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Former ABA president who led bar's fight to save Legal Services Corp. has died

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Wm. Reece Smith Jr.

Wm. Reece Smith Jr. of Tampa, Fla., began his one-year term as ABA president in August 1980. Before that term ended, Smith was embroiled in a dispute with another president: Ronald Reagan, who began a push to eliminate federal funding for the Legal Services Corp. shortly after being inaugurated to his first term in January 1981.

The fight to save the LSC, which channels federal funds to offices that provide civil legal services at the state and local levels to low-income Americans, dominated Smith’s presidential term. The failure of Reagan and some federal legislators to put the LSC out of business only a few years after Congress had created it in 1974 helped solidify the corporation’s standing. But the struggle to wrench adequate funding from Congress to support the corporation has become an annual ritual for the ABA and other segments of the organized bar.

Smith died Jan. 11 at the age of 87. “The American Bar Association mourns the passing of Wm. Reece Smith Jr.,” said current ABA President Laurel G. Bellows, principal of the Bellows Law Group in Chicago, in a statement. “Reece’s advocacy for pro bono service and legal funding for the poor is legendary. We are grateful for his many extraordinary contributions to society and the organized bar.”

When Reagan announced his proposal that Congress defund the LSC, Smith organized a march on Washington by bar leaders to petition their members of Congress to preserve funding for the corporation. That successful lobbying effort set the mold for the annual ABA Day in Washington event in which bar leaders from around the country visit Capitol Hill to lobby their congressional delegations on issues of importance to the legal profession—including, inevitably, funding for the LSC.

“In addition to championing legal aid funding, Reece insisted throughout his career that America’s lawyers need to be fully engaged and active pro bono volunteers,” Bellows said in her statement. “His vision is responsible for the creation of what is now the ABA Center for Pro Bono, which reflects the association’s service as the nation’s leading organization supporting the growth of pro bono.”


Those accomplishments by themselves would be enough to enshrine Smith in the pantheon of the ABA’s greatest presidents—in 1989, he received the ABA Medal, the association’s highest award—but his professional achievements were even more far-reaching.

“Reece Smith was one of the lions of the Florida bar,” says Martha W. Barnett, a partner at Holland & Knight in Tallahassee who served as 2000-01 ABA president. “He stood for the ethical obligations of lawyers as professionals, and he lived that. He understood the value of diversity and put those ideals into practice.”

At the time of his death, Smith was a shareholder and chair emeritus at Tampa’s Carlton Fields. He joined the firm in 1953 and was the last surviving named shareholder when it was Carlton, Fields, Ward, Emmanuel, Smith & Cutler.

Smith was born in Tennessee in 1925. His family moved to Plant City, Fla., about 25 miles east of Tampa, when he was 3 years old. Smith served in the Navy during World War II, and earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. He also played on the football team, and he was the starting quarterback for the Gamecocks in the first Gator Bowl. He received his JD in 1949 from the University of Florida College of Law in Gainesville, then received a Rhodes scholarship to study at Oxford University in England.

Among his professional accomplishments, Smith is the only American lawyer to serve as president of a local bar, a state bar, the ABA and the International Bar Association.

Barnett says Smith never forgot his roots. “Because I married a Plant City boy, I think Reece took a special interest in me and mentored me in the bar,” Barnett says. “He was, like most great men, humble and content with what he had accomplished in his career and his life.”

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