Attorney at Law Magazine Miami publisher Rhenne Leon sat down with Schuyler Analise Smith of Hamilton, Miller & Birthisel LLP 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?
Smith: The ability to make strategic decisions to achieve excellent, and often unexpected, results for my clients is most rewarding to me. I also revel in exceeding the expectations of those who underestimate my capabilities as an attorney, often because I am a black woman. Maintaining diplomacy and patience when faced with situations where I am the subject of inequity, sexism, and disparate treatment because of my age, sex or race is my biggest struggle. I have been able to overcome these challenges by working hard, always being prepared, and never being afraid to communicate my position so my values and beliefs are clear.
AALM: Did you have any mentors or professors who helped you develop your career? What is the best lesson they taught you?
Smith: Yes, to succeed in our profession today, it is vital to have multiple professional mentors. My success is, in large part, directly connected to having mentors who have invested in my growth and progression as an attorney. At a minimum, there must be one inside your place of employment and another in the community at large. My mentors have encouraged me to become involved in the legal community which has propelled me to hold leadership positions in a number of state and local bar associations. As a result, I can truly say I am a well rounded lawyer. Over the years, my mentors have provided me with practical guidance and advice on how to meet and exceed expectations in my places of employ and on how to survive in a law firm when I had limited knowledge and experience. Within my current law firm, I have been blessed with mentors who have afforded me opportunities to showcase my legal skills on complex and high exposure cases and to develop my own book of business which is crucial to sustainable growth in this profession.
AALM: How welcoming do you think the South Florida legal community is to women practitioners?
Smith: Despite the progress of women in our profession in recent years, I believe that there remains tremendous room for improvement with respect to opportunities for women in our profession. Women can do much more to ensure other women are given opportunities to grow and excel. From the boardroom to the courtroom, our presence in occupying positions of leadership remains underwhelming. In this regard, it is incumbent on us to be a voice for other qualified women, and to open doors for each other if we find ourselves in a position to do so.
Women can do much more to ensure other women are given opportunities to grow and excel. … it is incumbent on us to be a voice for other qualified women, and to open doors for each other if we find ourselves in a position to do so.
AALM: How supportive are fellow women practitioners? How do you personally try to help women following in your career path?
Smith: Unfortunately, men have been much more supportive and instrumental in my professional growth than women. I have, however, been fortunate to have female clients who recognize my abilities and have ensured my success by vocalizing my value, in their minds, to my superiors and by sending me cases directly.
Most notably, a few years ago I met a female in-house lawyer while waiting in line to attend an event at a conference. We exchanged cards, discussed our practices, and kept in contact. About two years later she reached out to me and provided me with an opportunity to pitch for her company’s business. When I doubted my ability to coordinate and lead the effort to pitch to her and her colleagues she assured me I was fully capable and did not need to solicit the “crutch” of my partners. Due to her support and encouragement, my firm was hired, my efforts were lauded by her and her team to my partners, and my value was solidified at my firm.
Her actions exemplify what it means to pay it forward when in a position to do so. I strive to be an advocate for other female attorneys and facilitate opportunities to other women where I can. Women supporting other women is critical to greater diversity and inclusion in our profession.
AALM: Do you find that as a woman you face any challenges that men don’t?
Smith: Undoubtedly, women in the legal profession face more instances of implicit bias. Women are often judged by their choice of fashion, hair styles and the way in which they communicate. Women must battle the norms that have formed within the culture of the profession for generations. On far too many occasions, I have been mistaken as the court reporter – even in mediations where a court reporter would not usually be in attendance. I have also been told I am too aggressive; something no one ever told a man. The color of my nails and my suits has frequently been a topic of discussion though neither has inhibited my ability to obtain successful results for my clients. Unconscious and implicit bias must be addressed in our profession because it serves to stymie female lawyers who may not feel comfortable in a profession and society where people feel forced to be everyone but themselves to “make it.” Fortunately, there are more women now in law school than ever before and it is my hope that a transformation of the makeup of the profession is forthcoming.
AALM: How do you balance your home life and work life?
Smith: Many in our profession struggle with finding the optimum work-life balance. I often say I work to live and don’t live to work, though it may seem the opposite to my peers. There is not a complete balance in all aspects of my life at all times, but I understand and choose to accept that reality. I strive for perfection and excellence at work which leads me to work long and hard hours. I also recognize that being “burnt out” is a real phenomenon and therefore make the conscious decision to sleep seven-eight hours every day, schedule vacations or staycations at least once a quarter, and maintain a social life with friends and family.
AALM: What first drew you to your firm? Tell us about your role there.
Smith: The firm’s diverse attorneys, diverse practice areas, and Caribbean reach piqued my interest. I joined Hamilton, Miller & Birthisel as an associate in 2012 because the firm had a need for a lawyer willing to take the bar exam in the U.S. Virgin Islands to service its clients there. As a Jamaican-American, I figured practicing in an island was an opportunity I would be foolish not to take. Jerry Hamilton, the firm’s managing partner, also had a reputation that preceded him as trial lawyer which made the firm that more attractive given my desire to refine my skills as a trial attorney.
I am currently a partner in the firm’s Florida and U.S. Virgin Islands offices and handle commercial and business litigation matters, as well as, personal injury, premises liability, and product liability lawsuits.
AALM: What accomplishment are you most proud of achieving?
Smith: My recent elevation to partner. Rising to the ranks of partnership last year at the age of 32, and being the youngest law partner in my firm was validation for the years of hard work and commitment to the firm and served as an affirmation that I am deserving of a seat at the table.