With $1 billion in troubled investments at stake and a hornet's nest of current legal troubles buzzing, the attorney that a major institution chose to be by its side was Amy Wells, a partner at Cox, Castle & Nicholson in Los Angeles.

Her clients represent an A-list of the country's largest pension funds, from the New York Common Retirement System to the California Public Employees' Retirement System to the California State Teachers' Retirement System, as well as groups in Wisconsin and Arizona.

She helps clients acquire commercial real estate assets and dispose of them. When they are in trouble, she comes to the rescue. Currently, Wells is examining distressed investments made by funds in an effort to salvage them by renegotiating or restructuring the terms.

“The dollar size can be staggering because of the size of their investments,” she says. In some cases, real estate portfolio developers or other major participants are headed toward bankruptcy.

While it may sound mundane, a critical service she provides is the ability to advise clients on what is normal and acceptable at the negotiating table. That becomes essential when a financial adversary tries to convince her client that certain deal terms or practices are “normal.”

Several pension funds have suffered steep declines in the value of their portfolios in the wake of the global economic meltdown. Although most giant funds are strong enough to maintain their core portfolios, many no longer can provide earlier levels of cash flow.

Meanwhile, investors, including institutions, are prowling for buying opportunities, and the distressed assets make attractive targets. Those owned through a joint venture also present an opportunity for the healthier partner to buy out the weaker one at a discount.

Wells aggressively protects clients, while allowing deals to proceed. She was recently appointed a special attorney general for the State of Washington related to her role as legal counsel to the Washington State Investment Board.