Spotlight on Flex – Kristine Sendek-Smith

The Spotlight on Flex showcases professionals from member organizations who exemplify personal and professional success while working a flexible schedule. Their stories illustrate the long-term benefits that flexible schedules offer to both individuals and organizations.

This month, we are pleased to share insights from Kristine Sendek-Smith, Partner in the Washington, DC office of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP.

Kristine Sendek SmithDiversity & Flexibility Alliance: How have you made flexibility a priority and a success with your career? How have clients contributed to your flex success?

Kristine Sendek-Smith: As lawyers, we have varying degrees of “Type A” personalities, and work-life balance implies equilibrium. But that’s not reality, and it’s hard for a lot of us to come to terms with. I like the Alliance’s term “work-life control” instead; flexibility is a delicate thing, and what works for one individual may not work for another. But technology, along with a give-and-take attitude, will help keep the trains running wherever you are.

Even though I started my legal career as a summer associate at Akin and then as a first year litigation associate here in 1997, I left in 2000 to work for a small environmental defense firm. My career path then took me to the US Attorney’s Office in Baltimore, Civil Division, for five years. While there, I had my daughter and started working a part-time schedule. I was lucky to be in a division with wonderful, female mentors, some of whom were also on a reduced hours schedule. In 2010, I returned to Akin on an 80% schedule (meaning, for me, I’m out of the office on Fridays), and I became partner while working flexibly. The firm has been amazing with supporting and implementing its Reduced Work Schedule Policy under the leadership of our chair, Kim Koopersmith. Last year, we elected 14 new partners, of which three were on a flex schedule.

You can be a very skilled and successful lawyer while working a flex schedule. I don’t tell clients I’m on a reduced schedule. If they want a meeting on Friday, I make it happen. The clients that are aware of my schedule have always been very supportive. People recognize we can’t maintain the hectic pace we’re all confronted with. It’s damaging to our health, family structure, and society in general. I believe working flexibly has allowed me to be more focused, present, and in turn, more appreciated by the firm and my clients.

Flexibility is what you’re comfortable with and can tolerate at the moment. I love my job and have a challenging career – sometimes you might feel you’re giving your job 80 percent instead of 110 percent because you have to focus more on your family or other things. That’s OK, and it’s normal. At the end of the day, I try to remember my roots. I’m from Detroit. My dad was a teacher, and my mom worked for the auto industry. We grew up eating dinner together every night as a family, and my dad had the summers off to spend with us. I may not be able to replicate this exact schedule with my family, but I replicate what I can.

DFA: How has working flexibly enhanced your business development and/or professional development?

KSS: Being a partner in a law firm is a unique experience – you’ve risen to the pinnacle of the profession for private practice, but you have to switch your thinking to business mode. You’re not just a lawyer anymore. Now you’re also a marketer and a thought leader. By supporting my flex schedule, the firm and my clients show they value me and my well-being. This goes a long way in furthering a person’s development. You have the time and the energy to think creatively and efficiently.

I use my time away from the office to pursue activities that are still tied to my personal and professional development. I’m creating a website/online legal resource center devoted to reputational recovery (my area of legal expertise). This is my “baby”, and I’m quite excited to launch the site as a place where legal, public relations, and crisis management organizations can have the means to discover objective evidence to repair their clients’ personal or financial reputations.

DFA: Looking back, would you do anything different, or what would you tell your first year associate self?

KSS: Even if you don’t feel confident, you have to exude confidence – simple projection will help you feel it, and people will respond accordingly. Don’t falter publicly when faced with something new – go back to your office, reach out to those you trust, and you’ll figure it out.

Out of college, I started as a legal secretary in a small law firm; I know what it’s like to sit in a cubicle, answer phones, and deal with purely administrative tasks. At the US Attorney’s Office, I had to be my own secretary, paralegal, and law clerk. I learned to be self-sufficient and “grow” my confidence.

Younger attorneys sometimes feel they’re working on assignments that are beneath them, but you still have to knock those out of the park because it will increase people’s confidence in you. Over time, you’ll be given more substantial assignments with increasing responsibility, which in turn builds your confidence. It’s how you become a leader.

Finally, I can’t stress enough the importance of kindness; being nice goes such a long way in your professional and personal journey. You have to remember that everyone is dealing with their own reality, issues, and schedule.

DFA: How do you recharge your batteries and pay it forward?

KSS: I enjoy gardening and being outside. My husband and I are huge Rush fans; I’ve seen them 49 times in concert! And of course spending time with my husband, 10-year-old daughter, extended family, and friends is another key way for me to recharge.

I try to pay it forward by delegating. This allows someone else the opportunity to do something they may not have had the chance to do. At this stage, I shouldn’t be drafting – I should just be revising. Even though I may feel it’s easier to draft the memo myself, I have to think, how will a junior associate learn if I do it? At a certain point, you have to learn how to let go of some of the reins in your life to pay it forward. I remind myself that someone gave me the opportunity in the past, and it let me grow to where I am today. And I’m still enjoying that journey.

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If you are an attorney working a flexible schedule and would like to share your story in an upcoming Spotlight on Flex, contact Eliza Musallam.