By Laurie Rowen
Girls and construction? Hard hats and high heels? While seemingly incongruous, lawyer Kathlynn Smith has made a career out of joining these concepts and uniting the women of the construction industry. Kathlynn Smith co-founded Smart Girls Guide to Construction Law, which is an initiative directed at women-owned and/or operated companies in the construction industry. The Smart Girls’ mission is to advance and support the success of women in the construction industry. The “Smart Girls’ Guide,” is a practical tool for the construction professional with reader-friendly legal tips and explanations of legal principles.
After starting Smart Girls Guide to Construction, Kathlynn has received numerous accolades including a feature story in the Daily Journal, the cover of the June/July 2011 issue of Image Magazine published by the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC), and a nomination The Los Angeles Business Journal’s Women Making Difference Award for her work in developing and implementing the Smart Girls’ Guide to Construction Law and Smart Girls’ network. She has also presented at numerous conferences and panels, including “Hard Hats And High Heels: Being A Smart Girl In Construction” for NAWIC.
Not only is Kathlynn leading Smart Girls, but she is a full-time attorney climbing the ranks at the prestigious law firm, Hunt Ortmann, one of the foremost authorities on California construction law, contracts, dispute resolution and litigation. To top it off, Kathlynn is a mother of a 3 year-old daughter.
I have known Kathlynn for almost 10 years since we were law schools classmates, but I had the recent pleasure of interviewing Kathlynn Smith about her life as a “smart girl,” lawyer and mother. Montage Legal is excited to highlight the third lawyer in our Legal Success Series, and I’m especially excited for all of you to meet Kathlynn Smith….
Laurie Rowen: I have been so impressed with what you have done over the past several years and am so grateful that you agreed to be featured on our blog! Can you please provide us with a little background about yourself and your legal career?
Kathlynn Smith: I graduated from the University of Michigan and obtained my JD from the University of San Diego School of Law. I have been practicing law for a little over 8 years. About 4 years ago, I made a fairly dramatic turn in my career and redirected the focus of my practice to construction law. Since then I have represented owners, developers, contractors, subcontractors, and material suppliers in connection with a wide variety of matters. Frequently, when I say construction law, most people hear “construction defect,” which is not really my niche. While I deal with construction defect cases on occasion, the bulk of my practice relates to contract and construction-specific claims such as delay and acceleration claims, project close-out claims, prompt payment violations, and state and federal false claims act violations. I also assist my clients with risk avoidance during construction to keep their projects moving forward smoothly and so that they can escape what’s becoming the final phase of construction – litigation.
Laurie Rowen: Tell me about how you started Smart Girls Guide to Construction Law and how it grew.
Kathlynn Smith: As my career developed, I did what any attorney does and became involved in several industry organizations. But as I got deeper into the industry, rather than feeling more connected to it, I felt increasingly like an outsider. Not because I was a lawyer, but because I am a woman.
I would go to dinners, conferences, and networking events and would frequently notice that I was one of, maybe, 10 women in the room. It just didn’t seem like this was a true representation of the construction industry. In fact, I knew that it wasn’t. I had worked with owners and contractors for several years and met amazing women in the construction industry doing remarkable things. This disconnect didn’t make any sense to me.
Then, about 2 years ago, one of my colleagues and I endeavored to reach out to and connect women in the construction industry. To do this, we created the Smart Girls’ Guide to Construction Law, which is a series of short publications discussing complex legal issues in an understandable and, hopefully, entertaining way (I know, a tall order for a legal publication, but I try). Since the goal is to connect with women, in The Smart Girls’ Guide we abandoned the look, the tone, and the traditional strategies lawyers use to market themselves. Instead, we chose to talk to women like women.
After the first publication, we were blown-away by the positive response to the Smart Girls’ Guide. And, almost overnight, it became something more than just a publication. We immediately expanded the concept to include a network to provide information about changes to the law, job opportunities, and upcoming events to educate and/or connect those in the Smart Girls’ network. Not a small undertaking since the network has now grown to over 1,200 people throughout the country (and a few internationals as well).
Laurie Rowen: What has been your greatest challenge with practicing law?
Kathlynn Smith: By nature, I am very logical and have a well-defined sense of fairness. This is seemingly a winning combination for a lawyer. Often it is; but not always. Years of practicing law has revealed the ways the law and, unfortunately, other lawyers do not exact justice. It is always difficult to lose a hard-fought battle, but it’s even harder when the result of a ruling is categorically unjust.
Laurie Rowen: What has been your greatest reward?
Kathlynn Smith: It sounds a little strange, but I am very proud to have found my voice. Not only with the Smart Girls’ initiative, but with my legal work as well. I am most successful when I let a little “Kathlynn” shine through – whether it’s in a brief, an argument, or a presentation. Whatever message I’m delivering is most compelling when it sounds real; not like it was ripped from a treatise.
Laurie Rowen: Like many lawyers, you have young child, and are forced to balance your legal career, business development, and time with your family. How do you balance your career with being the mother of a very active toddler?
Kathlynn Smith: Hmm, balance? To me, it’s not really a matter of balance; it’s a matter of sacrifice. On any given day, I have to make calculated decisions about how best to achieve my short-term and long-term goals. And, not surprisingly, my personal and professional goals are often at odds. So each day I make a choice to seize opportunities that either benefit my career or my family. Of course, that’s a typical day when all things are equal because my family always comes first. Period. Ultimately, I do a lot of vetting so that I make choices that justify the time away from my family. Also, it may sound cliché, but I really couldn’t do what I do without the support of my husband. I am extremely fortunate to have a true partner in life.
Laurie Rowen: What advice do you have for young female lawyers who are striving for more balance in their lives?
My advice is to evaluate and set honest goals. What is right for one person, may not be for another. When you set personalized goals, you are more likely to make decisions that are right for you. In doing that, you create a more satisfying career that accounts for what you want in your life.
Also, be open to changing your goals. Life is unpredictable. Don’t hold onto something that doesn’t reflect who you are now or who you want to be.
Laurie Rowen: Do you think you have faced different challenges being a female lawyer?
Kathlynn Smith: It is a rare day in court, in deposition, or in client meetings that I find myself sitting with more than one or two other women – and that’s on a good day. When I’m in those settings, I often find myself paying particular attention to my words and mannerisms to make sure that I am properly representing smart, strong, professional women. Making sure that I am seen as being straightforward not pushy, engaging not flirty, and persuasive not shrill. And while I don’t act to placate others’ perceptions of me, I am in a business where perceptions – whether right or wrong – can have a significant impact on my success. All lawyers face these challenges to some extent or another, but I believe women attorneys are more highly scrutinized and negatively viewed for exhibiting characteristics that are valued when seen in men.
That being said, there is a strategic advantage a smart woman has when anyone underestimates her intelligence. I have been underestimated and, let me tell you, the victory tastes that much sweeter.
Laurie Rowen: Thank you so much for taking the time to share your story with us, Kathlynn!
To view attorneys who have previously been profiled on our Legal Success Series, please see the following:
Kathlynn Smith specializes in construction and general business litigation. She has successfully represented owners, developers, contractors, and subcontractors in a wide variety of matters relating to contract administration and construction claims. Ms. Smith places a particular emphasis on construction claims involving payment disputes, delay and disruption, false claims, construction defects, and actions on payment and performance bonds. Ms. Smith has successfully litigated and resolved complex construction disputes involving multi-million dollar claims. Contact Kathlynn at [email protected] or 626-440-5200. For more information about Kathlynn Smith, visit the Hunt Ortsmann website.