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Minority Powerbrokers Q&A: Nossaman's Alfred Smith

01/29/2015 Law360

Nossaman Partner Alfred Smith was profiled in Law360 as a part of their Minority Powerbrokers Q&A series. Mr. Smith's full Q&A can be found below.

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Alfred E. Smith II is a partner in Nossaman LLP's Los Angeles office. He chairs the firm's water practice group and diversity and inclusion committee, and serves on the firm's attorney review committee and the firm's nominating committee.

An expert in water and environmental law, Smith has secured more than $500 million worth of contamination settlements in favor of his clients. He is an adviser on matters involving water rights, contamination remediation, groundwater adjudications, water transfers, recycled water, desalination, conjunctive use, climate change, environmental regulatory compliance and public agency law. He has successfully litigated before both the California Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court.

Smith is an appointed member of the Legal Affairs Board for the Association of California Water Agencies, the largest coalition of public water agencies in California. He has served as pro bono special counsel to the Association of Groundwater Agencies. He also serves on the board of trustees and as a deacon for the Triedstone Church in Los Angeles.

As a participant in Law360's Minority Powerbrokers Q&A series, Smith shared his perspective on five questions:

Q: How did you break the glass ceiling in the legal industry?

A: I recognized early on that gaining the trust of leadership in the legal industry, and any industry for that matter, takes four elements — commitment, persistence, hard work and a strategic plan. The last of these elements — a strategic plan — may be the most important. My strategic plan was to develop professional and personal relationships with the attorneys at my firm in the initial stages of my career in order to build credibility and heighten my profile with both my peer group and decision makers. Having the trust and respect of both of these groups was instrumental in helping me move into and be successful in a firm-level leadership position.

As an associate, I was fortunate to have a number of mentors, both minority and nonminorities, who provided invaluable advice and career direction, helping me to not only understand the legal side of the profession, but the business side as well. These mentors also provided me with opportunities to obtain significant responsibility on substantial matters early in my career.

In addition, it was helpful for me to establish a nice practice area that fits within the overall strategic direction of the firm. I specialize in water law. I made it a point to be proactive in developing expertise in my niche practice area, including attending the year-long Water Leaders Class sponsored by the Water Education Foundation. In addition to the technical expertise, it was critical to increase my exposure in the industry through writing, speaking and leadership positions in key industry organizations. I now chair the firm's water practice group.

Q: What are the challenges of being a lawyer of color at a senior level?

A: The small number of African-American partners in large law firms is a major challenge facing most firms. This creates limited numbers of African-American attorneys available to serve as mentors and role models, and it also creates recruiting challenges for minority attorneys seeking to join a firm where they will not feel alone. It is important for minority attorneys to have self-confidence, and to view diversity and difference as something to be celebrated. It is important for minority attorneys to develop a thick skin so that when they experience obstacles or insensitivity, they can use those experiences to build strength and intestinal fortitude. It is also important to have a strong support system like I have with my spouse, my family and my church. I am blessed to be a part of the Nossaman firm, where diversity and inclusion have been celebrated ever since I began my tenure at the firm since I was a summer associate 20 years ago.

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

A: I recall an ex parte hearing I attended on a large case as a young associate. There were about 13 attorneys in the courtroom waiting for the judge to begin calling the calendar. I was the only minority attorney. The opposing counsel wanted to discuss our case before the hearing; however, since it was the first appearance in the case, we had never met in person. The opposing counsel went to every other attorney in the courtroom asking if they were the attorney on the case. At one point, he looked me in the eye, but did not ask if I was the attorney. I wondered why he did not think I would be the attorney on such a large matter. I wondered if it was my age; but after he passed me by, he asked another very junior attorney. I had on a nice suit, I showered, brushed my teeth. I don't know why he passed me by, and I wondered what assumptions were going through his head as he made the decision to do so. To this day, I can still see the look of surprise on his face as I approached the judge when our case was called. Instead of letting his actions discourage my spirit, I decided to simply let excellence in practice skills do the talking. After winning that motion and the entire case, I don't think that attorney would overlook me again.

Q: What advice would you give to a lawyer of color?

A: Take responsibility for your career, network extensively both inside and outside your firm in order to increase your profile and start building a support system, and identify mentors from an array of backgrounds early on in your career — all of this will benefit you greatly down the line. Recognize that you may encounter barriers that nonminority candidates wouldn't face, and that you'll need to develop effective resolutions to overcome them. Be interested not only in your clients' legal issues, but also invest time to understand your clients' business. Perform a needs assessment for your clients, and understand how your legal services can assist in advancing your clients' overall strategic and business goals.

Q: What advice would you give to a law firm looking to increase diversity in its partner ranks?

A: Make sure that you have the framework in place that will attract diverse candidates to your firm — and more importantly, that you create an environment where diverse candidates can succeed in your firm. Diversity is not just about recruiting diverse candidates, but also retaining and promoting them. It is important that diversity initiatives are supported with participation at the highest levels of the firm; that the firm's compensation system incentivizes and rewards attorneys who contribute to implementing diversity initiatives; and that diversity becomes an integrated part of the firm's culture where all attorneys can thrive.

It is also important to understand the business imperative for diversity and to include diversity as part of the firm's strategic plan. With the changing face of in-house counsel, focused attention to diversity is critical to remain competitive in the future. Indeed, a host of companies have signed on to diversity initiatives for hiring outside counsel. For example, Wal-Mart's diversity initiatives have been widely reported. Among other things, Wal-Mart wrote their top 100 firms, asked them to report on their firm's diversity, and if the numbers were insufficient or if they showed insufficient interest, Wal-Mart would adjust or terminate the relationship. As a result of that initiative, Wal-Mart did in fact change relationships with 40 percent of the law firms they retained.

I am honored to chair the diversity and inclusion committee at Nossaman, where we have developed a formalized diversity action plan for recruiting, retaining and promoting diverse attorneys at all levels of the firm. Nossaman's initiatives include formalized action to enhance diversity through mentorship, recruiting minorities and women, diversity and business development training, succession planning for firm leadership roles, and the creation of databases to track our initiatives, assess progress, monitor the allocation of work assignments and access to top clients, and realign programs as necessary.

To give a few examples, Nossaman participates in diversity career fairs, including the Bay Area Diversity Career fair — an annual event sponsored by the San Francisco Bar Association, which literally attracts hundreds of diverse law students from all across the country. Nossaman networks with law school career placement offices, has developed strategic alliances with minority and women bar associations, works with outside recruiters to develop a diverse slate of candidates, and participates in key diversity organizations such as the California Minority Counsel Program and the Minority Corporate Counsel Association. Nossaman has formalized an annual diversity day, an annual women's retreat, and developed affinity groups for minority attorneys, which host events throughout the year to support minority attorneys, celebrate diversity and enhance cultural awareness.

It was my pleasure to address diversity and inclusion initiatives to the entire firm this year at Nossaman's annual retreat. I am honored to be a part of a firm that seeks to mirror the diversity of our clients and the communities in which we work and live. A firm that believes a diverse workplace facilitates the exchange of new perspectives, improves problem-solving by inviting different ideas, and creates a respectful, accepting work environment — which is not only the "right" thing to do, it makes good business sense as well.

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