TITLE: Senior vice president and general counsel
COMPANY: Forest Lawn Memorial-Park Association
JOINED COMPANY: 2005
Forest Lawn Memorial-Park Association is one of the few names in the cemetery and funeral industry with a brand on par with its best-known customers. Show business royalty like Lucille Ball, Clark Gable and, most recently, Michael Jackson, have been interred at the memorial parks owned by the 105-year-old nonprofit association, which operates a network of nine mortuary and cemetery locations in Southern California and employs 850.
THE QUICK BIO
A native of Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y., Susan Sandler, 46, began her career with the Manhattan office of Morrison & Foerster, eventually becoming a partner in its Los Angeles office focusing primarily on securities, intellectual property and complex business litigation. "I have a scattershot brain that likes to learn new things," she says, "and being a litigator with exposure to new areas of the law at every turn made sense for me."
After graduating from Brown University in 1986 with a double major in economics and law and society, Sandler moved to Columbia Law School, earning her J.D. in 1989. After a decade at MoFo she joined Herbalife International of America Inc., a health and beauty dietary supplement company, as its associate general counsel in 1999, and stayed for four years until the firm was taken private. From 2003 to 2005 she was general counsel for Orange-based Western Dental Services before being recruited as senior vice president and general counsel for Forest Lawn.
Sandler got her share of "Why do you want to work for a cemetery?" questions from friends and colleagues, but on closer investigation found Forest Lawn a unique opportunity. "First, it's an icon not only in the industry, but it's known as a respected brand name with a unique position in the service industry," Sandler explained. "I fell in love with the culture. It's a completely unique business that focuses exclusively on the most difficult moments in the lives of the people we serve, and I had never worked for a company with such a clear sense of mission before. And on top of that, we're a real estate developer that doesn't operate like other real estate developers do, which makes things interesting."
The real estate side is a much different play than typical commercial or residential development because land development might be decades, even centuries out. "Housing developers have a business model that optimally has them in and out of an investment within months or a few years," explains Sandler. "We're at a time right now where the death rate is dropping, and while there will always be a tremendous need for our services, we realize that need is getting farther off for many people. So it's interesting planning amidst those trends -- how much land to purchase and when. Our forecasting is much different than a conventional land developer."
She recently submitted a master development plan seeking permits from numerous regulatory agencies for Forest Lawn's expansion of its Hollywood Hills location. The plan contemplates development over the next 50 years to bring cemetery property and funeral service resources to a broad area of Los Angeles.
Forest Lawn seems to be a company that lets Sandler use all her skills. She put her litigation hat back on this summer in a 12-week jury trial against Lennar Corp., LNR Property Corp. and several of their related entities over Forest Lawn's right to purchase and develop land at the Heritage Fields project (the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station) in Irvine, now being managed by Five Point Communities Inc. The case was settled, but Sandler commented, "It was interesting and very consuming to be managing complex business litigation again. I didn't expect to be back at trial."
Her intellectual property experience also comes in handy as Forest Lawn has been involved with the creation and ongoing development of a funeral planning software package that is sold throughout the industry. As an industry leader with a history of pioneering new approaches, Forest Lawn received periodic requests from inventors and businesses seeking its help in bringing their product to market. "One recent example was an incense burner that was brought to us as a possible product to market," she explained. "We had to consider design issues like the risk of fire. These are liability issues most [in-house counsel] don't have to think about."
LEGAL TEAM AND OUTSIDE COUNSEL
Sandler runs a tight operation with two other attorneys and an assistant. "I look for people who are flexible and don't come in with a lot of preconceived notions about this industry," she explains. "I've hired for real estate and labor expertise, but mostly, I look for communication skills, the kind of emotional intelligence that lets people here know that we're here to solve their problems."
Sandler says she's tried to develop an open-door relationship with Forest Lawn executives and staff where "they come to us first with questions before they make decisions. We're their lawyers, and they should feel they can share problems and ideas with us."
Outside counsel includes Fulbright & Jaworski for significant litigation and labor law matters, Latham & Watkins and Jeffer Mangels Butler & Mitchell for land issues, and Reed Smith for vendor and commercial work. "I go for the best experts in the field. I think the right approach is to always hire someone smarter than yourself," Sandler says.
Forest Lawn has not aggressively pursued alternative billing arrangements, but she insists on practice leaders handling her business. "Outside attorney fees are expensive, and I'm willing to pay, but I'm not willing to train" junior counsel. Sandler adds that she has selectively worked with fee caps on some business and has made an effort to control fees to attorneys handling insurance matters.
Sandler is the mother of seven, including three children from her husband's first marriage. The oldest include an attorney and a White House intern, and the youngest is 5. "I spend most of my spare time going to sports events," she says.
Sandler has volunteered for several years with the Palos Verdes Junior Women's Club, most recently serving as club president. On her reading list, she's working her way through Amy Chua's "Tiger Mom": "I'm the product of a tiger mom. We had strict parents and they laid it down for us," Sandler explains. Her three older sisters are a doctor, president of an insurance company and a licensed securities professional, and her younger brother is a successful sales representative for a major packaging company. "They had very high expectations for us."
Lisa Holton is a freelance writer based in Chicago.