Small cases can teach big lessons. As a law student, Grasford Smith ’05 trained as a mediator with the NYU Mediation Organization, a student organization in which law students learn dispute resolution techniques and have the opportunity to apply them as a mediator in real disputes—alongside coaches and mediation supervisors—often in the Manhattan Small Claims Court. The experience, Smith says, helped lay the groundwork for the work he does today as a litigation shareholder at Florida’s Jones Foster. “The dollar amounts weren’t very high,” he recalls, but mediating those small claims cases gave him the opportunity to practice his skills with “real people and real issues.”
“I ended up being involved in a lot of multimillion-dollar mediations,” Smith says, “and you realize that you end up using those very same skills.”
The first African American shareholder in his firm’s almost century-long history, Smith now handles a range of complex corporate litigation. His victories include achieving a favorable settlement for a major league baseball team in a breach of contract dispute; settling trademark disputes on behalf of a marine industry retailer and manufacturer; and representing a defense contractor in a multimillion-dollar settlement.
Smith started his career as an associate at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom in New York and Washington, DC, before returning to South Florida to work as a litigation associate first at Squire Sanders & Dempsey, then at Richman Greer. “Florida is home for me and I always planned that at some point I was going to move back home,” Smith says.
While at Richman Greer, he met Scott Hawkins, vice chair of Jones Foster, as opposing counsel in a multi-day trial. “We were adversaries, but we became pretty good friends,” Hawkins says. When Hawkins was elected president of the Florida Bar, he asked Smith to serve on a commission studying the bar’s discipline process. “He was a superb commissioner,” Hawkins says. “He was probably the youngest member of the commission, and he was very engaged.” Shortly thereafter, Hawkins recruited Smith to join Jones Foster as a senior counsel
Serving on the Florida Bar’s disciplinary committee is just one aspect of Smith’s involvement in the Florida legal community. He sits on the board of the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County, is president-elect of the Black Chamber of Commerce of Palm Beach County, serves on the board of directors of the Palm Beach County Bar Association, and is president of the Virgil Hawkins Florida Chapter National Bar Association, the state’s African American bar association. Recently, Smith was appointed chair of the Houston Social Justice Legal Initiative by the general president of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity. Named after civil rights icon Charles Hamilton Houston, the Legal Initiative will focus on issues of voting rights, education reform, and criminal justice.
He pursues boxing as a hobby, and recently received a license from USA Boxing that allows him to judge and referee matches. Smith also remains an active alumnus of the Law School, currently serving on the advisory board of the Law Alumni of Color Association, which named him a 40 under 40 Rising Star in 2018.
As a student, Smith advocated for faculty diversity as a member of the Diversity Working Group, taught as a member of the High School Law Institute, and was one of the founding editors of the NYU Journal of Law & Business. Smith also served as a teaching assistant for the late Professor Derrick Bell—“Derrick Bell was a legend and we all wanted to get exposed to him as much as we could”—and as a Lawyering teaching assistant. And he points to the courses he took with Aronson Professor of Criminal Justice on Capital Punishment Litigation and Race, Poverty, and the Law, as well as his work in the Juvenile Defender Clinic with Vice Dean , as particularly meaningful experiences. Smith received the Vanderbilt Medal at graduation for his outstanding contributions to the law school.
“It was clear from Grasford’s work in the Juvenile Defender Clinic that he was well on his way to becoming an outstanding lawyer,” says Hertz. “He was deeply committed to his juvenile clients, and did a great job of counseling them and their parents. He worked tirelessly and skillfully on their cases, and did a great job in court and in simulated trials and hearings.”
Smith credits his experience in Hertz and Stevenson’s courses, as well as the time he spent in student groups, with inspiring his penchant for serving the community. “Even as a corporate lawyer, there are so many opportunities to give back,” Smith says, “I’ve tried to do that throughout the course of my career and… the Law School is really where that spark was lit.”
Posted September 26, 2019; Update, September 9, 2020: Grasford is now a partner at Akerman.