Master storyteller: Criminal defense attorney Wade Smith shares his stories as part of “Conversation With …” series

Photo of the event A "Conversation With..." Wade Smith

A "Conversation With..." Wade Smith

The best lawyers are good story tellers, says Raleigh criminal defense attorney Wade Smith.

“Justice (Carlisle) Higgins taught me that every case tells a story and the person who tells the best story wins,” he said. “In order to be a good lawyer, you have to be a great story teller.”

Smith proved during his recent “Conversation With…” series appearance at Wake Forest University School of Law that he is a master storyteller. And there is no doubt that Smith is a good lawyer.

In 2004, Business North Carolina Magazine named him North Carolina’s No. 1 criminal lawyer, based on a vote by his peers. The North Carolina Bar Association in 2008 established an award in Smith’s name “for a criminal defense attorney who exemplifies the highest ideals of the profession.” The same year the NC Bar presented Smith with the H. Brent McKnight Renaissance Lawyer Award, which annually goes to “an attorney whose trustworthiness, respectful and courteous treatment of all people, enthusiasm for intellectual achievement and commitment to excellence in work and service to the profession and community, inspires others.”

Smith, who is best known for his representation of Dr. Jeffrey McDonald in the Green Beret Murder case as well as one of the accused young men in the Duke Lacrosse Case among others, was born and raised in struggling Stanley County immediately following the Depression. Both of his parents were mill workers.

“My neighborhood was rough,” he told Professor Ron Wright during their conversation. “There was no running water. I went to the well to get water for my family.”

Smith said growing up in the shadow of the textile mills motivated him. “I thought, ‘I will show them and I will show the world that people who grow up in those circumstances can be good,’” he said. “I think that has been a great motivating factor in my life.”

That motivation led him to become a Morehead Scholar and the football team captain at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Wright asked Smith how he combined his academic and athletic pursuits at the time.

“For me football was fun, it was a joy to be on the team,” he said. “I wasn’t going to be a pro football player but I was happy as an athlete and student.”

Smith graduated in 1963 from UNC’s law school, which he said he loved from the moment he walked through the doors. “When I got to law school, I felt like I was home,” he said. “We didn’t know any lawyers and I had never met one, but I knew I wanted to be a lawyer.”

It was in law school, that criminal law “always twanged my heart strings,” Smith said.

Smith attributes his legal success to surrounding himself with people who are smarter than he is. “I’ve learned it’s the way to go,” he said with a laugh.

He also stressed to law students that having mentors is one of the most important things they can do to succeed. Smith said he learned from his mentor, Justice Higgins, the lure of the law and the beauty of the justice system.

“Find a lawyer, a woman or a man, that you admire and that you would like to emulate,” he said. “To watch a great lawyer is such a good idea. It isn’t like you are going to copy them. You will find your own voice and be genuine in the world.”

Smith, who founded his firm — Tharrington Smith LLP — with a friend immediately after his clerkship with Justice Higgins, said the legal world hasn’t changed much in nearly five decades.

“It was hard work then and it’s hard work now,” he said. “The life of a lawyer is busting your butt working. It’s late-night work sometimes working all night when you’ve got a brief that’s got to be done. If you go to a very large firm it may be along while before you get to do anything that feels like a lawyer. That may be discouraging, but don’t give up. If you start your own firm there’s a different pattern.”

Professor Wright pointed out that Smith’s guiding principal throughout his career has been that there are no small cases.

“If a case has kept a person up at 3 a.m. worrying, it’s a big case,” he said. “If it’s important to this person and worrisome to them, then it’s important to us.”

Death penalty cases, Smith said, are in a class by themselves and the most challenging. “You can’t take a death penalty case without changing your life,” he said. “It shortens your life. You worry all the time, ‘Did you make a mistake? And you worry your mistake could cause someone to die.”

Smith, who is the father of two and grandfather of four, was appointed in 2006 to serve as one of eight commissions on the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, the only one of its kind in the nation.

No matter the size of the case, Smith says creative thinking is key. “Creative thinking will see you through the most difficult ones,” he added.

He also believes that the truth will set you free. “The truth is a sword in your hand,” Smith said. “I think it is our ethical duty to find the trutth and go forward with the proper ethical defense. The person has the right to plead not guilty and challenge the government’s evidence. Even if they are guilty, I feel like I am doing God’s work.”

As a former N.C. Bar president and a two-term state legislator, Smith said it important for young lawyers to work public service into their careers.

“You have to be in the community from the beginning,” he explained.  “You have to know what the barber or the beautician is thinking. Join the precinct of your political party and run for party chair or join a church, a civic club or a band. Take pro bono cases. Learn what’s going on. You’re going to make a difference if you get outside the office and do something and meet people. Live your life in a way so people will think of you when they have a legal problem.”

Everyone should be in a band, according to Smith, who plays fiddle, guitar and banjo. “You don’t have to be able to sing or play an instrument but you should join a band,” he said. “I’m in three bands and we practice once a week. I don’t play well but it’s fun.”

 The best work Smith says he ever did to be a lawyer was to work with a road oil crew during the summers he was in law school.

 “There I met my jurors,” he said. “Little Tuck has been on every one of my juries. I know just how he’s thinking. You won’t meet your jurors in a law office.  You should think whatever job you get will help you be a lawyer.”