Claiming a future: Mercer native first-gen college grad, lawyer

Published 8:59 am Monday, October 2, 2017

At the age of 26, a 2009 Mercer County graduate is in a career that he once thought unattainable.

“No one in my family has thought about law school or gone to law school,” Zack Smith said. “I was a first-generation college (student), so in my mind, going to law school and being a lawyer wasn’t really in the cards for me.”

He’s now four weeks in as an attorney at Greensfelder, Hemker & Gale in St. Louis. On Sept. 13, Smith got the letter confirming he passed the bar exam.

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“I am very green. You kind of hit the ground running when you get here. You get your ‘Welcome to the firm,’ and then ‘Here’s your first assignment,’” Smith said, calling it “great.”

“It means they really take a stock in you and they believe in you.”

A football player and member of the track team at Mercer County High School, Smith said he first planned to study business management in college.

“I really had no idea what I was going to do with it. I just knew it sounded good,” he said. “As far as a set thing that I wanted to do — I didn’t know, I didn’t have it.”

It was while at Lindsey Wilson College that Smith first considered the idea of law school, after professors encouraged him to consider the idea. After a few classes, Smith said he liked it enough to get a degree in political science and criminal justice. But it would take a bigger push for law school.

The last semester of his senior year, from January to May 2014, Smith interned with Congressman Brett Guthrie in Washington, D.C.

He stayed with six other guys while there, many of whom planned to go to law school after graduation. It was through conversations with them that he began to believe becoming a lawyer could be a reality. 

“I kind of got more confidence in myself and learned what the process was to go to law school,” he said.

That internship, which he said was a “great opportunity,” also provided him a few other rare chances: observing the Benghazi briefings in person, which he called “surreal to see,” meeting important political figures, and more.

“I worked for a great guy in Congressman Guthrie. Even though I’m a Democrat, he took me in and he didn’t care what party I was. That was amazing,” Smith said.

It was a lesson, he said, that it’s possible to cross over the aisle and put down party differences. He learned a lot from the experience.

Smith also witnessed the second inauguration of President Barack Obama.

“I got to D.C. and the first day I walked in, they said, ‘Do you want to go to the inauguration?’ I said, ‘Yea, of course.’  To be able to, as an African-American, go to the inauguration of our first African-American president, even though that was his second term, it meant a lot to me. To be there, to be around everyone that was just as excited as me and to hear him speak … it really hit home.”

Just being in Washington D.C. was important for Smith on many levels.

“To go to the Lincoln Memorial and then to go to the spot where Dr. King gave his ‘I have a dream’ speech, it really helps you to come home to your roots a little bit,” he said.

“At the time, when I was there, at the American History Museum, they had a special African-American exhibit. Now they have an African-American Museum, which I haven’t been to yet. At the time, it was just a wing in the American History Museum,” Smith said. “I think I went through there five or six times, just walking through and making sure I read everything that was there. Not just skimming it, reading it and getting lost in it.”

He said those experiences in D.C. definitely shaped him.

Smith graduated in 2013 and moved with his fiancé, now-wife, Saundra, to Louisville.

“I worked as a bartender at a little restaurant called Majid’s, I don’t even think it’s there any more.”

It’s not, the restaurant closed in 2016. But it was during that time that Smith finally made the decision to pursue law school.

“I went there every night working and figured out really fast that this wasn’t what I wanted to do with the rest of my life,” he said. 

That’s when Saundra said, “From sophomore year, you wanted to go to law school. How about you do it?”

Smith laughs as he shared it, admitting she might have given a little push.

But he did. For two months, Smith did nothing but study the LSAT.

“She was working and it afforded me the opportunity to quit my job to study for the LSAT,” he said. “For that two-month time before I took the test, it was hard. We were on one income … It was a lot of nights of fried bologna sandwiches to get to take the LSAT.”

The hard work paid off — Smith said he did way better than he expected to. Then came the next step: getting accepted. He applied at a few schools, including Washington University in St. Louis.

“When I got the letter, I jumped all over the apartment. Saundra was like, ‘What’s going on?’ And I said, ‘We’re going to St. Louis! I got into Wash U,’” he said, laughing. “That was a great moment.”

That was in 2014. Before they left for St. Louis, they got married.

“We had to be in St. Louis two weeks after that,” Smith said.

They signed a rental lease on their new home while in the car heading to Panama City for their honeymoon.

“The people we are renting from sent us videos of the house — we didn’t even get to see it. We signed an online rental agreement right then,” he said. “We got back to Louisville, packed up a U-Haul and headed to St. Louis.”

Smith said he’s grateful for his wife. The two met during their freshman year at Lindsey Wilson College through mutual friends. She’s originally from Marion, Kentucky, a small town in Crittenden County — that’s where the two wed.

