Read the full article in the Fall-Winter 2013 issue of
When J. Troy Smith Jr. graduated from UNC School of Law in 1967, he says no one talked about how lawyers should give back in their communities or how many nonbillable, pro bono hours they should be putting in. They simply did it.
In the late ’60s, an older attorney in Craven County, N.C., where Smith started his career, kept a list of local lawyers who were willing to help clients who otherwise would not have been able to afford legal representation. Needy individuals were dispersed to the lawyers on that list, with attorneys across the county sharing the burden.
It worked similarly in the criminal courts; there were no public defenders then. “If we got called by a Superior Court judge [to represent a poor defendant], you just did it,” Smith says.
“Nobody looked for credit and nobody looked to get on some kind of list to get accolades,” says Smith, a founding partner at New Bern-based Ward and Smith P.A.
Since then, he notes, times have changed. Financial pressures on lawyers, especially young lawyers, have increased. Now there are formal public defender systems in place at every level of the court system; law schools run clinics to help those who need legal assistance but can’t afford to hire their own lawyers; and pro bono work and other forms of community service are a widely accepted part of professional life.
“I think good people, whether they’re lawyers or not, are going to give back to the extent they can,” Smith says. However, he noted, by being a lawyer “you may get more opportunity.”
Smith has certainly seized that opportunity in the course of his professional life. His resumé lists dozens of board positions, from local county groups to statewide agencies to a variety of state Bar Association posts. He’s also served on Carolina Law’s Alumni Association board.
Smith says he favors organizations that help the needy with a minimum of administrative overhead, such as The Salvation Army and the Boys and Girls Club. But he also thinks organizations that help promote community economic development can have a broad impact.
“I would submit to you that the off-the-books time that lawyers put in in various communities to improve the economic development of their community, while they’re different from the traditional view of ‘pro bono,’ is more valuable to more people,” he says.
“We did a strategic planning initiative down here 22 years ago, and we had 400 people in the community that participated,” he says, adding that it helped promote the revitalization of downtown New Bern, among other things. “It produced a benefit for the community.
-January 7, 2014