’s look at the zoning and see what’s possible,’ and you have that creative angle. But in all kinds of cases you’re giving of your creativity. Every so often I come up with a startlingly original idea that they didn’t think of,” she laughs.

She is also passionate about diversity, though she observes that since she grew up in such a widely diverse community herself — attending a magnet school which she estimates was 50% Asian with large African-American and Hispanic student populations — she did not encounter a lot of discrimination based on her half-Mexican background.

“I grew up at a time when people weren’t so much wearing their diversity on their sleeves,” Papke explains, “so much so that my mom didn’t teach us to speak Spanish. I learned in school, and my brother and I spoke it with my grandmother. And I don’t necessarily appear to be part of any particular ethnic group, so I didn’t experience a lot of bias in school, of a positive or negative nature.

“I was a member of Llianza Latina in college. I sought out that group, but it didn’t define me. I think one of the few ways in which it influenced me is that I’m very fond of languages,” she adds. Her undergraduate degree was in Japanese, and she continued in Spanish.

Papke is currently the liaison to Hispanic law student groups for Varnum’s Diversity Committee, but adds that what is really needed is for the whole community to step up and welcome people from a variety of heritages,
“It’s also important that people of color see others like themselves succeeding, and I think we’re improving in that,” she says.

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