Member Profile – Mary Smith

MARY L. SMITH – NNABA Member Profile

Mary. L. Smith, an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation, is currently General Counsel of the Illinois Department of Insurance. Her experience includes positions at the highest level of government, including the White House; at a large, international law firm; and as in-house counsel at a Fortune 500 company. From 2010-2012, Ms. Smith served as Counselor in the Civil Division at the United States Department of Justice and was the highest-ranking Native American political appointee in the entire Department. Earlier in her career, she served in the White House as Associate Counsel to the President where she was responsible for a number of legal and policy areas including Native American issues.

Ms. Smith graduated from the University of Chicago School of Law, cum laude, where she was a member of the Law Review.  Ms. Smith clerked for the Hon. R. Lanier Anderson III of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.  She received a B.S., magna cum laude, from Loyola University of Chicago in mathematics and computer science.

From 2009-2012, Ms. Smith served as the first Native American woman to the American Bar Association’s (ABA) Board of Governors in the Association’s over 130-year history. Ms. Smith is a member of leadership for the ABA’s Section of Litigation.  She also has served as the National Native American Bar Association’s delegate to the ABA’s House of Delegates, and she is President of the National Native American Bar Association.  From 2006-2009, she served as the first Native American member of the ABA’s Commission of Women in the Profession.

Ms. Smith is admitted to practice in Illinois and the District of Columbia.  She is also admitted to practice in many federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court.

Throughout her professional career, Ms. Smith has given freely of her time to the community, serving as a member of the Board of the Chicago Bar Foundation, the Board of Managers for the Chicago Bar Association, and the Economic Club of Chicago.   She has been elected to membership in the American Law Institute and is a Fellow in the American Bar Foundation.

Q&A With Mary L. Smith:

1.       Where are you from?

I grew up in Chicago, but I have spent many years of my professional life in Washington, D.C.

2.       How did you decide to become a lawyer? Did you always want to practice Indian law and/or work for a tribe? Why or why not?

Growing up in Chicago, I did not know a single lawyer.  The only lawyers I knew were on TV.  In fact, neither of my parents went to college.  So, no, I did not always dream of becoming a lawyer.  I did not think it was a possibility. While in college, I tried to be pragmatic.  So I decided to major in Mathematics and Computer Science.  I thought that I would more easily find a job with a course of study in computer science. I did work in computer science for a few years.  However, I felt unfulfilled.  I wanted to have a more profound impact on the world and on people’s lives.  I believed that by attending law school, I could have that impact.

I actually did not become an enrolled member of my tribe until after my dad passed away.  My dad’s mother was still living, and I talked to her about growing up in Oklahoma and being on the Dawes Rolls after she was born in 1905. After that, I became an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation and have tried to advance Native American issues.

3.       To date, what do you think is your most notable accomplishment – either legal or personal?

During my time in the White House, I developed a Native American policy initiative which spanned areas such as health care, economic development, education, the digital divide, and criminal justice issues.  This initiative resulted in an increase in funding of $1.1 billion for Native American programs across all federal agencies. I was humbled to work on this effort which included an effort to train 1000 new Native American teachers.

4. Is there anything in your career that you have not yet accomplished that you have set as a goal for yourself? If so, what is that? If not, do you plan to retire at some point or try another career?

Yes, there is quite a lot in my career that I have not accomplished!  I try to set goals for myself every day – whether they are small or large.  I guess that is the hallmark of my career: to keep striving. 

5.       Why did you join NNABA? What would you like to see the organization do or accomplish in the near and/or distant future?

I joined NNABA to try to elevate and promote Native American lawyers and to encourage more Native Americans to go to law school and to succeed at the highest levels of the legal profession.   On May 14, 2014, history was made with the confirmation of Diane Humetewa.  She is the first Native American woman in the history of our nation to serve on the federal judiciary, and will be the only American Indian currently serving as an Article III judge in the federal judiciary. While there is much excitement in the Native American legal community about Ms. Humetewa’s confirmation, it is long overdue. This lack of diversity on the federal judiciary is felt profoundly throughout the Native American legal community and throughout Indian Country.  I hope that Ms. Humetewa’s confirmation will be the first of many to come, including on the federal appellate courts.

6. Do you have any advice for new lawyers? If so, what is it?

Be tenacious.  Don’t let your setbacks and cynics define you.  And, most importantly, follow your passion whether it is practicing Indian law or some other area.  If you believe in yourself, anything is possible.