Smitty brings both plaintiff- and defense-side experience, takes a multi-faceted view of all issues facing clients, and brings creativity to thinking through the challenges impacting their business. Read on to learn more about how Smitty advocates for clients who are seeking fairness in the context of cost recovery, and how he helps them navigate the complexities and intricacies of environmental law and insurance coverage.
Wolf Wallenstein’s Partner Spotlight was conceived as an opportunity to get to know our team better – from how we help our clients and what makes us different, to what motivates us both in and outside the office and how that balance benefits our clients.
“I take a multi-faceted view of things, which I give full credit to my wife. She taught me how to consider other people’s perspectives, which dovetails with my empathetic nature. Stacking empathy with a holistic view of the law and legal process benefits me full stop – in my life, with my family, with my wife, in my career. I approach law the same way. I think that we all benefit that way.” –Christopher “Smitty” Smith
QUESTION: What attracted you to the legal field?
ANSWER: In undergrad, I studied finance and wanted to pursue a career in financial services coming out of college. I enjoy financial analysis and valuing equities and options. However, there were not a lot of opportunities to employ my analytical skills in the area where I went to college, so I pivoted to law. Advocacy comes naturally to me, and I recognized my analytical talents could be combined with that innate skill to create opportunities for me. Practically, the credit for my pivot to law goes to my wife, who I met in college and who encouraged me to pursue my dreams. Law ended up being an ideal fit for my innate and learned talents.
QUESTION: What attracted you to specialize in environmental law?
ANSWER: My path to environmental law was not linear. I had a position lined up before I graduated from law school that evaporated for reasons beyond my control. I graduated law school in 2008 in the midst of Great Recession. It was a challenging time in the legal marketplace. I ended up working at a small LA-based litigation boutique where environmental law was one of the practice areas. The environmental work I was doing put me at the table with numerous Am Law 100 firms, and I quickly realized that I was doing the same work as the attorneys at those major firms. I also realized that environmental law aligned with my analytical talents because the regulations, statutes, common law, and issues were constantly evolving and developing. My realization of the dynamism and opportunities that environmental law presented motivated me to make the jump into Big Law and I never looked back.
QUESTION: What differentiates you from other lawyers in this space?
ANSWER: Keeping with the creativity theme, that is the core of who I am. My creativity differentiates me from other attorneys. For example, several years ago I was working on a sprawling CERCLA case for a publicly traded transportation company. I recognized an aspect of the case that was not being confronted because other counsel on the case did not see the nuance in the common law that I saw in California public nuisance law. Because of my knowledge and experience understanding the client’s business, I spotlighted that the client’s activity at issue was not one of intent, but rather a routine part of its operations. The CERCLA case involved countless potentially responsible parties, hundreds of millions of dollars in remedial costs, and no other potentially responsible parties were going to confront the issue. I was confident in our public nuisance challenge that our client’s actions were not intentional, so I advocated to the client to confront the issue with a dispositive motion. At the time, my partners challenged my position and the likelihood of success, but I persisted, and we prevailed on the dispositive motion, resulting in a decision that was eventually upheld by the Ninth Circuit. That win set into motion a sequence of events that significantly benefitted our client in that CERCLA case.
I also bring a holistic view of all the issues. I represent clients on both sides of cases, i.e., as plaintiffs and defendants. This is another aspect of my practice my clients benefit from because I do not have a myopic view of my clients’ claims or defenses. I look at what I think is the best-case scenario and then I look at issues from the other side to determine what my client’s adversary might be thinking and planning. In practice, this allows me to provide my clients with a clear-eyed view of their claims at the outset. My insurance cost recovery experience is a good example of how this works. For the first six years of my career, I served as outside third-party counsel for clients who were having their legal claims paid for by insurance companies. After that time, I pivoted to Big Law and my work essentially flipped. Now I pursue insurance companies in insurance cost recovery. My prior experience working for insurance companies provides me with the understanding of how insurance companies approach claims, defenses, and process. My clients find significant value in my well-rounded experience because they recognize I can uniquely see all different perspectives.
