Roxann Smithers’ Journey from Big Law to Law Firm Entrepreneur

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As part of our Next Gen Leadership: Advancing Lawyers of Color initiative, we sat down with Roxann Smithers from Smithers + Ume-Nwagbo, an Atlanta-based legal firm that specializes in providing general counsel services for small businesses. Smithers discusses how she acquired her areas of expertise and the circumstances that led her to starting her own firm.

Legal Executive Institute: Can you tell me about your expertise and your practice, and how you came to be a partner at your own firm?

Roxann Smithers: I have a hybrid practice that focuses on both commercial litigation and dispute resolution for entrepreneurs and small business. My firm, which is comprised of myself and my partner Nwa’ndo Ume-Nwagbo, provides general counsel services for entrepreneurs and small business owners. Nwa’ndo does our employment law and employee benefits piece. Our niche market are midsize and small businesses who need capable general counsel services.

I started my career doing product liability and personal injury litigation dispense work at King & Spalding, here in Atlanta. My partner Nwa’ndo started on the firm’s employee benefits team. My initial career experience was litigation — all litigation, all day long, and no corporate work at all.

After being at King & Spalding for a couple years, I wanted a better balance in terms of quality of life. Big Law did not necessarily look like the definition of success that I wanted to have by staying on a partnership track. Then, I went to two smaller firms where I was exposed to construction law, general corporate work and outside general counsel services for nonprofits and medical facilities, respectively.


lawyers of color

Roxann Smithers

I wanted a better balance in terms of quality of life. Big Law did not necessarily look like the definition of success that I wanted to have by staying on a partnership track… 

 


After 10 years of practice, I saw an opportunity to take that outside general counsel concept and work with additional smaller companies. It was through my network of colleagues and friends at King & Spalding that we put together a firm that covers the three main areas — corporate, litigation, and employment law/employee benefits. Originally, we met as summer associates and worked in different practice groups at the firm after graduating from law school. That was six years ago.

How did you learn what it takes to run your own firm?

I definitely feel as though everything happens for a reason, and everything prepares you for something. It helps to keep things in perspective and to try to not stress out about situations or uncertainties because everything is happening for a reason; the pieces come together, and it is only in retrospect when I realize, “Wow, so that’s why that happened, or that’s why I had that experience.”

While at one of the smaller law firms, I learned construction law and started doing corporate and outside general counsel work. The partner that I worked for decided to leave that firm, and she had originally opened that firm’s Atlanta office. At the time, it was the largest majority-minority firm in the country. She was deciding to leave that firm and I left with her, as part of a small group (another partner and two staff members) to start an Atlanta-based office of another firm. Because it was a small group, I was able to learn the numbers, the processes, systems, and logistics needed to run the firm.

I took everything from that situation and absorbed it. It was about two years later when I decided that I wanted to start my own firm and I was able to take those lessons and apply them in my move.

What did you take away from each law firm experience to create the law firm with the working environment that you wanted and that fit with your idea of what success looks like for you?

I would describe our firm’s culture as relaxed classic. In some ways, we are very formal. We have our strategic plan. We have an estimated budget that we true up every year. We have our annual firm meeting or retreat with an agenda. We conduct our monthly partner meetings. We have policies and procedures for everything that we do, so that we are memorializing how we do things, what we’ve agreed to in terms of how we manage the funds, and how we set our goals for marketing. We have a timeline for when time has to be in, a timeline for invoices to go out, one to follow up with clients who have not paid, and one for how we pay ourselves.

At the same time, we are a virtual firm. To illustrate, we have a set monthly phone call to discuss managing the firm with a standing agenda. There are notes taken and distributed to ensure, if we need to, we have the ability to refer back to them. This call may happen from my couch with my dog sitting on my lap.


I took everything from that situation and absorbed it. It was about two years later when I decided that I wanted to start my own firm and I was able to take those lessons and apply them in my move.


We recognize that to do good legal work and to be responsive to our clients does not require me to be in an office downtown wearing a suit. Oftentimes, I am more available to my clients because I do not have to be in a suit in an office downtown every day.

What was the most difficult situation for you, how did you succeed in overcoming it, and what did you learn?

After I left King & Spalding, I had a summer where I was not at a firm. I purposefully took that summer to look strategically for the type of environment that I wanted to have. At the time, my motto was, “I will trade money for time, and I will trade dollars for hours of sleep.”

I was doing contract work and also assisting some friends who had businesses. Around the time I started thinking about starting my own firm, I recalled that summer and how I liked being able to control my own time and liked the work I was doing.

I was not ready that summer, but about 8 years later, I was ready to take the risk to go out on my own.

What piece of advice you would give to your younger self?

I would have been a little more frugal financially earlier because I have recognized that as a woman of color coming out of school, I did not have family financial resources to lean on like many majority lawyers.

It took me longer to get on the same plane economically, even if I was on the same plane in terms of having the same education and working in the same law firm. I paid for law school through loans and there was no paying off the loans as a graduation gift or getting help with a down payment on a first home from the parents. It is important to keep in mind how that plays out in the decisions that you make, in the opportunities you can pursue, and the flexibility that you have because lawyers of color often start off with far more debt.