A Chapter of the Women's Bar Association of the State of New York (WBASNY)
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Interview of the Month

An Interview with Hon. Lisa Margaret Smith

Susan L. Pollet
Chair of the Archive and Historian Committee

Q:  You presided over the most difficult year in WWBA history.  What was the WWBA able to accomplish during the “pandemic year” of your Presidency?

A: When the year came to a close and I counted out how many programs we had presented, I was amazed to see that our programs totaled 50! That number did not include various public interest efforts, such as the voter registration drive, helping at the Food Pantry in Elmsford, collecting pet food for a shelter, and various wellness efforts such as a spin class, yoga, and other things. I am extremely proud of all the work that so many members put in to keep the organization running in its usual efficient manner.

Q:  What were the biggest challenges the organization faced during your tenure?

A: Every organization started off the year 2020 a bit stymied by the limitations placed on all of us as a result of the pandemic, and WWBA was no exception. All of our members and presenters had to be coached on the use of technology, especially at the start of the year, but it was no surprise to me that they caught on quickly. Our extraordinary Executive Director, Elisabeth Campos, became adept at guiding committee chairs and panelists through the morass of computer presentations, and she is largely responsible for our success in that regard. The other major challenge is the challenge that faces all bar associations in this day and age, which is membership. Those of us who are members understand that we gain tremendous value from our WWBA membership, but it is often difficult to explain the value to new recruits. We did lose members this year, also due to the economic downturn. It is my hope that as the world opens up, and people are able to gather, that our membership numbers will rebound.

Q:  What were the highlights, from your perspective, of your Presidency?

A: The highlights of my Presidency are all based on the extraordinary work of our leadership, from Officers, members of the Executive Committee, Directors, Committee Chairs, and other volunteers. These amazing people came forward with ideas for programs, some of which were directly related to the pandemic and its consequences, issues which had never been presented before. The creativity and energy of these amazing people served to lead us forward in a year like no other. I am extremely proud of the entire leadership team for this past year.

Q:  What were the obstacles that our members faced during this pandemic year, and how did the WWBA try to help?

A: The effects of the economic downturn were a huge problem for many of our members. When asked, WWBA provided reduced rate membership to try to accommodate those who had suffered the most economically.

Q:  As a result of the pandemic, do you think that there will be any permanent changes to the way the WWBA does business going forward?

A: I definitely believe that the use of technology to allow us both to present programs and to view those programs will be a benefit going forward. Not every program should be presented remotely, but many could and should be. The technological changes also mean that we can present programs from panelists in many different places, rather than limiting ourselves to local presenters. It also opens the possibility of viewing programs from other WBASNY Chapters around the State, giving everyone more choices.

Q:  Please tell our members about your career, and which accomplishments you are most proud of.

A: I attended Duke University School of Law in the late 70s, graduating in the spring of 1980. I will share with our student members that despite all my best efforts, I had exactly one job offer upon graduation, so I took it, starting as an Assistant District Attorney in Kings County in the fall of 1980. Although I had some bumps along the way, I ended up in the Appeals Bureau under the guidance of Deputy Bureau Chiefs Peter Weinstein and Roseann MacKechnie, and Bureau Chief Barbara Underwood. I credit those three with guiding me to hone my legal argument and legal writing skills; those skills have supported me in every job I have had since then. After five years I moved to Albany, where I took a position as an Assistant Attorney General in the New York State Department of Law (a/k/a Attorney General’s Office), in the Appeals and Opinions Division. I was very proud during my year in Albany to co-author a brief filed in the Supreme Court on behalf of the National Association of Attorneys General. In 1986 I moved to Westchester, and re-joined the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, where I served as a Supervising Senior Assistant District Attorney in the Appeals Bureau. By happenstance a friend of a friend told me about an opening for an experienced prosecutor in the White Plains Office of the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York. I was happy in the DA’s Office, but I interviewed for the job anyway, and was fortunate to be selected. I served in that Office, investigating and prosecuting many different federal crimes, for eight years. In 1994 I had the opportunity to apply for a newly opened Magistrate Judge position located in the White Plains Federal Courthouse. Even though I didn’t have many of the typical qualifications – I did not go to an Ivy League Law School, I was not on Law Journal, I did not clerk for a judge, and I didn’t ever work for a white shoe law firm – I somehow managed to be in the right place at the right time, and I got the job. I was sworn in March 20, 1995. I continued in that job for twenty-five years, six months, and ten days, retiring on September 30, 2020.

      I was extremely proud to have served as a public servant in all of my legal jobs; representing the citizenry is a very high calling, and I was delighted to do so, to the best of my ability. My service as a Magistrate Judge for more than two decades leaves me with a sense of pride like no other.

Q:  Is there anything you would do differently in your career if you could go back and change it?

A: I do not think I would change anything. As I now enter my second year of retirement, I look back at my entire career with pride, even those “bumps” taught me an important lesson.

Q:  What advice would you give to new lawyers entering the legal profession, including suggestions regarding balancing family and career?

A:  My general advice is never to stop trying, and never to swerve from doing your best. Even if you are working for a terrible supervisor, or working with terrible colleagues, your responsibility is to do your best, notwithstanding those other people. When you do your best you position yourself for a step forward, and good things can happen.

      The issue of balancing family and career is one that will challenge each of us in a different way. I was extremely fortunate that my husband was willing to stay home with our children until they were both full time in school. If I had not had that choice, I am sure my career going forward would have been different. Every parent, whether single or in a committed relationship, has to make a choice about how to try to contribute to the family/work life balance, but every circumstance is unique. The key for our society, going forward, it to make sure that alternatives such as flex time, work-from-home, and affordable childcare are present and available to all.

Q:  Which community activities and outside interests have sustained you during your admirable legal career?

A: Most definitely the WWBA has been a mainstay of life during my career, I originally joined the Capital District Chapter when I was in Albany, and joined the Westchester Chapter when I moved to Westchester. I am also very involved in my local church, as a member of Session and a member of the choir. I served as a member of the Board of Editors of the Federal Courts Law Review, a publication of the Federal Magistrate Judges Association, and I still serve on the Board of Editors of the Federal Bar Council Quarterly, the newsletter of the Federal Bar Council. During the last few years I have also served as an advisor to the Rye Neck High School Mock Trial Team, which has been great fun!

Q:  What do you hope to be involved in going forward?

A: Of course I will continue to be involved with WWBA, this year as Immediate Past President; I will also continue to be involved with my church, and with the Federal Bar Council.

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