by John F. Harkness, Jr.
Setting the gold standard for professionalism and a shining example of pro bono service, Wm. Reece Smith, Jr., died at his Tampa home on January 11, 2013, after a brief illness.
At 87 years old, Smith was the last surviving named shareholder at Carlton, Fields, Ward, Emmanuel, Smith & Cutler, the Tampa firm he joined in 1953.
Smith’s long, colorful, and accomplished life began as the only child of a textile mill office manager in Tennessee who moved to Plant City when Smith was three months old. His first jobs were bagging groceries at the A&P for 12 cents an hour, and delivering the Tampa Times and Plant City Courier on his bicycle.
His last job was chair emeritus at Carlton Fields, where he had a general trial and appellate practice, with a broad practice area of criminal justice and civil litigation.
Smith’s legacy is he is the only American lawyer to have served as bar president at every level: the Hillsborough County Bar Association (1963-64), The Florida Bar (1972-73), the American Bar Association (1980-81), and the International Bar Association (1988-90).
From his earliest days of practicing law, Smith described pro bono as his “central focus” and “favorite activity” and helped make sure a strong pro bono culture permeated Carlton Fields.
In 1989, Smith was honored for his pro bono spirit with the ABA’s highest honor, the ABA Medal and Pro Bono Publico Award, for “exceptionally distinguished service to the cause of American jurisprudence.”
As ABA president, he led the fight in opposition to the attempt to terminate the Legal Services Corporation. He began the ABA’s Private Bar Involvement project that launched 1,000 new pro bono programs throughout the country.
Instrumental in founding Bay Area Legal Services, Inc., a nonprofit, publicly funded entity that provides legal representation to indigent people, Smith later helped establish Florida Legal Services, Inc.
In his college days, he played starting quarterback for the University of South Carolina Gamecocks in the first Gator Bowl on January 1, 1946. Soon thereafter, during World War II, he served in the U.S. Navy with the rank of ensign, on the USS Columbia.
Graduating first in his class in law school at the University of Florida, Smith served as editor-in-chief of the law review. Smith was selected as a Rhodes Scholar, and, at Oxford, he did postgraduate work in international law and received letters in lacrosse and basketball.
Back home from Oxford, he joined the law faculty at UF in 1952-53, until Mitch Emmanuel recruited Smith as the 11th lawyer in the firm then known as Mabry, Reaves, Carlton, Fields & Ward.
Current Florida Bar President Gwynne Young, a shareholder at Carlton Fields, considered Smith her longtime mentor. At her swearing-in ceremony in June 2012, she locked gazes with Smith in the audience and said, “Reece Smith, it is very special to me that I am being sworn in today, 40 years to the day after you were installed as president of The Florida Bar.” She noted that the pressing issues of Smith’s Florida Bar presidency four decades earlier remain current challenges: the need for adequate court funding; the need for increased funding for legal services to the poor; and the concern there were too many lawyers, even though there were only 13,500 lawyers in 1972, compared to more than 93,000 today.
When Smith was sworn in as Bar president, he lauded the passage of the new legislation that created judicial nominating commissions and institutionalized the merit selection of justices and judges, a hot topic in the 2012 election.
When family, friends, and colleagues gathered on January 17 at Hyde Park United Methodist Church to pay their respects, the program contained this description of Smith’s philosophy of lawyering, based on three moral edicts:
• Every person deserves to have their basic rights protected, regardless of economic or social circumstances.
• Lawyers are privileged professionals and as such have a responsibility to use their skills and knowledge for the betterment of all members of society.
•In rendering legal services, lawyers must possess the virtues of good character, competence, and commitment to clients, the courts, and the public interest. Smith called them “The Three C’s.”
For almost 60 years, he practiced what he preached — and that is Smith’s legacy.