QUESTION: What inspired you to join Wolf Wallenstein?
ANSWER: Fifteen years into my career, it was time for another pivot. This time it was out of Big Law and back into a litigation boutique. That decision is the best thing that could have happened to my career at this point in my constant evolution. Leaving Big Law gave me agency and removed me from an overly process-oriented path. I gave serious consideration, and fielded offers, from both in-house and government, but none of those options offered what I found at Wolf Wallenstein. It was evident at the first meeting with the partners that I was meant to take my abilities to Wolf Wallenstein. There was a kindred connection. There were no undue formalities. We all agreed on a no a**hole-policy. I also liked the idea of getting back together with former Big Law partners who had gone to Wolf Wallenstein.
QUESTION: Describe your typical client.
ANSWER: A business or individual who has unfairly incurred costs, or is slated to incur costs, as a result of legal liability or loss, who then seeks to pursue the truly responsible party to recover those costs. In short, my clients are typically seeking fairness and cost recovery.
For environmental, my typical client is facing possible or actual legal liability from hazardous substances or exposure to hazardous substances arising out of owning or operating real property or through business operations.
For insurance, my typical client is facing possible or actual legal liability from a loss that is or should be covered under insurance arising out of similar contexts. My clients include publicly and privately held companies in a wide range of industries – transportation, chemical, environmental services, oil and gas, commercial real estate, aerospace/defense, and public utilities, among others – and they are out of pocket large sums of money and are looking at liabilities through the lens of cost. They need help navigating the legal process, specifically federal and state environmental statues and the common law, to pursue cost recovery. That is how I help clients. I chase down responsible parties and insurance companies to recoup clients’ unfairly incurred costs.
QUESTION: These typical clients / prospective clients should call me when …
ANSWER: Clients should call me when their risk manager, in-house counsel, or technical experts identify a potential for legal liability arising out of an environmental issue or an insurance coverage issue. That is when to call me.
To expand on this, plaintiff-side clients call me when they feel a sense of injustice or inequity and money is at stake. For example, a commercial property development company that is facing the possibility of incurring costs, or has incurred costs, to clean up contamination caused by a tenant or adjacent property owner. Clients hire me because I bring a legal and business mindset to the cost recovery process, which has to be followed to a tee. Because of my experience, I anticipate and project different scenarios and options for clients. I help them navigate the process with the goal of achieving a quick resolution and recouping the money, either in court or ideally before it goes to litigation, mediation, or arbitration.
With experience on both sides of disputes, I also put mechanisms into place to either litigate or to launch a proactive defense if I anticipate a client will be sued. I communicate with clients on all possible legal liabilities, categorizing those liabilities and the associated costs. Clients make decisions based on cost – this is where my finance background is accretive to my practice (pun intended!). In collaboration with clients, we develop different scenarios, whether to litigate, wait to be sued, mediate, arbitrate, monitor, or develop some bespoke combination of the options. From a business perspective, I help them navigate how various scenarios, such as whether the liability needs to be disclosed in the 10-K, will impact their business.
So, to sum up, clients should call me when they want to hire an attorney who has both plaintiff- and defense-side experience, takes a multi-faceted view of the issues, and brings creativity to their challenges.
QUESTION: Who is Christopher “Smitty” Smith in a nutshell?
ANSWER: Who am I? My family. My wife, number one. My four children, my dog, my parents, my in-laws. I am a family person. I am empathetic. Some people see that as a downside, but I don’t. My empathy allows me to see the other side and that is incredibly valuable. The other side is where all the decisions get made. I can control my own decisions. I cannot control others so I seek to understand their decision-making to come as close as I can to understanding their thought processes. I take a holistic view, which is a vestige of my wife, and clients appreciate the ability to see things that way. I do too. It has benefited me in every aspect of my life. That’s who I am.