By Katy Fleming
On that particular Sunday afternoon, Chesterfield Smith (JD 48) sat in the windy stands of Soldier Field, watching the Chicago Bears take on the Boston Patriots. But his mind was 700 miles away, deep inside the Oval Office.
What could President Richard Nixon possibly be thinking? In the span of a few hours the day before, Nixon had fired the Watergate special prosecutor and accepted the resignation of the attorney general and deputy attorney general in a desperate attempt to buck the judiciary branch on the issue of the White House tapes. Political leaders and followers alike were dismayed.
“Meet me down at the taxi line. We are going out to the ABA,” he said to Bill McBride (JD 75), his young protégé, midway through the game.
The 56-year-old “country lawyer,” as he liked to call himself, had been president of one of the most powerful organizations in the country for less than six weeks. Typically, the American Bar Association leadership would have spent weeks discussing this kind of hornet’s nest, but Smith was agitated and determined to do the right thing at the right time.
At the ABA offices, he and his staff started calling prominent attorneys around the country. There was no consensus, but he made up his mind quickly. Before midnight he issued a formal statement that included one ringing declaration: “No man is above the law.”
Smith’s early voice of leadership on October 21, 1973, and subsequent outspokenness in speeches, media interviews and congressional committees calling for impeachment altered history by becoming a catalyst in the president’s ultimate resignation.
Being at the forefront with freethinking views long before they were mainstream was central to Smith’s idea of doing the right thing, and it was a trait that served him and the nation well over the course of half a century. Upon his death in 2003, he left behind a legacy of historic accomplishment.
However, for the more than 300 family members, colleagues and donors — including good friend and U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — who came to campus in late September to dedicate the Chesterfield Smith Ceremonial Classroom, there was much more to this larger-than-life UF law graduate.
Smith was remembered affectionately throughout the day as a man who had an unconditional love of the law, lawyers, his law school and the firm he helped found and grow into one of the largest in the country, Holland & Knight. It was a collective effort by 400 colleagues and friends, funded through Holland & Knight’s Charitable Foundation, that made possible the college’s largest classroom, used as the primary location for conferences, workshops and special events.
The elegant lobby and classroom feature an exhibit (see www.law.ufl.edu/news/current/dedication.shtml) that illustrates Smith’s rise from the small Central Florida town of Arcadia to national prominence. At various points in his career, U.S. News and World Report listed him among the nation’s 60 most influential people in a “Who Runs America” article, and a Time magazine essay included him in a listing of 35 “non-candidates” qualified for the presidency. Tom Brokow devoted a chapter to him in his best-seller, The Greatest Generation.
Smith’s bold leadership style enabled him, as Florida Bar president in 1964, to establish much needed uniform rules of procedure in Florida courts, raise money for a new building and locate The Florida Bar Center in the seat of the state’s government. As chairman of the Constitution Revision Commission in 1965, he devoted most of his time to the unpaid task of leading 36 distinguished members to scrap Florida’s antiquated 1885 charter. He vigorously stumped the state to secure passage in 1968 of a modern but controversial constitution that established numerous visionary concepts still in force today. The segregationist doctrine was stricken, the Bill of Rights was expanded, and cities and counties were empowered with home rule. The one man, one vote system was implemented, along with a periodic citizens’ review of the constitution. He went on to serve on or chair numerous commissions state and nationwide.
It was his unselfish investment in people that won him legions of loyal admirers. In the early 1950s, he was outspoken against racial segregation and unfair discrimination, particularly against the deprived and disabled. He was among the first to welcome and nurture minorities and women in his law firm. He supported black judges and argued for gay and lesbian rights.
“I held in highest esteem and deepest affection the man whose name this classroom now bears,” said Ginsburg, who called Smith a “way paver” in her remarks before the group.
When Ginsburg first met Smith in 1972 at an ABA committee meeting, she said she and her colleagues thought of their president-elect “as somewhat of an enfant terrible. Later I came to appreciate that Chesterfield’s provocative style suited his purpose. He was never satisfied in the status quo if there was room for improvement. His uninhibited questions and comments stirred us up to better effort.”
She noted that many lawyers are cautious by nature and tend to keep clients safe by avoiding things yet untried.
“Chesterfield was not of that stripe. He was instead a most positive ‘yes’ person,” she said. “If asked, ‘can we do this or that,’ Chesterfield would invariably say, ‘Yes, we can, but with one large proviso. This or that must be the right thing to do.’”
Smith, who was on a first name basis with several Supreme Court justices, didn’t hesitate to write letters to President Bill Clinton and key U.S. senators in support of Ginsburg’s nomination to the bench. She appreciated his gestures and responded with a hand-written note he kept in files: “All my life I will try to be the person you described. With so much appreciation, Ruth.”
Martha Barnett (JD 73), as the first woman hired at Holland & Knight and later an ABA president, said her mentor saw things others did not and had the courage to shape the future.
“He lived long enough to see many of his visionary ideas become a reality — ideas such as diversity, specialization, billable hours, institutionalized pro bono and global offices connected by technology. All are commonplace concepts today, but in his time, they were radical and risky,” said Barnett, chair of the Director Committee at Holland & Knight.
Smith was remembered as an exuberant, warm man who would call protégés “his girls” and “his boys,” and they were not offended, but proud. He loved to be the center of attention and more often than not had an eclectic group of smart professionals — from national leaders to junior partners — at his dinner table, where he would initiate a lively discussion about a complicated issue of the day. He passionately campaigned for lawyers throughout the nation to provide pro bono services to those in need. He changed people’s lives and constantly challenged them to “do good” and “be somebody.”
Howell Melton Jr., managing partner of Holland & Knight, noted Smith would have loved “his” ceremonial classroom at the University of Florida. It is the place where Smith, who came to law school as a returning World War II veteran, discovered a love of the law and received what he called “the broad and profound education in the law necessary to become a great lawyer.”
Family members and colleagues all agreed the man being honored would have taken immense pleasure in the dedication festivities.
“One of our partners recently said that Chesterfield Smith was the only person he had ever met who had lived up to his reputation,” Barnett said. “He was a living legend and now — thanks to all of you and to so many others who could not be here today — we are part of something bigger than any one of us — and we have this vibrant, exciting and living place to continue his legacy and to continue to inspire those who walk through these doors to greatness.”