by Michael I. Swygert. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2010. 272pp. Hardback. $25.00. ISBN: 9781594608063.

Reviewed by John R. Vile, University Honors College, Middle Tennessee State University. Email: Jvile [at] mtsu.edu.


It is almost an understatement to call William Reece Smith, Jr. “A Consummate Lawyer.” As this book recounts, Smith has respectively been: a star athlete at the University of South Carolina; a navy veteran; first in his law class at the University of Florida, where he was editor-in-chief of the law review; a Rhodes Scholar; a professor of law at the University of Florida; a long-time partner in the prestigious law firm of Carlton Fields (whose founding fathers included Giddings Eldon Mabry, Doyle Carlton, and OK Reaves) with which he is still affiliated; a litigant before the Florida and U.S. Supreme Courts; a city attorney under two mayors in Tampa; Interim President of Florida Southern University; President of the Hillsborough County, Florida Bar Association, the American Bar Association, and the International Bar Associations (the only U.S. lawyer ever elected to this latter post); and a distinguished professional lecturer at the Gulfport and Tampa campuses of Stetson University College of Law. Clearly, Smith has lived a productive life that is an honor both to himself and his profession, and Michael I. Swygert, a professor of law emeritus at Stetson University College of Law has meticulously documented almost every office and honor that Smith has achieved in a long life that began with his birth in eastern Tennessee in September, 1925 and continues in Tampa, Florida today.

In the course of his narrative, Swygert portrays Smith as an early opponent of racial segregation, as a advocate for hiring women, as a consistent proponent for pro bono legal services for the poor, as a proponent of merit selection of judges, as an advocate of allowing Cuban-educated lawyers to sit for the Florida bar without graduating from U.S. law schools, as an opponent of minimum fee schedules, and, more generally, as a man of dignity and integrity. Although Swygert recounts the positions on issues that Smith took in various offices that he held, he never presents an overall view of his political or legal philosophy.

This reviewer doubts that he will be the only reader who completes the book and feels much like the philosopher William James said he did after spending a week at the assembly grounds on the Chautauqua Lake in what he described as “the middle-class paradise without a sin, without a victim, without a blot, without a fear.” After emerging back into the “real” world, James exclaimed “Ouf! What a relief! Now for something primordial and savage, even though it were as bad as an Armenian massacre, to set the balance straight again. This order is too tame, this culture too second-rate, this goodness too uninspiring. This human drama without a villain or a pang; this community so refined that ice-cream soda-water is the utmost offering it can make to the brute animal in man. . . I cannot abide with them” (James, 1899, 132). [*555]

In short, the book is informative, and the professional life it describes is exemplary, but in the end, the text provides little more than the elaboration of an extraordinary resume. Part of the problem is that Swygert gives almost no attention to Smith’s personal life beyond his youth and his three years as a Rhodes Scholar. Swygert’s only mention of Smith’s marriage to Marlene Medina in 1963 and the birth of their only son William Reece Smith, III who was born in 1966 is perfunctory (p. 8). Swygert says nothing about Marlene’s family, about how they met, about how long they were, or have been, married, about what, if any outside occupation she had, about whether she is still alive, or the like. Similarly, Marlene is absent from the 16 pages of photos that are included in the center of the book, although a portrait of Smith with white hair from his firm’s boardroom shows him wearing a wedding band.

Swygert constantly quotes Smith as admirably saying that integrity and professionalism were more important traits for a lawyer than making money, but the author includes a greater description of the house in which Smith spent his early childhood than in the places that the Judge lived in his own lifetime or any mention of his financial situation. As a partner in a major law firm, he presumably made a fairly good living as a lawyer, but one cannot know for sure simply by reading the manuscript. Similarly, although it is clear that they provided occasions for lots of travel, it is difficult to tell from the book whether his positions in bar associations enhanced his income or required financial sacrifices.

Swygert mentions Smith’s good sense of humor but seldom illustrates it. He notes that OK Reaves, a devout Christian in Smith’s firm, once expressed fears of his eternal destiny because he voted for Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, but is not only silent about Smith’s political identification but about whether Smith retained the Baptist faith of his youth and of the founding partners of his firm or was active in church affairs. Again, Smith might be of the generation that does not care to flaunt such matters (which might be far preferable to wearing one’s faith on one’s sleeves), but a reader does not have to have an overly inquiring mind to wonder how, if at all, his professional life might have been shaped by religious and political commitments.

Swygert might be exercising admirable restraint in concealing Smith’s personal life (and might even have done so at Smith’s request), but if Smith had a successful marriage, one would think that his family probably contributed in no small part to his success and would be grateful to be more fully included in the narrative, and if his marriage failed, it might help to know whether this failure came from the difficulty of balancing such an active professional life [*556] with family responsibilities. Given the paucity of family information, one might conclude (perhaps incorrectly) that an active professional life is not really compatible with a good family life.

More generally, Swygert’s narrative portrays Smith as moving from strength to strength and as sailing through life with no great reverses – Swygert briefly mentions a childhood illness that left Smith partially deaf in one ear, but about the only hint of Smith’s own internal conflicts appear in brief descriptions of Smith’s decision to give up a position in a firm to take his Rhodes Scholarship and to seek the presidency of the ABA rather than to translate his interim position into a full-time presidency of the University of South Florida. Perhaps Smith has lived a charmed life, but one might think that he had at least as many family, health, and professional and other disappointments as most fellow mortals who have lived to his age and that some of these might even help to explain the resilience that he displayed in the many roles that he has filled.

Swygert notes that one of Smith’s major political battles involved his largely successful fight during his time as head of the American Bar Association against President Reagan’s plans to scuttle the Legal Services Corporation (although the program was continued, the funds were cut), but without a clearer articulation of Smith’s own political views, it is difficult for readers to ascertain whether Smith simply clashed over this issue with a Republican president or whether he was a consistent Democrat. Perhaps a lack of partisanship enabled him to gain the high positions to which he was elected. Perhaps an identity as a Republican or Democrat did. Readers will not know simply by reading this account. Clearly, Swygert was good at making friends, at listening (the chapter on Smith’s stint as interim university president probably best portrays this), and at networking, but the secret to his interpersonal skills are otherwise largely unilluminated.

In short, Swygert succeeds in detailing Smith’s remarkably productive professional life but is far less successful in portraying his emotional or family life or his overarching political or philosophical views. Significantly, appendices include a selected list of Smith’s awards and the dates he received them and a long list of the countries that he visited, many in his role as head of the International Bar Association. The book also includes a bibliography and an index of names.

James, William. “What Makes a Life Significant,” in TALKS TO TEACHERS ON PSYCHOLOGY AND TO STUDENTS ON SOME OF LIFE’S IDEALS. Dover publications (New York) reprint of Henry Holt and Company edition of 1899.

© Copyright 2010 by the author, John R. Vile.