Paul Smith.
Paul Smith. (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/ALM)

The presidential election, Paul Smith said, made his jump from Big Law “the right thing to do.”

Smith, chairman of Jenner & Block’s appellate and U.S. Supreme Court practice, said he had been thinking for some time about teaching in a more serious way and writing about his more than 30 years as an appellate lawyer—many of which he spent litigating voting rights issues.

“I thought I might stay of counsel with the firm, but then this opportunity came along,” Smith said Friday. “After the election it felt like the right thing to do.”

That opportunity came in the form of a teaching position at Georgetown University Law Center and a part-time position to litigate voting rights and campaign reform cases for the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center. Smith announced this week he’s leaving Jenner after 22 years at the end of this month.

Smith, 61, has argued 19 high court cases, including the landmark gay rights decision, Lawrence v. Texas, and major voting rights and First Amendment cases. He spoke with The National Law Journal on Friday about his decision to leave Big Law—and what’s next. The conversation was edited for length and clarity.

NLJ: How did this career change happen?

Smith: I’ve been thinking for a while about doing some teaching in a more serious way and to write about what I’ve learned in the 35 years I’ve been doing this practice. It’s really hard to do that when running a practice, so that was kind of a plan. I thought I might go into government, but it never was the right time or place. I thought I might stay of counsel with the firm, but then this opportunity came along. After the election it felt like the right thing to do.

I’ve been working closely with Gerry Hebert (Campaign Legal Center’s director of voting rights and redistricting) on voting rights for 20 years. We were working with him on cases from Jenner, for example, the Texas Voter ID case and others. I’ve also known Trevor Potter (Center’s president) a long time and that was attractive. They have a really wonderful group of people there.

They were looking for somebody to kind of provide a strategic litigation perspective and approached me. They said, “Do you want to do this?” I said, “I’m going to be teaching,” and they said, “Do it on a part-time basis with us.”

Most of my time I will be at Georgetown. I’m there four days a week and teaching two classes on election law. While I’m sad to lose the connection with Jenner, I thought it was the right thing to do.

What’s Jenner’s reaction to your departure?

They knew about the teaching post for a while and then when I said I wasn’t going to stay, people were wonderful, generous with good wishes. It’s hard to leave behind relationships and do something different, not that I’ve done it very often in my career. I’ve been very privileged to be there and I’ve done wonderfully interesting work and with young lawyers. Not every firm would work out the way it did for me. They have a great sense of values—public service, pro bono.

How important is a Supreme Court and appellate practice for firms today and is it financially remunerative?

It is a tough environment, especially for Supreme Court arguments these days. People are aggressively pricing themselves down to keep the volume up and offering to do what they wouldn’t normally do. If you want to be on the map, you have to have a certain volume of cases you can point to. That’s particularly difficult if you don’t have someone coming from a firm with experience or from the SG office (Office of Solicitor General).

The SG’s office is becoming particularly important as a source of experienced lawyers. But I think it is essential to have this practice for a firm to be able to market itself as a first-rate, national firm with first-rate litigation skills. You have to be able to say, “We have the ability to take this case all the way” and will bring to it the kind of talent an appellate practice recruits. There’s a reason every firm in town is trying to market this practice—it’s important to go to the market with first-rate credentials and it’s absolutely essential to hiring the best associates.

What will you miss most about leaving the practice?

I think the variety is the best thing about private practice. I won’t be as involved in the LGBT movement as I was, but I sort of feel after the Supreme Court and the marriage decision, it’s OK to let others take up those issues. The voting rights issue I’ve been very involved in seems like a problem every bit as serious now as it has been on the voter suppression side, and there’s also the issue of money and how it’s dominating politics.

The center has the Wisconsin partisan redistricting challenge going to the Supreme Court. Jenner is coming in as co-counsel on the appeal. I will definitely work on it. If it gets granted, they expect me to argue it. They have a great team already and want to be sure they have the best Supreme Court team for what could be a very important case. I’m looking forward to it.