Female Powerbrokers Q&A: Nossaman's Nancy Smith


Nossaman Partner Nancy Smith was profiled in Law360 as part of their Female Powerbrokers Q&A series.  Ms. Smith's full Q&A can be found below.

Nancy C. Smith is a partner in Nosaman LLP's Los Angeles office. She is a member of the firm's executive committee and former chairwoman of the firm's compensation committee. She is nationally recognized for her work on innovative contracting and finance for infrastructure projects throughout the country, including airport, highway, bridge, tunnel, freight rail, public transit and power projects. Her work includes critical infrastructure such as the Tappan Zee Bridge (New York), the Alaskan Way Viaduct tunnel (Seattle) and the Alameda Corridor (Los Angeles), as well as an upcoming public-private partnership procurement for a light rail transit project.

She is also a board officer of Education Through Music — Los Angeles, a nonprofit organization providing music education to students in disadvantaged schools as part of the core curriculum.

Q: How did you break into what many consider to be an old boys' network?

A: Through a combination of hard work, good fortune and strong mentor relationships.

Hard work: During the first 10 years of my career, I worked as a real estate lawyer, developing legal knowledge and skills through numerous research projects and transactions. I then moved to a new practice area, working mostly for public agency clients, helping to create new models (design-build and public-private partnerships) for project development. This required extensive analysis of legal issues and creativity to develop solutions and draft documents without direct precedent. My work also includes efforts to transfer knowledge to practitioners through my involvement in research and industry organizations — while taking advantage of networking opportunities offered by those organizations.

Good fortune: While in law school, I was fortunate to get a job offer from Nossaman, at the time a firm of 30-plus lawyers, which now has grown to 160-plus lawyers and public policy professionals. After I became a partner in the real estate group, fortunately for me the real estate market took a downturn and I was asked to take the lead role in a design-build procurement for a start-up toll road for one of our clients — the Orange County Transportation Corridor Agencies. This assignment was both rewarding and challenging, and it made me realize I was much better attuned with public agency clients than with private developers.

I am also fortunate that one of my partners, Geoff Yarema (a fellow University of Florida graduate who had recruited me to the firm), was working on California's first transportation public-private partnership program while I was working on California's first transportation design-build project. He persuaded firm management to invest in the effort to establish an infrastructure practice group, and he and I worked together to grow the practice. Our group now includes 30 lawyers working on major transportation projects across the country.

Mentors: My first mentor was Howard Coleman, who gave me increasingly challenging assignments and showed me how to provide exceptional service to clients. I also consider our former managing partner, Bill Guthner, as a mentor since I learned a good deal working with him on a number of projects. Finally, Geoff Yarema, although only three years my senior, also acted as a mentor, leading our joint effort to develop a new practice area and providing suggestions regarding practice and business development.

Q: What are the challenges of being a woman at a senior level within a law firm?

A: My primary challenge as an attorney at a senior level in a law firm is how best to manage my time — which isn't an issue specific to my gender. Setting aside the question of personal life/work balance issues, what I enjoy most about practicing law is helping the parties reach agreement on a deal, but as a senior partner I have to spend much of my time on administrative and managerial tasks. My current role as a member of the firm's executive committee has further increased the amount of time I spend on nonlegal work.

Q: Describe a time you encountered sexism in your career and tell us how you handled it.

A: Years ago, when I was a junior partner, I felt I had done exceptional work and was dismayed that my annual compensation wasn't as high as other attorneys with comparable performance for the year. Not sexism per se, but I believe my compensation was lower than it should have been because I felt uncomfortable speaking up for myself while other (male) attorneys did a much better job of it.

I sent a lengthy memo to firm management describing the value I provided to the firm and saying that I didn't think I had a future at the firm based on the message I had been given. After several other partners weighed in, the compensation committee ended up giving me an additional bonus. I stayed at the firm, eventually becoming a member of the compensation committee and serving as the committee chair for several years.

Q: What advice would you give to an aspiring female attorney?

A: 1) Work hard, especially as you are first starting your career, to learn the law. Make sure you know what you don't know.

2) Be interested in your clients' business. Start developing contact lists early and keep in touch! Send information to your contacts when you come across something that you think they might find interesting.

3) Early on, consider the pros and cons of private and in-house practice and determine your goals. Think about how to achieve those goals. When I first started my career, I wasn't even sure I wanted to practice law for more than 10 years, leaving my initial path to be guided by others.

Q: What advice would you give to a law firm looking to increase the number of women in its partner ranks?

A: 1) Consider whether decisions about partnership and compensation are skewed toward a model that excludes women playing a valuable role as members of teams and who are critical to work for various clients. Our firm is now tracking "responsible attorney" statistics as well as originations and collections.

2) Offer business development coaching to senior associates and nonequity partners. Encourage women attorneys to join organizations outside the firm.

3) Review client and marketing teams and firm PR efforts to make sure that women are appropriately represented.

4) If women don't speak up on issues being discussed within the firm, ask them for their opinions.

5) Allow "part-time" attorneys to hold management positions.

Q: Outside your firm, name an attorney you admire and tell us why.

A: My law school classmate Laurie Miller, who was appointed to the Hennepin County District Court in 2008. She clerked for the Eighth Circuit and then worked as a litigation attorney in law firms in San Francisco and Minnesota — with the ultimate goal of moving to the bench. She and her husband have three fabulous children. I admire her for setting a goal early in her career (and achieving it!), and for raising three children, doing volunteer work and maintaining relationships with family and friends, while achieving success as a practicing lawyer/judge. And I wish I could make a pie crust like hers!

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