Brandeis grad uses legal education to pursue unique career path
Leah Smith’s career path isn’t one of a traditional law school graduate — and she couldn’t be happier.
“When you enter law school, it’s very difficult to imagine what you’re going to end up doing in 15 years,” she said. “The way we see lawyering on TV is one-track.”
From a newspaper reporter to a public relations pro to an attorney at a big firm to a federal circuit court clerk, Smith’s resume reflects her varied interests and the power of saying “yes” to new opportunities.
And this month, Smith, who graduated from Brandeis Law in 2013, is embarking on her next step: She’ll be Mississippi’s assistant secretary of state for communications.
This isn’t Smith’s first venture into legislative work. After covering state politics at The (Mississippi) Clarion-Ledger, she took a job doing communications and lobbying for the state’s superintendent of education. She eventually followed him to the state Institutions of Higher Learning, where she was surrounded by people who encouraged her to pursue an advanced degree.
Smith, who is from Louisville, wanted to be closer to family. When she decided to go to law school, she knew Brandeis School of Law was the place for her.
“I think Louisville really does value the years of experience between undergrad and law school,” Smith said, adding that the four years she spent between undergrad and law school allowed her to grow as a professional, develop a network and learn about what she may like to do in the future.
“Non-traditional law students bring a rich diversity of experiences to law school,” said Dean Susan Duncan. “This variety of backgrounds makes for stronger class discussions, more robust student organizations and eventually, a wider network of Brandeis alumni.”
At Brandeis, Smith appreciated the variety of backgrounds of both professors and other non-traditional students. She was on law review and participated on the labor and employment moot court team.
After graduation, Smith worked as a labor and employment attorney at a large local firm, where she appreciated the many resources, but she knew it wasn’t a fit for her.
“I knew probably six months in that — at least for that part in my life— I didn’t want to do big law long term,” she said. “Big law is grueling. It demands a lot of your time.”
So she began using the connections she’d made in the South and decided to apply for a one-year clerkship with the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.
When she was offered the positon, Smith wasn’t sure if she should take it. But one of her favorite professors, Kurt Metzmeier, told her she should jump at the opportunity.
And she’s glad she did.
“I got to be part of the legal process in a way that you don’t get to do if you’re just practicing,” she said. “And I got to be with these people who are just brilliant legal minds and are thinking about issues that could go to the Supreme Court.”
And as she begins her new role as assistant secretary of state, Smith is looking forward to being back at the legislature being and involved in state politics, bringing new skills with her.
“With a law degree and my other life experiences, I’ll have a varied set of skills that I hope will give me a unique perspective in this new job,” she said.
Looking back now, Smith said it was important to find out where her passions lie. For her, it’s in doing practical work, meeting constituents, seeing the law take shape in a personal way and finding solutions that all sides can agree upon.
“I like those things better than either the esoteric study of law or the adversarial nature of practice,” she said.
Smith encourages law students to think beyond the traditional career path if they don’t think they will be happy in a traditional practice at a law firm.
A variety of summer experiences can help in that goal, Smith said, and finding a mentor who is interested in your career long-term is key. Professors like Metzmeier and Russell Weaver were her advocates, sending her job postings they thought she’d be interested in, staying in touch and providing new opportunities to succeed.
“I’m trying to be reflective about what does and does not fulfill me personally and professionally,” she said. “I’m excited about this new opportunity and view it as a way to apply the things I learned before law school, at law school and in practice in an outside-the-box way.”