Write For Us

Advertise

Executive Conversation with Mary Smith

Meet MARY SMITH, American Bar Association President

Editor – Can you share some insights into your role as the President of the American Bar Association and the responsibilities that come with it?

The American Bar Association is the largest voluntary bar association in the world. The work of the ABA is so important – both in helping lawyers with their practices and advocating for democracy and the rule of law. There is no more crucial time than now for the work of the ABA for both helping young lawyers starting out in this time of disruption, the pandemic and inflation and for promoting the rule of law in the United States and around the globe. The ABA is in a unique position to address these issues. As President, I am the CEO and chair the board, serve as an ambassador of the Association, and am the principal spokesperson.

Editor – How do you envision the American Bar Association’s role in shaping legal policies and practices in the current social and political landscape?

Lawyers have been at the forefront when critical threats to our Constitution’s guaranty of democracy for all have occurred.  I created the ABA Task Force For American Democracy which is working hard to develop state-level coalitions of citizen’s groups to stand up for free and clear elections and to protect the rule of law and democracy norms. The Task Force will also develop policy recommendations.

I created the ABA Task Force For American Democracy which is working hard to develop state-level coalitions of citizen’s groups to stand up for free and clear elections and to protect the rule of law and democracy norms. The Task Force will also develop policy recommendations.

Editor – As the first Native American woman to serve the largest voluntary bar association in the world, why do you believe that representation matters?

The American Bar Association represents the nation’s legal profession, advocating for both the profession and the rule of law. Yet, much like the historical arc of this country, the ABA’s history has been fraught, pocked with past racial and gender and other forms of discrimination. Today, as a reflection of a transforming legal profession, and an association with very different values and goals, I am the ABA’s first Native American woman President.

I hope that my position as the first Native American woman president of the ABA serves as inspiration to young people that they should follow their dreams and that barriers are being broken down. It demonstrates that anything is possible for those who follow their passion.

I will end on a personal note about why seeing diverse leaders matters. Last year, I was at the National Native American Bar Association 50th Anniversary Celebration. A young Native lawyer approached me and said that she used to think that the ABA had nothing for her, but seeing me in this role, she began to think that maybe – just maybe – there were things in the ABA that mattered to her.

That is why representation and diversity – and importantly inclusion – matters.

Editor – What are some of the key challenges and opportunities you see for the legal profession in the coming years, and how does the American Bar Association plan to address them?

There is a lack of diversity in the legal profession which has significant implications for the legitimacy of our profession. Law touches everything in society. It’s essential that there be diversity in all its dimensions. The ABA has eloquently stated that “racial and ethnic diversity in the legal profession is necessary to demonstrate that our laws are being made and administered for the benefit of all persons. Because the public’s perception of the legal profession often informs impressions of the legal system, a diverse bar and bench create greater trust in the rule of law.” 

The ABA is addressing these challenges with the lack of diversity of the legal profession through many programs. For instance, the Collaborative Bar Leadership Academy is a conference for diverse early-career attorneys to help them develop leadership skills. For law students, the ABA hosts the Judicial Clerkship Program which is a three-day program during which judges work one-on-one with the diverse law students to assist them with advocacy and writing skills.

Editor – What are some of the success stories that you can share with us from your career as a whole?

I had the honor and privilege of working in the White House. In the White House, one of the first initiatives I worked to enact was to install automated external defibrillators (“AEDs”) in federal buildings. It is important to remember that over twenty years ago, in 1997, AEDs were not as commonplace as they are now. Surprisingly, there was strong opposition against the installation of AEDs, but I persevered. After three years of building coalitions, amassing additional medical evidence to support the investment, and navigating political waters I worked with the top political appointees at the Department of Justice to craft legislative language with a workable solution that satisfied those against the installation. Today, defibrillators are in every airport and public building. And, we don’t even think about it.

Editor – How has your ethnic background contributed to your leadership style?

Native Americans often communicate by storytelling, and I use that background to remember that to lead and advocate for change, people need to know the story – or the why – behind any action.

