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Obituaries

Phillip R. Nicholson dies at 79; lawyer navigated L.A.'s real estate world

Phillip Nicholson

Phillip R. Nicholson was a founding partner of Cox, Castle & Nicholson, a prominent Century City-based law firm specializing in real estate.

(Courtesy Cox, Castle & Nicholson LLP)

A commercial real estate development in Pasadena was beset by costly delays, and a major investor in the project -- a prominent TV producer -- was fed up, hiring a high-priced New York attorney to wrest control from the developer.

A meeting was called. Phillip R. Nicholson, one of the senior attorneys for the developer, had a simple strategy: Just listen to what the New York lawyer said. Don’t argue. When the lawyer finished with a string of harsh demands, Nicholson asked for time to think it over.

At the office later, Nicholson directed attorney Mario Camara to look up a particular section in the California penal code. He then asked Camara to draft a letter to the New York lawyer citing that section -- and pointing out that extortion was illegal in California.

The threats went away, Camara said. The episode, which occurred three decades ago, was just one of many examples of how Nicholson helped his colleagues navigate the thorniest of legal thickets, he said.

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Nicholson, 79, died Monday at his Pacific Palisades home after a long illness. He was a founding partner of Cox, Castle & Nicholson, a Century City-based law firm specializing in real estate.

His clients included Southern California developers Rob Maguire and the late Ray Watt. Nicholson also served on the board of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. and held board positions with both the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate and UCLA’s Center for Real Estate.

Born Dec. 17, 1935, in Ottumwa, Iowa, Nicholson grew up in the South Bay. As a 12-year-old, he suffered a partial amputation of his foot after accepting a dare to climb an oil derrick and then suffering an injury. It took hours for help to arrive, leading a local paper to tell the story with the headline, “The Bravest Little Boy in the World,” recalled Jennifer Nicholson Salke, one of his four daughters.

The injury took the steam out of a budding athletic career, but Salke said her father used the money he received in a settlement after the injury to buy a saxophone -- leading to a high school dance band and a lifelong avocation.

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Salke, the president of NBC Entertainment, said she learned valuable lessons from her father that have served her well in her career.

“He was always calm in the center of the storm,” she recalled. “In real estate, there are a lot of big personalities -- just as there are in our business. He always maintained this calm, centered presence -- and I’ve tried to do the same.”

Nicholson earned his law degree at USC and co-founded the firm that bears his name in 1968.

“He was way ahead of his time in his view of what a law firm should be,” said Camara, a partner at the firm. “At the time, the typical law firm was far too hierarchical. The bureaucracy and the pecking order got in the way of client service. He thought lawyers were far too often focused on monetary awards and not client success.”

Nicholson’s solution, Camara said, was to spread management responsibilities around and to give younger lawyers as many duties as they could handle.

The lawyer was so beloved by his colleagues, he added, that the firm’s partners gave him a prized Harley-Davidson motorcycle as a 65th birthday present. “That was something we did out of our hearts, because he did so much for us.”

Nicholson is survived by his wife of 55 years, Joan, and his sister, Lois Nicholson. In addition to Jennifer Salke, Nicholson had three other daughters: Jill Nicholson Samuel, Lauren Nicholson and Amy Nicholson Zimmerman.

Maguire, whose list of developments include the Wells Fargo Center and the Gas Co. Tower in downtown Los Angeles, said Nicholson shares some credit for today’s Los Angeles skyline.

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“He was very imaginative and creative, and we were always doing unusual deals,” Maguire said. “He was much more than just a lawyer. We were doing some very big transactions, and he was a full participant.”

john.corrigan@latimes.com


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