Nicole Kuklok-Waldman: “Focus on what you can control”

Focus on what you can control. It is so easy to get worked up about all of the things going on in the world…to get anxious…to catastrophize. But if you focus on what you can control, not only do you feel more in control, you actually are in control! I cannot control whether the sun […]

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Focus on what you can control. It is so easy to get worked up about all of the things going on in the world…to get anxious…to catastrophize. But if you focus on what you can control, not only do you feel more in control, you actually are in control! I cannot control whether the sun will set tomorrow, but I can control whether I put my phone away to get my work done. When I make myself a list or set a goal, I always focus on what is under my control. The rest just follows, and, inevitably, the rest is a result of my hard work.

As a part of my series about “5 things I wish someone told me when I first became an attorney”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nicole Kuklok-Waldman.

Nicole Kuklok-Waldman advocates for businesses to ensure the best results for her clients. From regulatory challenges to development projects, Nicole specializes in a comprehensive advocacy approach and is known for integrating community outreach, communication with elected officials and community leaders, and honesty backed up by evidentiary support, to ensure a positive and desired result.

Prior to founding Collaborate, Nicole practiced Land Use Law at major law firms in Los Angeles. Her practice included management and entitlement of highly-visible and controversial development projects; plan approvals, modifications, and compliance with existing entitlements; strategic advice; managing teams of consultants on large scale land use projects; and California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) compliance and review. She was integral in the entitlement of a large project in Beverly Hills, including a five star hotel and luxury residential units, and has worked on a variety of projects including shopping centers, museums, hotels, visitor-serving uses, and residential projects. Several of her projects have survived CEQA challenge or referendum efforts.

Nicole specializes in historic preservation and related issues. She is readily familiar with historic preservation laws and policies at the national, state and local levels, and has specific expertise in the historical development of Los Angeles and mid-century architecture and design. Nicole successfully defeated a City of Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument nomination for a 1960s resource building at the Cultural Heritage Commission, and defeated the nomination of a 1960s resource building at City Council. She has also consulted with property owners and trustees regarding potential historic designations.

She has also worked on numerous projects subject to the jurisdiction of the California Coastal Commission and successfully settled a Coastal Commission appeal against a Malibu shopping center. Nicole has worked on numerous regulatory approval processes required for different land uses across the region, and is often brought in to work with neighbors to gain approval and/or settlement of difficult issues.

Nicole graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, and Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, DC. She is a lecturer at the University of Southern California, where she teaches Planning Law and Entitlement at the Sol Price School of Public Policy and the Lusk Center for Real Estate, and has guest lectured at Temple University and UCLA School of Law. She is also a published author, having authored a guest chapter in “Public Relations in Practice” by Professor Kate Kurtin at California State University, Los Angeles. Nicole is also a licensed real estate broker. She lives in the San Fernando Valley with her husband, Stuart Waldman, children, and rescue lab, Roxy.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit more. What is the “backstory” that brought you to this particular career path in Law?

I started working in insurance coverage at a BigLaw firm when I got out of law school, but it was a terrible fit. My husband was in politics and I would go to events with him, and I wanted to do something that was that meshed with all the events I was going to and all the people I was meeting — which, in Los Angeles — meant land use. I made a lateral move to Latham and Watkins in 2005 to the Land Use group and absolutely fell in love with my practice. I learned so much and just loved my work,so much that I started to call myself the Lucky Lawyer because most people I knew did not love their practice the way I did. Over twenty years, I have entitled numerous buildings all over Southern California and created numerous jobs and housing units for people and I have loved every minute of it.

But then my career and life started to change. I had been working very hard to grow my career after the 2008 recession and had done well, but my professional progression had hit a wall, and I had a baby in 2013. It was clear to me something had to change and I felt stuck. So I started trying to figure out different strategies to “unstick” myself, if you will. I started by trying to make more friends and figure out what they were doing. I started several sales companies. I started an entitlement firm with a friend. I started teaching at USC. Most importantly, though, I started doing a lot of reading on personal development and how our brains work. Over time, I learned a lot and a lot started to come together for me: what made me a good lawyer, what made me a good employee, and what made me a good businesswoman. I also became that person people sent you to when you needed guidance on what to do next in their careers. When the pandemic hit, I started offering to help my friends and — even strangers — with mindset regarding career change. Using my teaching skills and my knowledge of online programming as a professor, I then created the Lucky Lawyer course.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your law career?

