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The National Law Journal Brooklyn-born James Smith has spent three decades inside the D.C. Beltway. But he still speaks with “the bite” of the Big Apple when he applies the adjectives “lean and mean” to the eight-lawyer telecom group at the Washington, D.C., office of Seattle firm Davis Wright Tremaine, which he recently joined. It has been 12 years since the 48-year-old Smith was in private practice, as general counsel at Dallas’s Excel Communications, Inc. But he says he welcomes firm work for the intellectual stimulation of an environment where he’s surrounded by other telecom lawyers. “There is a lot more dynamism,” Smith says of the D.C. group. “You really have to be on your toes mentally.” It was 1997 when Smith joined Excel, now the fifth-largest long-distance provider in North America and a subsidiary of Montreal’s BCE Inc. Previously he spent seven years outside the legal profession as president of Competitive Telecommunications Association. CompTel’s involvement in developing the 1996 Telecommunications Act, plus Smith’s own legal work at Pierson, Ball & Dowd in D.C., made him the choice for in-house legal counsel at Excel, which then was entering local markets and needed Smith’s Washington experience for guidance through the regulatory minefields. Despite the different hats he’s worn in telecom, Smith says his main role has been translating Washington-ese into language the rest of us can understand. In that sense, his new job mirrors his work at Excel and CompTel. “Washington is a very different place,” he says. “No doubt it is a constant frustration to clients.”

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