I FIRST decided to become a lawyer at the age of 12, while tagging along with my grandmother, Martha Nemetz, the second paralegal McGuire Woods law firm ever hired.
She worked in the Trust & Estates division of that storied law firm in Richmond, Virginia. The toughest and most highly regarded McGuire Woods tax attorney at that time was Carl Davis, and she worked for him.
“Would you like to sit in on a meeting?” he asked. “Sure!” I responded. I recall using my knee to hoist myself up onto the bench in his office. My feet didn’t touch the floor. Immediately, I was taken with the view of Richmond, the river below, and the books stacked high everywhere around me.
Two bankers came in for a meeting. And then looked at me. “Oh, it’s alright, he’s with me,” Mr. Davis chuckled. And I nodded, as if somehow in on the joke.
I remember Mr. Davis’s arms dangling at his sides, slowly swinging like old barn doors, as he leaned back in his leather chair, when one of the bankers commented, “Well that means a lot from you, Mr. Davis, as many regard you as the finest tax attorney in the country.” My eyes caught the yellow legal pads and the desk that seemed to command the room like an aircraft carrier in a small harbor.
He leaned over and said, “Well, Van, let’s walk these folks out.” I walked down the well-appointed halls, hung with old oil paintings with light floating across their scenes. I heard phones ringing and saw well-dressed men and women ducking in and out of various rooms, looking rushed, focused, thoughtful.
I would return often to McGuire Woods as I grew up, and I was even trained in simulated “mock trials” led by their Ivy League associate attorneys, while I was still in high school. Attorneys there counseled me on which college to attend, how to prepare for the LSATs, how to handle the grueling, first year of law school, and on and on.
When sharing with one of the partners my fear that I was entering a profession for which society had minted an oversupply, he responded, “There are too many lawyers, yes, but not enough good lawyers, Van.”
From that moment, I endeavored to be good—and also to figure out what, precisely, that meant.
After college, I was asked to serve in the Coalition Provisional Authority’s Ministry of Interior in Baghdad, Iraq. I traveled from one end of the country to the other, assisting with the reconstruction of the internal security apparatus of the country, in particular, rebuilding, equipping, and training personnel for roughly 214 fire and emergency service stations. I am probably the only red-headed Honorary Iraqi Firefighter in the world. I will never forget speaking with Dean Taylor Reveley III as he noted my acceptance into law school, but wondered if I shouldn’t take a year off—after all, a rocket attack hit the Green Zone during our call.
I began law school at William & Mary a few weeks after returning from Baghdad. Each week, I imposed on then-law school Dean W. Taylor Reveley III, now president of The College of William & Mary, to meet with me for conversations that expanded my vision of a lawyer’s role in our society. I co-founded the George Wythe Society of Citizen Lawyers at William & Mary, in part out of lessons from these conversations.
I share President Reveley’s vision for what a good lawyer should represent. In The Style of a Law Firm, he wrote, speaking of the founding attorneys at Hunton & Williams LLP, (emphasis added):
They were lawyers of sweeping scope, both because the law was sufficiently uncluttered and sufficiently stately in its evolution to permit a Renaissance approach. They were people of enormous grace and culture. Thoroughly Virginian in a courtly manner now rare, they were also citizens of the nation. Entrepreneurs splendidly rewarded for their efforts, they also understood the imperative of public service. Those who could serve were expected to and they did, even at severe cost to themselves. Those founding fathers were an extraordinary assembly. Their legacy is compelling.
Law school, for me, was a time of intense preparation. Surrounded by the sheer volume of what I didn’t know was humbling and kept me reading, thinking and writing in the hushed quiet of the library.
It didn’t surprise many, then, when I met my future wife in the law library at William & Mary in my third, and final, year of law school. It would have been one of the only places she could have found me. Our entire courtship occurred between study sessions, with longer and longer conversations, quietly held, between assignments across old oak tables flanking stacks of books. By year’s end, most assumed, as a result, that she was a law student, but in fact she was getting her master’s degree in higher education administration (graduating with a perfect, 4.0 grade point average). My grades that last semester dipped.
I began my career with the third largest law firm in Virginia at the time, Williams Mullen, in Richmond, not one block from where I first got that early notion to become a lawyer. I represented international companies enmeshed in complex litigation matters—international corruption cases, intellectual property cases, large-scale construction litigation, even co-authoring Construction Damages, a chapter in a Virginia Continuing Legal Education book on construction law in Virginia.
My wife and I came back from our honeymoon to a world turned upside down. One month later, I found myself laid off in late 2008, in the midst of a recession all too familiar to many of you.
