by Elise Helgesen Aguilar
I was honored to speak with Paul M. Smith, Partner at Jenner & Block LLP, and keynote speaker for our 2013 Awards Ceremony. I asked him to take a look back on his extraordinary career in civil rights and pro bono work. Below are his insights:
Lawrence v. Texas
Paul has had a remarkable career, from arguing one of the biggest civil rights cases of our time, to receiving numerous professional accolades. He has even served as President of the Washington Council of Lawyers, where he said he was honored to have made so many good friends who continue to “fight the good fight” all across town.
When asked to describe his greatest professional accomplishment, Paul said that it was without a doubt arguing and winning the 2003 Supreme Court case of Lawrence v. Texas, because it has had the greatest overall impact. That victory laid the foundation for advancing gay rights and was a necessary predicate for issues like marriage equality.
Becoming a lawyer
Paul said that his real interest in pursuing a career as a lawyer began in college. That was the era of Watergate, when lawyers became publicly acknowledged for their work in ferreting out corruption and bad dealings. He knew that the law was a profession in which he could make a difference. This eventually led him to the civil rights field as well, where he was inspired by women’s rights, African-American civil rights, and the environmental movement.
Paul’s greatest challenge has been maintaining a high volume of pro bono work while managing the expectations of working in a law firm. He noted that this requires going above and beyond the expectations of the firm. Judging from Paul’s long list of accomplishments, it’s obvious that he has been very successful in overcoming this challenge.
I was most excited to hear more from Paul about his experiences arguing before the Supreme Court. He has done so fourteen times. He stated that the first experience was “pretty harrowing,” especially as a thirty-year old. He also said that while he has learned over time how to better prepare, that arguing before the Supreme Court justices never gets any easier; in fact, the Court has become even more aggressive over time toward lawyers.
I tried to press Paul on whether he would reveal any particular rituals, superstitions, or lucky articles of clothing that he dons in preparation for the Supreme Court. He said he had none, and that he prepares by memorizing his opening lines so as to not go completely blank when he faces the justices. But it’s clear that he doesn’t need any lucky rabbit’s foot – his hard work and dedication to civil rights and civil liberties are more than enough.