MoFo Women Spotlight: Ruti Smithline and Stacey Sprenkel

Editors’ Note: MoFo’s Women’s Strategy Committee (WSC) comprises both male and female partners and associates who strive to foster women attorneys’ development and professional success. In a recent program hosted by the WSC, San Francisco-based Securities Litigation, Enforcement + White Collar Defense (SLEW) associate Lauren Navarro interviewed New York-based partner and co-chair of the firm’s Investigations + White Collar practice Ruti Smithline and San Francisco-based partner, leader of the firm’s Global Ethics and Compliance practiceand co-chair of the WSC Stacey Sprenkel. In this 18th installment of the MoFo Women Spotlight series, Ruti and Stacey discuss how they grew into their roles and what has helped shaped their careers.

Lauren: Ruti and Stacey, could you both give us a quick introduction and tell us a little bit about your practice and how you came to the firm?

Ruti: I’ve been at MoFo for 15 years, which every time I say that, I feel a bit shocked because I don’t know how 15 years have gone by so fast. I’m in SLEW and my practice is focused on “EW” side of SLEW, so the enforcement and the white collar side. I also do a lot of cross-border investigations with a particular focus on Latin America.

Stacey: I lead the firm’s Global Ethics and Compliance practice, but I am also a member of the SLEW practice. Like Ruti, I’m on the “EW” side. I do a wide range of internal investigations and compliance counseling, helping companies develop and test their compliance programs. I’ve also done a lot of anti-corruption and compliance-related diligence for cross-border transactions, and some litigation, as it turns out. I have also been here for 15 years, and Ruti and I have been working really closely together for many years—more than a decade at this point.

Lauren: Stacey, can you tell us a little bit about how you got into ethics and compliance work and how your practice has developed over the 15 years you’ve been here?

Stacey: It was sort of fortuitous and organic the way that it all developed, but when I first started at MoFo, the only thing I thought I knew about my practice was that I didn’t want to be in the SLEW Group. When I first started at the firm, I was working on a securities litigation case and an internal investigation and I loved them both, but I was sort of stubborn. I tried a whole lot of other things and, relatively quickly, came to the conclusion that I actually loved working on the SLEW team, I really liked the people, and I thought the matters were really interesting.

I would say that I got kind of lucky because I was working on some anti-corruption focused matters right around the time that the Department of Justice started to enforce the FCPA. I developed this area of expertise, and that was really valuable, although we didn’t know at the time that it would be. I started working on M&A diligence, anti‑corruption-related issues, and compliance issues, and started helping companies that were just starting to realize they needed a compliance program, develop their programs. As a result of that, I ended up having a lot of experience with these issues and, as it became a much bigger area of focus for clients, for the government, and for the firm, my practice just kind of grew.

Lauren: Do you have any advice for a junior attorney who’s looking to get into this kind of work? 

Stacey: My advice on that would be the same advice that I would give to anyone about any area of the law, which is to actively pursue things that interest you and teams that you want to work with. I think you come to a firm like MoFo and there are so many interesting things going on that it’s really easy to sit back and have matters come your way and roll with what you’re given. But I think the more that you actively engage in trying the things that seem interesting to you, whether that’s the FCPA or something else, talking to the partners that do the kind of work you’re interested in, even if it’s not a billable matter, you can really play a pretty active role in steering your career the way that you want to steer it. When you find the right team in the right area of practice for you, it just clicks and you know.

Lauren: Ruti, did you know coming into the firm that you were interested in white collar investigations, or did it happen more organically?

Ruti: I joined the firm as a third-year associate. The firm I was at before MoFo didn’t have a white collar practice. It was frustrating to me that we wouldn’t handle the type of cases with a criminal component and that they would go to a different firm. I was like, “I want to be doing that piece of it.” So, when I was looking to lateral, I was specifically looking for a white collar practice. When I started at MoFo, I was given the opportunity to work—only about a year into my joining MoFo—on one of the very first big FCPA investigations that the firm handled.

Lauren: Now that you’ve been doing this work for about 15 years, does something stand out as your favorite part of your practice, or the thing that you enjoy the most about your day-to-day?