In the wake of that devastating emotional blow, I took a job with one of my mentors from William & Mary, Stewart Gamage, now at the University of Virginia. Her assignment was to convert billionaire John Kluge’s 3,000-acre horse farm in Charlottesville into a thriving center for interdisciplinary studies, hosting engaging seminars, retreats, and conferences.
While there for two and a half years, I met one of my wife’s colleagues, who was going through a painfully long, drawn out, expensive divorce. We walked among the gardens of John Kluge’s former estate, Morven, while she recounted the behavior of her attorney, the endless legal bills, the months of anxiety and misdirection. She showed me the detailed billing statements, without the results she had been looking for in the first place. “Can you help me?” she pleaded.
To maintain my license to practice law during this time, I had to attend at least twelve hours of continuing legal education, each year. I poured myself into family law, learning its nuances, and I outlined a plan that could not only help our friend, but that could be applied to a host of other situations.
I brought two or three thick volumes on divorce with me to my in-laws for Thanksgiving that year, reading them on the couch, to their dismay. (“Katie, is everything alright with you and Van…?”)
Who were these divorce lawyers? What made some great? How did they expertly negotiate through crisis? What pitfalls did they avoid that others were ensnared by?
Family law practices are still, at root, boutique enterprises—how could you run one well?
Suddenly books on negotiation, small business building, yes, and family law cases covered my nightstand.
I was determined.
Washingtonian magazine produces, every other year, its list of top divorce lawyers in the D.C. metro area. I recall scanning that list, wondering aloud how the divorce firms were run from the inside. What differentiated them from one another?
Not long after this study, I accepted a position with one of the firms that had made that list—Sevila, Saunders, Huddleston & White—in Northern Virginia. Attending hearings, depositions, and long trials with these leading attorneys was instructive and empowering. I had a chance to hone the trial skills I’d begun to develop at Williams Mullen.
My wife and I were never completely comfortable in Northern Virginia, however. There was a pace, a level of traffic, and quality of life that never quite felt right or balanced to us.
What if I started my own firm?
I wanted it to be like the great firms I had grown up with—except focus on providing Legal Strength® to people in family law crises. The firm also had to be greater, bigger than just me alone, and allow for the inevitable growth that would come later. I selected the name SMITH | STRONG, PLC because it reinforced my mission—to provide Legal Strength®—and could grow with the firm, a brand name clients could rely upon in tough moments.
Each case in our firm now includes a client services specialist, a highly trained paralegal, and an attorney—a team that ensures the clients are educated, prepared, and reach their goals for the representation—providing true strength.
Clients become “members” of our firm if we accept their cases after meeting with them and ensuring we can add value to their lives and can reasonably accomplish their goals. Clients accepted into our firm’s membership become active partners in their own success, joining that client services specialist, paralegal, and attorney in establishing a plan of action to resolve their matters fairly.
This team approach has led to incredible growth across central Virginia as we now serve clients in the Charlottesville, Richmond, and Williamsburg corridor, all places I have lived and continue to maintain close friendships.
And this focus on complex, family law cases ensures that we’re prepared for each new client and his or her unique situation.
William & Mary President W. Taylor Reveley III wrote as then-managing partner of Hunton & Williams LLP, in his foreword to The Style of a Law Firm, (emphasis added):
Whether universities, regiments, or law firms, some institutions move powerfully from one generation to the next. Others find themselves becalmed, or they founder. Reasons for success or failure are legion. But those that prevail usually take strength from their past. They remember their heroes, their times of peril and triumph, and their basic beliefs. The importance of the past as a source of confidence and poise grows with the turmoil of the present.
I hope the same is as true for you as it is for my law firm, SMITH | STRONG, PLC.
As I was writing this book, I had lunch with one of my mentors, Dennis Belcher, a highly respected partner at McGuire Woods in Richmond. He reminded me, “And don’t forget why you went to law school, Van, to solve complex problems and help people…”
The definition of a good lawyer, at last revealed, and understood.
HOMEWORK ASSIGNMENT: RELAX & BREATHE--AND IMAGINE WHAT YOU WANT YOUR FUTURE TO LOOK LIKE, WE'LL NEED YOUR IMPUT AS WE CRAFT YOUR CUSTOMIZED PLAN OF ACTION. REMEMBER, AS CRAZY AS IT SEEMS RIGHT NOW, THIS IS WHAT WE DO, DAY IN, DAY OUT. AND WE CAN HELP YOU CREATE THAT FUTURE YOU IMAGINE FOR YOURSELF. --VAN