Attorney at Law Magazine Miami publisher Rhenne Leon sat down with Michelle Otero Valdés of Law Offices of Michelle Valdés to discuss her career and her plans for the future in the 2018 Women in Law special issue.
AALM: What do you find rewarding about being an attorney? What do you find challenging about your practice. How do you overcome those challenges?
Valdés: The most rewarding thing about my practice is the fact that you never stop learning. There is always a change in case law, a new way courts choose to handle matters, or some clever new angle being presented to the courts to try and change the law. I love that challenge, even after more than 20 years of practicing law. However, the biggest challenge to my practice is having the time to handle all the firm management issues that come up. I have brought in my husband (who is also a lawyer) to help with firm management and this has helped tremendously, so I can do what I love – practice maritime law.
AALM: Did you have any mentors or professors who helped you develop your career? What is the best lesson they taught you?
Valdés: My parents, because they were tough on me, taught me to be fiercely independent and that my reputation was my most prized asset. Patricia Olney, probably the only woman that sat for the board certification exam for admiralty and maritime law back in 1996, taught me the importance of becoming involved in the admiralty Bar and even though some of the guys would not be friendly toward me in the beginning, she said they would eventually come around – she was absolutely right!
AALM: Tell us the funniest story you have from your practice.
Valdés: I started working for a well-known maritime law firm as a young associate working for a tough litigator, who was also former coast guard commander and who did not get along with many of his opponents. Unbeknownst to me, he had a nickname for me – Legs Otero. I only learned about the nickname years later when he became my law partner at a different firm – he called me that while we were travelling overseas on a case. As soon as his pet name for me came out of his mouth, he apologized profusely. This story is funny to me, as until that time, this lawyer was straight-laced and had treated me with the utmost respect. Rather than be incensed by the very un-PC nickname he had given me, I retorted, “Yes, I have legs, just like you do.” I have since learned to take an uncomfortable situation like that and turn it around – I think that is what makes us human.
AALM: How supportive are fellow women practitioners? How do you personally try to help women following in your career path?
Valdés: At the beginning of my career, there were really no women practicing maritime law and several firms that were hiring back in 1994 suggested I go practice family law or something more suitable for a woman. Of course, that drove me crazy and made me want to force my way into the “boy’s club” that is the maritime Bar. Today, I mentor as many young lawyers as I can, including the two young associates I have at my firm. I speak at various events at the different law schools on practicing maritime law as a woman and I have sponsored several students with obtaining clerkships or internships with former employers or with clients.
At the beginning of my career, there were really no women practicing maritime law and several firms that were hiring back in 1994 suggested I go practice family law or something more suitable for a woman. Of course, that drove me crazy and made me want to force my way into the “boy’s club” that is the maritime Bar.
AALM: Do you find that as a woman you face any challenges that men don’t?
Valdés: Throughout my career, I have been underestimated. As a woman, I feel that I have had to constantly prove myself, working harder, smarter and better than every other guy in the room. I feel like I am judged by my appearance as well as my work product. Once in a contentious litigation I was handling, my male opponent called me the “b-word.” All this is a tremendous amount of pressure that I do not believe men experience – if they are contentious, they are just being assertive. Nevertheless, being underestimated, while being a challenge, it is also a great edge.
AALM: How do you balance your home life and work life?
Valdés: Give up the notion of perfection – doing your best is enough. Your family will love you no matter whether the house is a mess, or you had to get take out because you are busy preparing for trial. Be honest with your opponents and judges when you are not as prepared as you would like to be because you were up late helping your daughter with her science project. If you are honest with yourself, your family, your opposition and the judges you appear before, it will all balance out. There is a great saying which I adhere to: “The universe will not give us more than we can handle.”
AALM: What compelled you to start your own practice.
Valdés: I was compelled to “go it alone” while working at my last firm in 2011. At that firm, the partners would dread partner meetings, as the senior partnership spent hours demeaning the junior partners and negatively discussing the associates of the firm. There was never anything positive said – it was a real “them versus us” attitude there. These meetings did not resolve anything and frankly, were a downer. I decided I did not want to be in that kind of environment anymore and figured the only way to avoid it was to set up my own shop the way I want it to be run. It has been a wonderful experience.
AALM: What accomplishment are you most proud of achieving?
Valdés: Having my own firm, with two female associates assisting me, while raising two strong daughters, one of whom is heading off to college this year. I have accomplished raising two young ladies that are very sure of themselves and know what they want out of life. I have two young associates working with me that have handled more in their first year of practice than many attorneys have undertaken in five years of practice. I have numerous friends and colleagues in this industry that have supported me throughout my career and have helped provide me with a happy and rewarding career and life.