By Samantha Dunn
Why her, why now: Sheniece Smith is a legal eagle, one who grew up as a Navy brat. “People ask me, ‘Where are you from?’ And I don’t feel like I am from anywhere.”
But Smith found a place to belong when she turned her sights to the law. She first snagged a job as a paralegal at CHOC Children’s in 2008, but in no time her supervisor encouraged Smith to pursue a law degree while she worked. Soon she was a cum laude graduate of University of La Verne College of Law shooting up the ladder at CHOC, arriving in her current position as chief of staff and senior counsel to CHOC CEO Kim Cripes.
Along the way she engineered valuable programs to offer legal help to those who can’t afford it, starting with H.O.P.E. Through Affordable Legal Services, a community benefit project to bridge the gap between pro bono services and full attorney fees. Then Smith launched Family Legal Assistance at CHOC, a medical-legal partnership to provide free guardianship and conservatorship services to low-income CHOC families. She has also developed a law clerk program at the hospital to allow law students to hone their skills by assisting on projects in the legal department and families receiving services through Family Legal Assistance.
“No matter what you have or don’t have, you need to give back,” Smith believes. “I didn’t grow up anywhere near the life I live now. We had free lunch, we used financial aid to go to college, I started working when I was 14. I didn’t actually think I would make it, succeed, whatever that means – even when I went to college. But, I have always volunteered. That helped out in the most unexpected way.”
She never expected to reach her dream of being a lawyer, but as a paralegal, her supervisors took note of her can-do attitude and spirit of service, which earned their support. “Now that I have accomplished that goal I find it even more important to give back both in doing pro bono legal work and in mentoring others. I am so blessed, and I can’t throw away the blessing.”
What women influenced you? “I know it’s cliché, but my mom. I have a very difficult relationship with my mom, especially because my parents were divorced. I went to live with her in 10th grade just when I was starting to act up – and she nipped that in the bud. My mom was definitely the enforcer; she was not afraid to exercise her authority. I hated my mom at the time but now I really thank her, because I look at the path I was going down and the friends I hung out with, and I see how their lives have gone. She is the one who made me think about life differently. She is the one who talked to me about going to college, making contacts and studying hard, the stuff that my dad’s college-educated side of the family didn’t talk about – they just assumed it would happen.”
When did you realize you could? “Although my mom was a huge catalyst for pushing me into a professional career and setting goals in general, I think I knew I could when I stopped doing this for her or because of her and instead started doing things because of me. At some point, I was able to transform carrying out her will into carrying out my own while keeping in mind everything she taught me. My mom actually never wanted me to be a lawyer, but I followed my passion, and as I developed in my career I knew I could because I was doing what felt right to me.”
What do you wish you’d known sooner? “I felt like I couldn’t say no to things, that I couldn’t miss an opportunity, but really what I needed was to be more selective in how I used my time. If I could go back and redo one thing, that would be it. And, taking care of myself, to know how important that is. I was always taking care of my clients, taking care of family – but all the while feeling like I am not even giving enough to any one of those things.”
What do you want for other women? “Learn balance more quickly. I struggle with that and always take on too much because I always feel like what I do is not enough. I want other women to know that what they do is enough. We play so many roles as women, and it often feels like we are cutting everything short. I want women to feel like with the right balance they really can do it all.
“Even though I encourage women everywhere to get after whatever they are passionate about, that’s not to say that sometimes I may doubt whether I really have it. Imposter syndrome is real, and I catch the bug from time to time! I’m fortunate there are so many strong women around me, and have good friends who inspire, so that the imposter syndrome bug passes quickly and I’m back at it.”