Editor – What motivated you to pursue a career in Law?

I didn’t grow up wanting to be a lawyer, nor did I imagine devoting much in my career to public service. I grew up in a family where neither of my parents went to college. My dad quit high school to join the Navy during World War II. My mother was a gifted student who graduated high school when she was 16, but she did not attend college even though her three brothers did. I know I’m biased, but I think my mom was smarter than all her brothers. She didn’t go to college because it was a time when girls really didn’t do that.

My undergraduate degree was mathematics and computer science. I enjoyed all subjects, but I majored in mathematics and computer science because I knew that I would be able to have a career in that field. I worked as a systems programmer for a few years after college. The part of my job that I enjoyed the most was helping people with computer problems. I realized that I wanted to help people in broader ways, and that is when I thought about going to law school.

The part of my job that I enjoyed the most was helping people with computer problems. I realized that I wanted to help people in broader ways, and that is when I thought about going to law school.

Editor – As part of your acceptance speech, you said the legal fraternity is called again to lead in the peril of emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence. With the rapid advancements in technology, how is the American Bar Association adapting to ensure that legal professionals stay abreast of the latest developments?

It is incumbent upon us as lawyers — as guideposts for fairness – to harness both the promise and the peril of AI.

It is critical for the ABA, as the national voice for the legal profession to make recommendations and articulate principles to help ensure that the creation and incorporation of AI is done in accordance with the law and well-accepted legal standards.

I created the Task Force for Law and Artificial Intelligence which is taking a comprehensive look at the use of AI and making recommendations on the impact on the practice of law, access to justice, and laws and regulations.

Editor – How is the American Bar Association working to improve access to justice, particularly for underserved and marginalized communities?

While criminal defendants are guaranteed legal representation by law, an astounding 92% of civil legal problems faced by low-income Americans go without any or enough legal help. Nearly half of these individuals cite the prohibitive cost of legal services as a barrier.

These alarming figures, reported last year by the Congressionally funded nonprofit Legal Services Corporation (LSC) in The Justice Gap: The Unmet Legal Needs of Low-Income Americans, underscore a crisis. When the scales of justice are imbalanced, millions are left struggling with issues like debt, eviction, foreclosures, repossessions, and family law matters without necessary legal representation.

This crisis of inadequate legal representation is further illuminated by recent findings from the American Bar Association, which provide a stark look at the national distribution of legal aid resources. Nationwide, there are just 2.8 paid legal aid lawyers for every 10,000 U.S. residents in poverty, according to the new report titled, 2023 ABA Profile of the Legal Profession. New York leads with about seven legal aid lawyers per 10,000 residents in poverty, while Mississippi, despite having the second-highest poverty rate in the U.S., has only one.

The ABA has advocated vigorously over the years for increased and robust LSC funding. These efforts during the 117th Congress were successful. Most recently, LSC funding was boosted to $560 million for FY 2023, which represents a $71 million increase and equates to a 14.5% higher allocation than the previous fiscal year. Congress also allocated an additional $20 million to LSC specifically dedicated to providing relief to victims of natural disasters.

Editor – What is your perspective on the global role of the American Bar Association, and how does it collaborate with legal organizations and professionals around the world?

The ABA is the largest voluntary bar association in the world. We maintain relationships with bar associations around the world. One of the goals of the Association is to advance the rule of law. The mission of the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative is to promote justice, economic opportunity and human dignity through the rule of law. In pursuing this goal for the past 30 years, ABA ROLI has developed a breadth of work that is unrivaled in both geography and approach. ABA ROLI has conducted programs in more than 100 countries to strengthen governance and justice systems, protect human rights and access to justice, assist with political transitions, mitigate conflict/peacebuilding, and support inclusive and sustainable development

Editor – You started the Caroline and Ora Smith Foundation after leaving the Obama administration. Can you tell us more about the foundation’s vision and goals?

I wanted to continue to lift up Native American communities and to honor both my mother and my grandmother. Caroline Smith was my mother and best friend who sadly passed away not too long ago. Ora Smith was my grandmother from whom I get my Native American heritage.

