Reckon Women’s series on Southern mothers and daughters who share the same profession is part of Reckon’s celebration of Women’s History Month.
The first time newly minted attorney Wesley Smithart attended a meeting of the Women’s Section of the Alabama Bar Association, she got to watch her mother, Elizabeth Smithart, lead the meeting as chair.
The two women, both graduates of the University of Alabama School of Law, talked with Reckon this week about their shared profession and lessons they’ve learned from each other. Their answers have been edited for length.
Wesley was born and raised in Union Springs, Ala., and now lives in Birmingham where she works as an attorney with Lightfoot, Franklin & White. Her work mostly involves civil defense litigation in areas of product liability, white-collar criminal defense and personal injury.
Elizabeth is an attorney in Union Springs, Ala., where she has owned her own firm since 1999 and handles a variety of clients including public boards and nonprofits. She’s the immediate past chair of the Alabama Bar Association’s Women’s Section.
Q: What got you interested in law?
Elizabeth: It’s always been interesting to meet new clients and new people. I meet a lot of people through mediations in particular from all over. There’s wide variety in my work.
Wesley: From the time I was in kindergarten, my mom had her own practice and my dad has been the circuit court judge and it wasn’t hard for me to imagine becoming an attorney myself.
My mom and I were both Student Government Association presidents at Huntingdon College and we both ended up going to law school at the University of Alabama as well. My parents met and married there. Every day I was in law school, I would see my parents’ photos on the composite photo on the wall in our little common area.
Q: What’s an important lesson you learned from your mom?
Wesley: Growing up and seeing my mom go to work every day, it made it possible for me to imagine a career for myself. I think a lot of girls haven’t had that opportunity. Somebody can say that you can be whatever you want to be when you grow up, but I was able to actually see my mom being a lawyer, going to court, working really hard. And simultaneously being a fantastic mom. To this day, she’s my best friend.
I grew up going to conferences with her and watching my mom in leadership positions. I’ve seen her in her element in that way.
And she cares for people and serves her community. It’s what her whole career is based on, being the go-to person in our small town, to do anything anybody needs of her. It’s an admirable thing to watch. I think my whole career to this point has been inspired by that.
Q: What’s an important lesson you’ve learned from your daughter?
Elizabeth: Technology has changed so very much since I started practicing law. Even now in my practice, I am still so reliant on paper files. During Covid, both of my children came back home. (Wesley’s) law school classes went virtual, and my son had just graduated from Auburn and was looking for a job. Just watching Wesley navigate the online technology, I’m trying to make myself get better, and incorporate more technology into my office.
Q: How is the field of law changed from when you started?
Elizabeth: The common experience of women, especially 32 years ago when I started practicing, was much different than it is today. There were some quirky things the male judges required. You weren’t allowed to show your toes or heels in your shoes. Some judges required us to wear suits but they had to have skirts. You couldn’t wear pants. We did it because we were in their realm, their territory. And there were a lot of female attorneys then; I’m not that old. But we still had to follow whatever rules the men said. I got called ‘sugar’ and ‘honey’ a lot in those days.
But when you finally have a seat at the table, things tend to change. We have so many more women and lawyers of color in leadership positions with the bar, and within the judiciary. Things have progressed. We still have a ways to go, obviously, but things are much better than they were in 1989.
Q: What’s something you hope she’s learned from you?
Wesley: Her practice of law is completely different from mine, and I think that says a lot about how my parents encouraged me to do what I wanted, and weren’t trying to make me do exactly what they have done. I’ve gone in a totally different direction and I hope she has seen the value of my independence.
Elizabeth: In our family, we made a decision early on that everybody was going to be respectful and that all people are of equal worth and value. That’s one of the things I love about the law, that the ideal we strive for is that lady justice is blind, although that’s not always the reality. But we’ve tried to pass that along to our children.