Ruti: I would say there’s not one thing, but a couple of things. One, I think, is our team. I really do think we have a phenomenally good team. And, that’s a team that’s across all offices around the globe. The second thing I would say is that, at least on the internal investigation side, you’re constantly learning something new about a company or a different industry. So, I have found myself in these situations where I’m like, “How is a lawyer in New York here?” I was in a windmill farm three hours outside Oaxaca, Mexico, a pineapple farm in Costa Rica, and a mail facility in the Philippines and wondered, “How is this my job?”

Lauren: Stacey, is there anything that stands out as your favorite part about our practice or your day-to-day?

Stacey: I agree with both of the things that Ruti said. For me personally, it would be really hard to be on a team that was competitive. Ruti and I came up together as associates, and then Ruti became a partner the year before I did. I can’t imagine working in an environment where Ruti and I felt like we had to compete with each other. We talk all the time and constantly give each other ideas about how to approach something. I feel like our team is so cohesive, even though we are spread around the globe, and so supportive of each other. I went out on a maternity leave, and it was completely seamless to just hand my matters off to Ruti and Dan Levison. It’s really good to be at a place where we’re all just trying to get the right result for the client and we’re having some fun doing it. I also agree that, at least once a week something happens in my job where I’m like, “How is this what I do?” or “Do I get paid for this?”

The other thing I would add is, in my compliance practice, a lot of what I do is work with clients as things come up, day to day. I love that because on the investigation side of the practice or as a litigator, you’re typically dealing with things that happened in the past and you’re reactive. So, there’s something really beneficial and interesting about having that proactive element to your practice where you’re trying to not just figure out what happened in the past, but to  mitigate risk. It’s nice to be involved in helping clients figure out how to build in a way that is consistent with their ethical values and in a way that minimizes their legal and compliance risk.

Lauren: Ruti, is there anything that you know now as a partner that surprises you, or that you wish that you could tell your former, junior attorney self?

Ruti: Some advice I got from Paul Friedman a while back—who mentored both Stacey and me—was to look at your career in the sense that it’s really not a sprint and it’s certainly a marathon; that there are points in your life where you’re going to be all in on your job and there are points in your life that your personal life or particular circumstances are going to call on you to drop back a little bit, and that’s okay. When I came to the firm, my plan was originally to stay here for a few years and then apply to be a prosecutor. Then I had my daughter as a fifth year associate, and it seemed like the wrong time to be changing jobs. Ten-plus years passed and here I still am. I think what really made me want to be a partner, particularly at MoFo, was the ability to have and raise my daughter, while not compromising any of the things that I wanted for my family.

Lauren: Stacey, is there anything that you know now that surprises you, or something you wish you could tell your prior self? 

Stacey: I think that it’s easy to have an image in your mind of what your career is going to look like, and to feel like you need to sort of plow straight ahead. I would say just to be open. Be open to the different things that come your way and the opportunities to work with different people on different kinds of matters. Never stop learning because there might be that new area of the law that becomes really interesting and significant over time. Another thing that surprised me is how dedicated the partners are to mentoring the associates on their teams and getting behind them in the evaluation process, putting their team members forward to speak on panels or speak internally on panels at the firm. Take advantage of people who are trying to mentor you. Ask partners that you’re working with to lunch. Tell them what your career goals are. Ask them questions about how they got to where they are. Ask them for constructive feedback.

Lauren: Do you think that this is unique to MoFo or something that sets MoFo apart?

Ruti: I do think that’s part of the MoFo difference. I think it’s the culture that I found that fit really well for me. There’s a number of reasons why the firm is set up the way it is. For example, if you look at partner compensation, there’s a lot of recognition for how much you are helping others. So Stacey’s success is my success, too. MoFo itself is structured to encourage and really give priority to this culture.

Stacey: I think because we have a reputation of having this kind of collaborative culture that we attract people that are attracted to that. I would definitely say that there are structures in place at the firm that encourage that. I feel like I’ve always had a really good team. They’re not just smart lawyers.  They’re not just really good lawyers. They’re really good people, and that, I think, makes the job so much more rewarding.

Learn more about the Women’s Strategy Committee and Morrison & Forester’s commitment to the advancement of women in the legal profession here.