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July 28, 2023 - MoFo Women, MoFo Diversity

Leaders of Influence: A Spotlight on MoFo’s Women of Color – Ruti Smithline

Ruti Smithline

As part of MoFo’s Leaders of Influence campaign, Ruti Smithline, co-chair of the firm’s Investigations + White-Collar Criminal Defense Group and co-chair of the firm’s Latin America Desk, discusses what motivated her to become a leader, what skills she uses most often in her leadership role, and how she stays mindful of who’s at the table and who’s missing.

Ruti’s practice focuses on complex litigation, with an emphasis on white-collar criminal defense, SEC enforcement, and corporate internal investigations. She is a member of the firm’s global FCPA + Anti-Corruption Task Force, and she regularly advises clients on cross-border investigations, global compliance programs, and anti-corruption due diligence for acquisitions, joint ventures, and private equity transactions. Ruti has represented individual and corporate defendants in cross-border criminal investigations, SEC enforcement matters, and other regulatory proceedings, including matters related to trade sanctions and anti-money laundering. She has experience conducting corporate internal investigations both domestically and internationally, often advising clients on remedial measures responsive to the issues that are being investigated. As a native Spanish speaker born and raised in Colombia, she is able to provide guidance to her clients without a need for translation.

What motivated you to step up and become a leader at the firm?

I have to admit that when I first became a leader it was not necessarily a conscious decision as much as it was the result of being presented with an opportunity. But what I quickly realized is that, by taking on these leadership positions, I could make a meaningful impact, particularly in helping to advance more junior attorneys. Early on in my career I learned the difference between mentorship and sponsorship, and while I think both are crucial to professional development, taking on leadership positions has allowed me to become a sponsor. I am now part of conversations where I can advocate for other lawyers and ensure that they are represented when decisions are being made.

What skills do you use most often in your leadership role?

My practice is focused on cross-border investigations, and one of the skills I find most crucial is the ability to listen. I think this skill translates well into my style of leadership because I believe it is critical to listen to others. I want to make sure people are respected and heard. Ultimately, this allows me to consider a diverse set of views before acting, even if what I decide is not the consensus point of view. I also greatly value transparency, and I make it a point to share as much information as is appropriate. I find that people are more likely to feel comfortable with decisions—even ones that they may not agree with—if they understand the rationale for the decision.

As a leader, how do you stay mindful of who’s at the table and who’s missing?

Throughout my career I have been fortunate to work with advocates who not only gave me a seat at the table but also ensured that I had a voice. Appreciating how important this has been for my own development, I make an intentional effort to provide opportunities for my teams to have meaningful client-facing interactions and to own substantive projects and presentations. What I have learned is that, while important, making sure they are at the table is not enough; they need to have an important role to play and an opportunity to showcase their skills and expertise. I want every member of my team to be heard, and I make a conscious effort to ensure that everyone—and not just the ones who may naturally be more outgoing, assertive, or confident—feels prepared enough to play a substantive role.

What is the biggest challenge facing leaders today?

At a law firm, people are our number one asset. Without talent, we have no product to sell.  And for that reason, a key priority for me is ensuring that we attract and, more importantly, retain our attorneys. In many ways, I don’t believe that the practice of law has necessarily kept pace with the expectations and needs of an evolving workforce. The challenge that I see for leaders today is that we cannot continue to demand that things be done how they used to be simply because that is what worked in the past. We also need to adapt and evolve to ensure that we can motivate and develop attorneys to achieve the ultimate goal—which has not changed—of delivering excellent client service.

What leadership skills are you continuing to work on?

Not to overgeneralize, but I think, like many other women, I sometimes struggle with a lack of confidence or the idea of impostor syndrome. Particularly as I started to assume leadership positions, I sometimes wondered if someone had made a mistake in selecting me. While being humble is a great character trait, there were occasions where I may not have spoken out when I had a good idea or strategy to share, especially if it was an unpopular one. But I continue to work on ensuring that I do not undercut my own abilities or sell myself short of my accomplishments, and my self-confidence continues to grow as I take on expanded leadership roles. I think some of the best advice I ever got was that I should accept and seek out new opportunities and challenges even if I don’t feel 100% prepared for them.