Theresa Trzaskoma didn’t have a lifelong plan to become a lawyer. But as someone who is willing to take professional risks and who likes to win, she eventually became a successful litigator at Brune & Richard, where she represents clients in a wide variety of civil and white-collar criminal matters.
At Brune & Richard, she defends individual and corporate clients in criminal investigations and prosecutions on the state and federal levels, and in proceedings before regulatory agencies. Her white-collar cases have involved allegations of insurance fraud, antitrust violations, options backdating, securities fraud, money laundering, OFAC violations, improper mutual fund trading practices, embezzlement, insider trading, market manipulation and tax-related fraud.
Recently, Trzaskoma spoke with WIPL about leaving a major firm to join a boutique, beautiful surprises and looking to the future.
- What first drew you to a career in the law?
I fell into my legal career. When I moved to New York after college, I took a position as a paralegal at Sullivan & Cromwell, not because I wanted to be a lawyer but because I wanted to live in the big city and my worrying mother insisted that I get a job with regular pay and health insurance. It turned out to be a wonderful experience; I was exposed to a very high level of legal work and met lots of terrifically smart and interesting lawyers. Over time I realized that I was deeply engaged in the law and–perhaps most importantly–genuinely enjoyed being around lawyers. In fact, I liked and admired my colleagues so much that I ended up returning to Sullivan & Cromwell as an associate.
- What has been most interesting about your current role?
My practice combines both white-collar defense and commercial litigation, which I enjoy. Each requires different skills, approaches and strategies, and because I’m often doing something different from what I did just the day before, I feel constantly challenged. Having a varied practice gives me a broad, fresh perspective on each of my cases.
- What is the most important issue facing your clients or the legal profession now?
A lot of my clients are in financial services and their problems are my problems. The significant increase in the regulatory framework, including the number of regulators both in the United States and abroad, has created a lot of challenges to my clients’ traditional business models. Economic pressures have, of course, affected the traditional model for the legal services profession too. More clients are requesting alternative fee arrangements, and it has been interesting to explore ways to establish fee structures so that everyone gets what they need.
- What professional accomplishment has made you most proud?
Like all litigators, I love to win, and I am very proud that I have been able to help many clients obtain successful results. But I am probably most proud of having taken a few calculated professional risks that really paid off. My legal career started when I decided to attend the University of Texas for law school–that was a risk, or at least felt like one, because I was not from Texas and had never envisioned myself living there. I ended up having several incredible years in Austin, with great classmates and extraordinary professors, and because I had a full scholarship, I graduated with almost no debt.
I took another risk when I left Sullivan & Cromwell in 2004 and joined Brune & Richard, a litigation boutique that had been founded by two women in 1998. Being part of a small, growing firm has exposed me to many aspects of private legal practice, including marketing and management, that I probably would not have had at a larger firm.
- Were there specific people or opportunities that helped you throughout your career?
Absolutely. In law school, I was fortunate to work with Michael Tigar, my criminal law professor and one of the country’s most gifted trial lawyers. Mike was always generous with his time, wisdom and encouragement, and he helped me get a clerkship with Judge Stephen Reinhardt on the Ninth Circuit, another formative experience. As a young associate at Sullivan & Cromwell, I benefitted tremendously from working with lots of talented lawyers, especially Penny Shane, Sam Seymour and Sharon Nelles, who trained me well and always looked out for me. And of course I can’t say enough about my brilliant, brave Brune & Richard colleagues, who are marvelous lawyers and a constant source of inspiration.
- Do you see a difference in how women network with and mentor other women, compared to working with men?
I have had many women mentors and sponsors, and I know many women who have built impressive professional networks. But my sense is that these relationships tend to be more complicated for women than they are for men. Deliberate networking does not come naturally to me. I recall being a mid-level associate and realizing that my male colleagues had been networking like crazy and plotting out their next steps, while I had just been nose-to-the-grindstone trying to keep up with my cases and my family. There are a lot of fantastic organizations that encourage and support networking among professional women, including 85 Broads where I am a member, and I would certainly urge younger women to develop effective networking habits as early in their careers as possible.
- Have you planned out your past and next career steps, or have there been surprises along the way?
Definitely a lot of beautiful surprises–I can’t wait to see what’s next!
- How are you preparing for the next advancement in your career?
Private law practice is an interesting career in the sense that after a certain point, there are fewer and fewer obvious ways to “advance.” At the same time, if you don’t find a path forward, you will grow bored and stagnate (at least if you’re like me). I would hate to wake up in 25 years and find myself doing the same thing I am doing now. So as inspiration I am collecting stories of litigators who have successfully pivoted from private practice to something else–I love hearing how others have managed that transition.