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I Wish I’d Known – Mary L. Smith


By Mary L. Smith

Mary L. Smith is president-elect of the National Native American Bar Association and was the first Native American woman to be elected to the ABA’s Board of Governors. She was the highest-ranking Native American in the Clinton White House. In 2012, she will receive the Spirit of Excellence Award, given by the ABA Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Legal Profession to honor lawyers who promote diversity in the profession.

“There is not simply a single path to success,” says Mary L. Smith, president-elect of the National Native American Bar Association.

There will be failures. There, I said it. I really wish I had focused on that while I was in law school. I would have saved myself much angst over the years. But the failures themselves—I wouldn’t trade a single one of them for the world.

I am Native American, and I grew up in a middle-class home where neither of my parents went to college. But I was always taught that if you work hard, you will succeed. Interestingly, an African American friend of mine was taught that he would have to work twice as hard, and he still might not succeed. Seeing the difference between our two perspectives was enlightening.

As my career has developed, I have learned that, of course, you need to work hard, but you also need to work smart.

It is helpful to have a plan for your career. And, by plan, I don’t mean some fancy document with lots of bells and whistles. Rather, you need to think ahead so that you will be in a position—through work experience or familiarity with the right people or both—to be on the radar for opportunities that may arise. But, just as important, you need to have a plan in the event your career does not progress in the manner in which you anticipated. There is not simply a single path to success.

Everyone will have failures. The question is what you will do about it. Sure, no one likes failures, and you will feel bad. Feel bad, but then learn something from it. Find an opportunity in every failure. And don’t let failures make you give up your dreams. You might have to reach your goals in a different way than you first imagined. As my friend, Michele Coleman Mayes, general counsel of Allstate, says: “Failure is only fatal if you let it be.”


Vol. 40 No. 5

Student Lawyer Student Lawyer magazine provides guidance on educational, career, and related issues for ABA Law Student Division members and other subscribers. It is published four times a year by the Law Student Division of the American Bar Association. Student Lawyer is available online to members of the ABA Law Student Division and to print subscribers.

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