Ann Ustad Smith’s secret weapon is her friendly demeanor. Ustad Smith, chair of Michael Best & Friedrich LLP’s banking and financial services industry group, specializes in helping distressed businesses and meeting clients’ needs regarding bankruptcy, commercial transactions and constitutional litigation.
Though affable and adroit at building relationships with clients and colleagues, she also can be firm in insisting that those around her reach their full potential.
“Ann’s got this way of being very friendly but she’s kicking you in the backside the whole time,” said David Krutz, managing partner at the firm. “When you’re done, you’re happy, so it’s a great trait to have.”
He said Ustad Smith is a “star mentor” at the firm who is sought out by younger attorneys. “If you became the mentee to Ann, you know you’re going to get that leadership and guidance throughout your career,” he said.
Ustad Smith said she loves to see the “aha” moment become visible on a younger lawyer’s face. “The most rewarding thing is when they can do that next step without having to come back,” she said.
She brings similar encouragement and attention to law students at the University of Wisconsin and Marquette University and to high school students participating in mock trials. She also, among other things, serves as a fellow of the American College of Bankruptcy. As in her teaching roles, she said, she tries to help clients resist the temptation to become complacent rather than discovering how much they can contribute.
“They know a lot more than they think they do,” she said. “We have such a counseling role and a listening role.”
The essence of her success, she said, is in understanding the desires and motivations of those around her.
“Everything that we do as lawyers, really, is about facilitating communication among people, especially when we’re talking about these commercial transactions,” she said.
For example, she said, failing to understand a client’s perspective when approaching a case could blind her to what the best outcome could be. A client’s idea of winning the case and her own idea could differ.
“You need to understand what they mean by ‘win,’” Ustad Smith said, “because a win’s no good if you destroy the relationship they’re trying to keep with a customer.”