I created the Caroline and Ora Smith Foundation to honor them, but also to empower the next generation of Native American women and girls to study science, technology, engineering, and math.  

In 2023, the Caroline and Ora Smith Foundation was proud to co-sponsor with the Chicago Public Schools American Indian Education Program, American Indian Health Service of Chicago, and the St. Kateri Center of Chicago a STEM Summer Camp. The children learned about the health and wellness, engaged in Native fitness, and participated in American Indian Health and Cultural Understanding sessions. They also took several field trips, including to a sweat lodge.

Editor – How do you balance a demanding role and still make time for family and friends?

Family and friends are very important to me. I find time to connect with friends over lunch and coffee when I can, and if time is short over Zoom phone or text. It just takes a moment to connect.

Editor – What song can be found on your playlist at any given time?

Happy by Pharrell Williams

I Can Buy Myself Flowers by Miley Cyrus

Editor – What book left a lasting impression on you?

Night by Eli Wiesel because it tells a powerful story of human perseverance and keeps the memories of the Holocaust alive particularly in this time of increasing antisemitism.


About Mary

Mary Smith is President of the American Bar Association (ABA) and is the first Native American woman in this role. Ms. Smith is an independent board member and former C-suite executive. Smith currently serves on the board of PTC Therapeutics, Inc. (NASDAQ: PTCT) , a global biopharmaceutical company, where she sits on the audit and compensation committees. Her background includes experience in governance, technology, compliance, government affairs, public policy, and regulatory experience. 

Previously, Ms. Smith was the CEO of the Indian Health Service, a $6 billion national healthcare system that serves over 2 million persons where she oversaw the development of an operational framework that utilized data analytics to improve services, allocate resources, and develop the workforce. Ms. Smith is also Vice Chair of the VENG Group. Earlier in her career, she served as an attorney at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, as a senior in-house counsel at Tyco International, and in the U.S. government, both as Associate Counsel to the President in the White House and as a trial attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice. Ms. Smith is a past National Secretary of the ABA and a former president of the National Native American Bar Association. She is also the founder and president of the Caroline and Ora Smith Foundation, an organization that trains and supports Native American girls in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Ms. Smith has received numerous awards and recognitions including being named a 2023 Business Leader of Color by Chicago United, a 2023 Director to Watch, and the 2023 Cherokee National Statesmanship Award. She received her J.D., cum laude, from the University of Chicago School of Law in 1991.

Latest

Join us with Seth Godin in New York 

The Entrepreneurs Conference and Awards takes place on April...

Women Championing Change

For centuries women across the world have always been...

Book Review  – Stacy Spikes Black Founder

In "Black Founder," Stacy Spikes, the award-winning entrepreneur and...

Six Sigma for Change

Joy E. Mason, CSSBBPresident of Optimist Business SolutionsCEO of...

Stay in touch

Be the first to know

- Advertisement -

Don't miss

Join us with Seth Godin in New York 

The Entrepreneurs Conference and Awards takes place on April...

Women Championing Change

For centuries women across the world have always been...

Book Review  – Stacy Spikes Black Founder

In "Black Founder," Stacy Spikes, the award-winning entrepreneur and...

Six Sigma for Change

Joy E. Mason, CSSBBPresident of Optimist Business SolutionsCEO of...

Executive Conversations with Jamie Dimon, CEO of one of the largest banks in the world

CEO of the one of the largest banks in...
- Advertisement -

Join us with Seth Godin in New York 

The Entrepreneurs Conference and Awards takes place on April 18th with author, entrepreneur & marketing maverick, Seth Godin and Claude Silver (Vayner Media) - www.ZoneofGenius.com/awards This...

Women Championing Change

For centuries women across the world have always been at the forefront for change. They have constantly spoken up when they felt that systems...

Book Review  – Stacy Spikes Black Founder

In "Black Founder," Stacy Spikes, the award-winning entrepreneur and founder of MoviePass, unveils a compelling narrative at the intersection of power, technology, and race....