Oh, there are so many! Recently, I was upset about the former Trump Administration policies related to amnesty. Working with Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project, I was assigned a case for a young man who had been in detention for over two years after being tortured by his home country. It turned out his case had been assigned to a courtroom known to be “cursed” in the detention center, where no one had been granted asylum in over a year. Have I mentioned I am not an immigration attorney? Anyway, I learned how to piece together an immigration case,which, fortunately, was much like my work in land use, and we were able to get a grant of asylum for my client. There was a near riot of cheers in the facility when my client told his detention unit; they didn’t believe him until the guards removed his handcuffs. I still smile when I think of that story.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I’ve worked on so many cool projects in Los Angeles. I worked on the entitlement of the Waldorf-Astoria in Beverly Hills for years. I’ve worked on several historic buildings, I have done work for studio properties, and I currently have clients working on bringing a number of housing units to market in Los Angeles. I love the fact that I am so integral to the evolving history of the City in making room for everyone to live in a safe and livable City. I’m also excited about the Lucky Lawyer course I just created because I love using my knowledge to help others live their best lives.

What are some of the most interesting cases you have been involved in? Without sharing anything confidential can you share any stories?

Recently, I was involved in a variance appeal. I brought on another lawyer as litigation counsel and we presented at the Area Planning Commission. After the hearing, a woman in her early twenties walked up to us and said we were lady badasses! I was just laughing. It made me feel good that we were modeling that for others.

Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?

Those that inspire me are those that really look inward and choose to live their best lives, which, in turn, allows others to live theirs. Consider, for example, Michelle Obama. She worked in BigLaw and then worked doing outreach for various large stakeholders in the Chicago area, and then her life went into a type of hold while her husband was President. So when his presidency ended, she sat down and thought about how to use her platform to educate and change the world, and now she does. She doesn’t sit in a law firm anymore. That would be a waste! She is using skills that she has, with the experience she has, to make the world a better place…and just so we’re clear, she’s not poor doing it either!

I am also a big fan of Ruth Bader Ginsburg…a judge who became a symbol! How cool is that? That a woman judge can inspire little kids to be better humans, to ask questions, to consider helping others? She brought a new audience to what we do in the law, and I love that. Even if she wasn’t your cup of tea, she has inspired a lot of people to learn and try new things.

What advice would you give to a young person considering a career in law?

Let me start by saying I love the JD. I think it is a wonderful degree that teaches one how to think and also can be used in a myriad of ways. Unfortunately, however, I think oftentimes individual expectations make it into somewhat of a gilded cage; people see it as a pathway to wealth and not a pathway to personal abundance. So if you are considering going to law school, the best advice I can give you is to work in law before you go to law school. Make sure you know what you are getting yourself into and that you are comfortable with your choice. Also, make sure you are going to law school because you want to, not because someone else wants you to go.

I still remember when I was in my first year of law school and our Legal Research professor gave us a timesheet so we could practice entering our time. And everyone thought that was funny! I’m too cool to do that, people said. And our professor said, “This is what you signed up for!” Law school can provide a number of options, but the best advice I can give you is make sure you want to practice law! There is nothing more painful than remorse after a bunch of debt after three lost years.

If you had the ability to make three reforms in our judicial/legal system, which three would you start with? Why?

