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Smith reflects on 20+ years of professionalism and diversity work

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Larry D. Smith

Larry D. Smith

Orlando attorney Larry Smith is concerned that the COVID-19 pandemic is undermining professionalism, diversity, and inclusion efforts that he said are keys to helping the legal profession cope with the crisis.

Smith is wrapping up more than 20 years’ combined service on the Bar’s Standing Committee on Professionalism (SCOP) and the former Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism.

He talked with the Bar News about his experiences and expectations. Although he is term-limited on the professionalism committee and will leave in June, he will be remaining active, including through the new Valorem Institute for Inclusive Excellence that he has founded.

Smith said the Minority Corporate Counsel of America has released 2019 data showing lackluster progress and he cites anecdotal evidence that law firms and law departments are spending less money on diversity and inclusion — which he sees as inextricably linked with professionalism — than before the pandemic as they buy more computers and deal with other expenses brought on by lawyers working remotely.

“It has always been considered something extra,” he said of the inclusion efforts. “It’s actually a business imperative. It demonstrably helps them succeed but I don’t think a majority of professionals view it that way.

“It’s important how we help one another and rely on one another. I think that will continue and that is where true inclusion will help…. We’re all going to have to do more with less. When we help one another, rely on one another, and bring in new perspectives and ideas, we’ll be better able to achieve that.”

Smith’s professionalism involvement began in 1999 when he read an article in the Bar News on former Justice Harry Lee Anstead discussing diversity and inclusion efforts, but which did not mention sexual orientation. Smith wrote the justice a “really long, footnoted” letter.

When Anstead called a few weeks later, “I thought he was going to disbar me,” Smith recalled. But Anstead talked about growing up poor in Jacksonville and working with African Americans and going into restaurants to buy lunches because his co-workers weren’t allowed to enter.

Then Anstead asked if he wanted to be part of the solution, offering to go to then Chief Justice Major B. Harding and get him appointed to the Commission on Professionalism.

What went through his mind was, “Now that I’m thinking he’s not going to disbar me, I can’t tell him ‘No,’” Smith said.

So, he said ‘yes’ and went on to chair the commission’s Diversity Subcommittee three times. And he found people who shared his concerns and wanted to talk about those issues. Finding success, he went on to accept other opportunities to speak out.

“If I said ‘no,’ people would say they gave people an opportunity to speak and they didn’t,” Smith said. “I became a lot of firsts, not because I was out there blowing my whistle and marching, but because I wouldn’t say no.”

He said his approach to professionalism has always emphasized diversity and inclusion.

“Ensuring we have diversity is another way of showing we have professional respect for our colleagues,” Smith said.

He also sees progress being made.

“We have more civility and I think people got tired of the fighting and wanted less stress in their lives and fewer holes in their stomachs,” Smith said. “Treating one another better was kind of selfish in a way — it is self-serving.

“I have a feeling if we were to go back a really long period of time when lots of lawyers worked in small towns and had to get along with one another, we had a high degree of professionalism because you’re going to see that lawyer in another case next week.”

That small-town feeling may be gone in many places, but instead, “we have to be more global in concept and realize we don’t have to fight all the time,” he said. “I don’t know if we’ll ever get back to every lawyer feeling they’re practicing in a small town, but I think we have created expectations of how we treat one another….

“I think there’s less of that bare-knuckle approach to litigation. I think there’s a more sophisticated approach, and I also think that the introduction of more women and minorities in the profession have added to it in a good way.”

The local professionalism panels, created by the Commission on Professionalism and which continue working with the standing committee, have been successful because they bring a local perspective to professionalism efforts, Smith said.

“It’s going back to that small-town concept, local lawyers are brought before other local lawyers for perceived shortcomings and unprofessional behavior,” he said.

Smith is encouraged that young lawyers are engaging in professionalism. He cited the example of his daughter, Jennifer Smith Thomas, a partner at Rumberger, Kirk & Caldwell and who also serves on the Standing Committee on Professionalism as well as the Young Lawyers Division Board of Governors.

“I know of more than one instance where she has reached out to opposing counsel when she sees them making a mistake,” he said. “She goes off the record and mentors the opponent. That’s a positive thing. I don’t think she’s a rare commodity, I think that is more prevalent today where people are seeking balance. Rather than let their colleague get out of balance, they talk to them. They say, ‘Wait a minute, you don’t need to yell at me. Let’s just talk about it.’”

Smith’s efforts over the years on professionalism, diversity, inclusion, and on behalf of the LGBTQ community have been recognized.

One notable instance was in 2016 when outgoing Bar President Ramón Abadin presented Smith with the G. Kirk Haas Humanitarian Award at the Bar’s Annual Convention. Delivering an emotional speech only five days after the Pulse nightclub shooting that killed 49 people, Smith received a standing ovation at the General Assembly.

Smith has contributed a short video to the Bar’s Henry Latimer Center for Professionalism’s #ProTips Tuesday series and also an article to its most recent newsletter, The Professional, on diversity and inclusion.

“Larry is wonderful. He is always kind, enthusiastic, and ready to do whatever it takes to achieve our goals,” said center Director Rebecca Bandy. “During our SCOP meeting at Annual Convention, it was Larry who pointed out that, in this time of upheaval and social unrest, our committee has a responsibility to reinforce the fact that diversity and inclusion are inseparable components of professionalism. He asked us to examine whether our Professionalism Expectations [a guide combining Bar rules with traditions of fair and civil practice in Florida] adequately reflect this and the committee whole-heartedly agreed.”

The end of Smith’s service on the standing committee will not end his professionalism work. He recently formed the Valorem Institute for Inclusive Excellence which he can use to help law firms and corporations further their diversity and inclusion goals. Although the work of the institute has been slowed down by the pandemic, he expects it will pick back up as the coronavirus recedes — and he said the disease may underscore the message he brings that inclusion not only helps professionalism but brings the best result.

As Smith put it in his article in The Professional where he advocated for a concept called inclusive excellence, “[I]nfusion of new ideas and perspectives introduce layers of analysis that improve the result. Put simply, homogeneity rarely produces the best thought or work product. Inclusive Excellence begins with a recognition of the intrinsic value of the individual. People who feel valued tend to contribute more. The cumulative effect of greater contributions produces better products, whether that’s a widget, as many businesses have come to learn, or a trial team.”

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