While attending law school, Smith has spent the last two summers working as a summer associate at Greensfelder, Hemker & Gale. He graduated from Washington University School of Law earlier this year, just in time for his wife to start at Seminole University this fall.

“She always had a vision of going to law school. It just happened that I happened to go first, but the roles could have easily been reversed,” he said. “She really did a great job while I was in school, she worked full-time those three years while I was in school.”

Smith is in corporate law and said his wife is not sure yet what type she wants to pursue. Who would win if they had to face off?

“I have a feeling she’d beat me,” Smith said, laughing.

For the first generation college student, becoming a lawyer is a surreal feeling.

“My grandfather was illiterate. My grandmother only had a third-grade education,” Smith said. “To be able to hear stories from my grandma and my dad and my mother of where they grew up and how they grew up, for them to overcome those situations to get my family to where we were when I was growing up, and for myself to take that torch and go further, further than many people— even myself — thought is a great feeling.”

Smith said it’s too early know to what the future holds, but maybe, one day, down the road he could have a career in politics. For now, he said he wants to stick to being a “great attorney, husband and neighbor.”

“It’s something that’s there. But I really want to give to the community more as Zack Smith rather than going in as Candidate Smith,” Smith said. “If, down the road, it happens, I’ll never shy away from the call.”

He has a few thoughts on what it takes to be a voice for the community, too.

“A person just can’t say, ‘I want to run for office.’ That’s not how it works. You have to be in the community. You have to be helping the community. And you have to show them that you’re willing to roll your sleeves up and get your hands dirty before they’re able to look upon you as their voice. Representatives are the voice of the people,” Smith said. “A lot of the representatives are losing that now … They’re becoming the voice of themselves and their communities hurt. You have to be able to be their voice.”

Smith said he’d like to give one more message to students who are where he once stood.

“You have to believe in yourself. As you go through life, as you find out what you want to do in life, there’s going to be so many trials and setbacks. If you don’t believe in yourself, you’ll quit,” he said. “Don’t let what other people think of you or think about you hold you back.”

For those who have dreams, Smith said the sky is the limit.

“If you’re young, you’re determined, you believe in yourself and you put the work in, the sky is truly the limit.”

He shared that there were naysayers when he started pursuing law, people who told him he couldn’t do that or “do you want to try something else maybe?”

“If I would have listened to everyone, there’s no way I would have been here.”

And there were times it was hard or overwhelming, Smith said, such as when he started at Washington University.

“I was sitting next to people whose parents, grandparents, great grandparents were attorneys, doctors and they went to the best schools, they went to Ivy League colleges,” he said. “If I didn’t have that belief in myself and the support system of my wife and my parents, there’s no way I would have stayed here and hung in like I did.”

Once those grades came out, he said, he knew he belonged.

“It’s getting there that’s the hard part.”

Family, is huge. Smith said his parents, Jerry and Gayle Smith, had been huge supporters, as well as his brothers Corey and Jerrard, and of course his wife Saundra.

“When I passed the bar, I called (Corey) first, because I wanted him to be with my mom and dad when I told them,” Smith said. 

His brother wanted to post to Facebook right away.

“He was just as excited or more as excited as I was to learn that I passed the bar,” Smith said.

Corey helped Smith FaceTime with their parents.

“I sent my mom a text message with the picture of the letter that I got … As she was reading it out loud, she lit up,” he said. “It was great. It was very, very good. You could tell, they were super excited I passed the bar.

“Even more, they were excited that the journey from where I had started, being a C and D student in high school and not really worrying about my grades at all, to then turning that around and becoming an A/B student in law school. It’s been a journey. It’s been a long journey.”

It’s his parents’ stories and the stories of his grandparents that inspired him along the way. His dad, Jerry Smith, grew up in Mayo, Kentucky, a small town in Mercer County.

“The house they lived in, rain and snow would come in through the roof because it would leak. He always used to tell me stories about that. He always would tell me stories about the sacrifices people had to go through, just so I could go to school, before I went to school,” Smith said of his dad.

His mom was one of 12 and grew up in Nicholasville.

“Through all of that, even though my dad was very poor and my mom’s family was very poor, hard work and determination ruled the day,” Smith said, sharing how his parents had worked to move the family forward.

“It was to show me that hard work would get you where you want to go. That’s what I think about all the time, where my mom and dad came from to where they are now and all the hard work they put in to get me where I am now,” he said.

Smith also said he’s held firm to his faith in God.

“During the time when I was taking the LSATs, when I was waiting for results to come in and when I was waiting for schools to call back, I remember praying a lot. It kind of gave me solace in that, at this point, it was out of my hands,” Smith said. “God will place you where he wants you to go.”