BY SPENSER SOLIS
With a legal career spanning more than 50 years, William Reece Smith Jr. (JD 49) shows few signs of slowing down.
His impact on the legal profession and society as a whole has been a lasting one achieved through serving as president of The Florida Bar, the American Bar Association (ABA) and the International Bar Association (IBA). Smith has also served as attorney for the City of Tampa and president of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce.
“I am very devoted to the law and to the contributions that it can make to a civilized society,” Smith said. Smith, who grew up in Plant City, Fla., gained an understanding of the importance of helping others from a grandmother who was fully engaged in community affairs.
“She was a very active woman, interested in literature and higher learning,” he said. “She was a leader and I observed her.”
Upon graduating from the University of South Carolina, Smith was commissioned by the Navy in 1946. While aboard ship, he read a book by Howard Fast about the pioneers’ relationship with the American Indian.
“Reading Fast’s book about how we mistreated the Indians raised my social consciousness,” he said.
Smith came out of the service in 1946 still unsure about what to do with his life. Although he was trained as an engineer, he decided against a career in math and sciences.
“My gifts, if any, were in the humanities, coming from the training that my grandmother had given me years before,” he said. “I decided to go to law school and went to the University of Florida.”
Entering law school in 1946 under the G.I. Bill, Smith didn’t immediately catch on to the lingo of the legal field.
“When they talked to me about a legal instrument, I was a bit befuddled,” he said. “An instrument to me, from my engineering training, was a screwdriver or something like that.”
At UF Law, Smith served as president of the Student Bar Association and was selected as a member of Florida Blue Key.
During his senior year, a professor urged him to apply for a Rhodes Scholarship.
“I thought it would be wise to do what my professor suggested,” he said. “To my surprise, I was selected.”
Before heading to Oxford, Smith started a law office as a sole practitioner in Plant City with only his law books and a vacant office. He had only one client who paid him a fee.
“There was no public defender in those days and no organized legal aid, so I defended indigents accused of crime.”
After studying private international law at Oxford, he was invited by Dean Henry A. Fenn to teach at UF Law.
“I taught for over a year and then I was recruited by the firm that I’m still with, Carlton Fields,” Smith said.
Smith became curious about the ABA at the beginning of his career.
“Nobody at Carlton Fields at that time was a member of the ABA,” he said. “A lot of lawyers weren’t.”
The ABA has continued to grow in importance and now plays a powerful role in improving the legal field as the national voice of the profession, Smith said.
“It certainly has an influence on lawyer conduct and lawyer training,” he said.
When he first became involved with the ABA, Smith joined what was then known as the Junior Bar Conference. As a member of the conference, Smith networked with and befriended other young lawyers from different parts of the country.
“I sort of worked my way to the top and became chairman of the Junior Bar Conference two years down the road.”
One might say he did the same in 1980, when Smith served as president of the ABA. As ABA president, Smith was instrumental in establishing legal aid entities in private bar settings across the country.
“I was seeking to enhance access to the legal system for societal purposes,” he said. “The poor and the disadvantaged did not have that access.”
During his term as ABA president, Smith led a march of bar associations on Washington, D.C. The bar association members lobbied Congress to maintain funding of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), a congressionally-sponsored, non-profit corporation that provides legal services to the poor across the country.
“President Reagan didn’t like the LSC and his attorney general announced that they were going to defund the program,” Smith said.
“We called upon our representatives, senators and congressmen and made our pitch on behalf of the Legal Services Corporation.”
Reagan’s measure was ultimately defeated. To this day, the LSC continues to assist the poor.
By virtue of becoming involved with the organized bar, Smith has been able to make contributions to the legal profession and to the community that he could not have otherwise made, he said.
“I became interested very early in legal aid and ultimately that became sort of an avocation for me.”
Smith believes that a lawyer should possess a strong character, a commitment to society and professional improvement, and a high level of professional competency.
“Don’t go into law solely to make money,” he said. “A lawyer must be willing to make a contribution to the profession and to society.”