Oh, wow, this is a biggie. I adore this country and think that our democracy is a marvel. However, I believe that this era in our country is a reckoning with our ignored past. Our laws and systems are based in a time where only certain lives had value. I have done a lot of reading on this and believe that in order to create systems that treat every life of equal value, we have to assess and be honest about how we got here. Then we need to work to make sure that systems are equitable to everyone, not just the people to whom the system intended equity when it was created hundreds of years ago. Isabel Wilkerson discusses this in her book, Caste: she compares our nation to an old house. You and I didn’t build the old house, but we live in it. And if the plumbing goes, it’s our problem. It is our collective responsibility as a nation to work to improve the house and make it better.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Here’s the thing. If you are living your best life, I believe you are bringing goodness to the world every day. Oprah Winfrey tells a story about how she was hanging out with Maya Anjelou and was telling Dr. Angelou how she believed her orphanage project in Africa would be her legacy. Dr. Angelou responded that Oprah didn’t get to choose her legacy. Maybe an episode of Oprah inspired a woman to leave a household with domestic violence and do amazing things. Who knows what you inspire when you live your best life?

I see living your best life and doing what’s right as creating a legacy, even though you don’t know what it will look like. Last year, I represented an asylum case at Adelanto Detention Facility and my client was granted asylum. My client is now working to become a priest in Maryland. But I’ve also helped lots of students find jobs; I’ve helped lots of developer clients build hundreds of units and create thousands of construction jobs; I’ve done a myriad of favors for friends; I’ve advised several mentees. I have no idea what all of that will result in. It might result in a kid in a safe home becoming president or a student working to develop a cure for cancer. My job is to put my best self into the world.

I think it is important to remember that you don’t have to become a nun or work at a non-profit to make the world a better place. All roles are important to help the world be a better place; it’s about finding meaning and using your gifts to be the best you can be. I always remind my students that while we learn in a place with great minds at the University, if there is no one to prepare food and clean the bathrooms, we don’t get very far.

I know this is not an easy job. What drives you?

Who said your calling is supposed to be easy? Once you find what drives you, it makes your job worthwhile, but never easy. That’s why I call myself the “Lucky Lawyer.” I’ve been able to use my legal training to help myself and others lead their best lives. How cool is that?

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or an example for each.

One: Focus on what you can control. It is so easy to get worked up about all of the things going on in the world…to get anxious…to catastrophize. But if you focus on what you can control, not only do you feel more in control, you actually are in control! I cannot control whether the sun will set tomorrow, but I can control whether I put my phone away to get my work done. When I make myself a list or set a goal, I always focus on what is under my control. The rest just follows, and, inevitably, the rest is a result of my hard work.

Two: Relationships matter. We all know someone who is incompetent but who has found success because he or she “knows” someone. Instead of lamenting this truth, go out and make it work for you! Take the time to help others, to mentor, to go out for coffee or lunch. You never ever know when a random act of kindness might be the connection you need to go where you’d like.

Three: It’s OK to change your mind. How often we commit to something we know is the best idea at the time, only to find out what we didn’t consider! Dr. Maya Anjelou said it best: “When you know better, you do better.” That is your job. When you figure out you are on the wrong path, you recalibrate. You don’t just keep going on autopilot because you already committed. You don’t throw good money after bad.

Four: Nothing is Black and White. It is easy to think that the world comes in two parts: black and white, good and bad. But it is never that simple. In my lobbying practice, I have encountered many for-profit developers trying to do the right thing, and many non-profits not following the rules. When I challenge my USC students to think critically about issues facing the United States, the reality is that oftentimes good actors unintentionally cause harm, just as bad actors sometimes lead us to great long-term results. When you start to see the nuance in the world, things become far clearer.

Five: Failure is what you make of it. I once worked for a law firm for less than a year and my experience there was, in every way, a complete career disaster. Except that, when I look back, it wasn’t. It enabled me to do a number of things for my family that seemed unreachable at the time. It also provided me the contact that allowed me to start my teaching career at USC, which had always been a dream of mine. I also discovered yoga and Harry Potter as stress management tools. So today I have a stronger family, a teaching career, yoga, and a love for fiction that I never had before and might have never found as a result of that job. Does that sound like failure?

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

Ohhh…this one is exciting. I’d love to meet Justice Sonia Sotomayor or Oprah Winfrey or Tina Fey, so please, honorable ladies, please please give me a call! Why? Look at how they have changed the world living in their zone of genius! It’s really amazing. In all seriousness, though, I just love meeting people and learning about them and helping them focus on how to live their best lives either in or outside of the law. My job is the coolest, and I learn so much from everyone I meet.

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