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Donna Sills, executive vice president and general counsel, Greenberg Gibbons

Some people are content with a long career in the food service industry. Not Donna Sills, who in January was named executive vice president and general counsel of Greenberg Gibbons, the Owings Mills-based retail development company.

Donna Sills

After earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism, Sills spent a few years traveling before working in a restaurant in Puerto Rico.

“I waited on lots of tables,” she said, before heading to George Washington Law School. There she met her future husband and got her law diploma.

Whiteford Taylor & Preston hired Sills, who had been a summer clerk. She hadn’t planned to focus on commercial real estate, but she “did work for a real estate partner, so I gravitated to it” as an associate.

The firm made Sills a partner during her second maternity leave. After she returned to work, she “suffered post-partner depression,” and questioned whether she wanted to continue at a private practice as the busy mother of two young daughters.

Sills left for a part-time job at a legal recruiting firm. Officials from The Rouse Company, one of her early clients, kept saying they wanted to hire someone just like her — in fact, her. She finally agreed to an interview and accepted their offer. At Rouse, Sills got to work on major development projects and to travel as vice president/associate general counsel.

When the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 created new regulations, Sills became Rouse’s director of corporate compliance. Later, she was made general counsel.

Sills said she loved her time at Rouse but was ready to move once General Growth Properties took over the company. With Rouse now a subsidiary of the Chicago-based corporation, she ended her 17 years there in 2005 when she joined former Rouse employees at Greenberg Gibbons as its senior vice president and general counsel.

Sills’ first project with Greenberg Gibbons was redevelopment of Annapolis Town Centre at Parole, “which was very challenging and very complicated” because of its mixed-use space and number of owners, she said. More-recent projects have included Arundel Gateway, Turf Valley in Howard County, and the Foundry Row retail project on the former Solo Cup site near Greenberg Gibbons’ headquarters in Owings Mills.

Greenberg Gibbons doesn’t have a legal staff the size of Rouse’s, Sills said. She has a legal assistant, and she shares corporate compliance responsibilities with the firm’s president, Thomas Fitzpatrick, and its chief financial officer, Jeff Wellener. She manages outside counsels who take leasing and corporate work, but Sills said she tends to handle larger transactions.

“An in-house job often crosses over the lawyer-business line,” Sills said. “I really enjoy that mix of lawyering and business.” The company added her to its board of directors in 2010.

Sills noted differences from working at a firm, “where you’re totally a lawyer. That can be rewarding, especially with longstanding clients,” but the lawyer is an outsider in a transaction, unlike an in-house counsel. Also, while a firm’s lawyers look for new clients and the opportunity for additional billable hours, an in-house counsel takes on just her corporation’s tasks, and can save her employer money by working efficiently.

A misconception about in-house work is that the hours are always shorter than those at a law firm, she said. Rather, an in-house counsel’s work has an ebb and flow; the slower periods allow her extra time with her two daughters.

Ebbs for counsels at companies like hers are becoming rarer, according to Sills: “It’s an exciting time to be in the commercial real estate business. Things have definitely started turning around the last six months. Lenders are lending. Deals are starting to get done.”

In-house positions are difficult for a young attorney to find, she said. “Companies are looking for people with expertise,” she said. “Most who go into it get a good, fundamental training at a firm.”

Sills, a self-proclaimed “foodie,” expresses no regrets about abandoning culinary duties for law school — but she does laugh when she imagines herself running a chain of restaurants or having a show on the Food Network.

Donna Sills

Education: J.D. from George Washington University Law School

Resides in: Phoenix, Md

Daily commute: 25 miles

Most recent vacation: Cuba

Hobbies: Sprint triathlons and West Highland White Terriers

Favorite book(s): “To Kill a Mockingbird”

Most recently read: “The Short and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”

Favorite food: I am a total foodie but, if I had to pick, any kind of cheese

Favorite quotations: My dad turned 91 this month. When anyone asks how he is, he says “Damn good.” That’s my favorite quotation.

What I like best about my current position: Being at the nerve center of a growing company. Every day is busy and active and, as the General Counsel, I am involved in virtually every aspect of the business.

Most memorable professional experience: I was representing the City of Baltimore in a bond issue when they were building a parking garage on “The Block” and we were reviewing the inventory of sex toys from the business that was being moved out. I was a young associate at the time and that experience has definitely stuck in my memory.

Most rewarding extracurricular activity: Serving on the board of directors for The Arc of Baltimore for over 10 years.

Local hero: William Donald Schaefer – He was the mayor who swam in the seal tank when I first moved to Baltimore. I worked with him when I represented the City as a young attorney and I served with him on the Development Committee for The Arc of Baltimore. He was always a gentleman and the hardest working person in the room. He dedicated his life to public service and he accomplished a tremendous amount.

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