Labor and employment attorney Joyce Smithey didn’t know what type of practice she wanted as a student at Boston University School of Law. She considers herself lucky for finding her passion for employment law as a young lawyer – a sentiment that is surely echoed by her many employee-side clients over the years. An early victory as a litigator revealed the intense commitment required for success in such complex cases.
“I won a large case against a Fortune 500 company very early in my career,” Smithey recalls. “It was my first trial I handled on my own, and I tried the case three times, as it was appealed twice. I won it the third time and realized how critical it was that employment lawyers need to be ready to fight.”
These days, Smithey is not only a busy trial lawyer but a firm manager, as well. She left Rifkin Weiner Livingston to open her own firm, Annapolis, Md.-based Smithey Law Group, in 2018.
Lawdragon: How did you become interested in employment law?
Joyce Smithey: Almost everyone has employment relationships of some sort in their lives at one time or another. We spend much of our waking hours at work, and it is deeply important how people are treated during those hours.
LD: What do you find satisfying about this type of practice?
JS: Losing your job can take away your income, your health insurance, your reputation, and your sense of worth. I always say that I meet a lot of nice people at the worst time of their lives, and it's extremely satisfying to guide people through these tough times. I also like the "David vs. Goliath" aspect of this type of law – the employers control the witnesses, have more favorable law and deeper pockets, which makes a win in my cases especially rewarding.
LD: Out of all the work you’ve done in your career, what would you say is the most interesting matter you’ve handled?
JS: I represented a group of John Doe minor firefighters who had been sexually assaulted while working for a local fire department. I still keep in touch with the young men I represented, and at least one of them used the proceeds from the lawsuit to get a stellar education. He graduated from MIT and still looks me up when he is back in town.
LD: Are there any trends you are seeing in your practice in terms of the types of matters keeping you busy these days?
JS: Employment law firms are still deeply impacted by Covid-related matters. We get hundreds of callers asking about vaccine mandates in their workplace. We have also seen an uptick in the number of non-compete matters coming through the door as the economy has opened back up in some industries and people began moving.
LD: Is this the type of practice you imagined yourself practicing while in law school?
JS: I had no idea what area of law I wanted to pursue after law school. I knew I liked reading and writing, and I had a passion to make a difference. I was very lucky to have stumbled into employment law after law school, as it almost immediately became my passion. After that, I never looked back.
LD: Was there a course, professor or experience that was particularly memorable or important?
JS: I still remember my evidence professor saying that you could use a pizza to refresh someone's recollection.
LD: What advice do you have now for current law school students?
JS: It's a great education, and you are not stuck in a particular career path. Think broadly with what you can do with the degree, and be brave to take some risks in that regard.
LD: How has your practice changed since the early part of your career?
JS: More cases settle. The courts have intensified their focus on mandatory ADR programs for the most part, and our magistrate bench is incredibly effective in getting cases settled. I'm lucky if I get to try a couple of cases each year. The costs of litigation along with fee-shifting in my practice area tend to drive parties to settlement.
LD: Is there a matter or client in your career that stands out as a “favorite” or one that is more memorable for certain reasons?
JS: I once had an age discrimination client who was shown the door after years of successfully leading the organization. The employer would not budge on offering any severance. We brought suit and the depositions felt like taking a body count, and it was very clear "the emperor had no clothes," so to speak. She felt very validated watching those depositions and even wrote a poem about me after the case concluded. She then followed her dreams and opened a boutique instead of going back into the cut throat corporate world. She's still living her best life and keeps in touch.
LD: How would you describe your style as a litigator?
JS: Collegial. Two good lawyers should be able to argue the merits and damages of a case in a civil and thoughtful way. Nastiness and lack of professionalism generally only hurts the clients in drawing matters out and costing more in legal fees.
LD: Can you talk about starting your own firm and what that has been like?
JS: I spent decades in law firms before eventually opening my own law firm three years ago. We started as two attorneys and a staff member, and now we have nine attorneys and four staff members. This growth has occurred through the start-up years and during a pandemic.
I am proud to say that my firm lives up to the spirit I envisioned – even if women had to claw their way to the top in my generation and those before me, it doesn't mean that was right. It's my job and other lawyers' jobs to help the new generation of lawyers and give them opportunities and advice that we may not have had.
LD: What are some of the challenges you face as the firm’s founder and leader?
JS: There are never enough hours in a day. I love being a lawyer, but managing a law firm is a very large time investment. It's a challenge to wear multiple hats as a business owner and a busy trial lawyer.
LD: There are many high-quality firms out there. How is Smithey Law unique?
JS: We focus exclusively on labor and employment law and have literally "written the book" on some employment law topics. We have been recognized by our peers with numerous awards, and we are involved in every arena where we can advocate for employees, from the legislature to the courts to the media.
LD: What do you do for fun when you’re outside the office?
JS: I am a mom to 13-year-old twins and love (almost) every minute of it.
LD: Are you involved in any pro bono or public interest activities?
JS: I volunteer on the Employment Law Hotline for the Women's Law Center. This is a wonderful service where employees who may not have a matter large enough to attract lawyers to the case can still get advice and answers to their questions.