From law clerk to letterhead, attorney has had great career

By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Webb “Tony’ Smith started out at the Foster Firm in Lansing as its first legal clerk in the summer of 1962. Half a century later, he’s still there, his name on the letterhead of the firm that now goes by the moniker Foster Swift Collins and Smith.

“I fell in love with the firm from the get-go,” says Smith, a senior shareholder and a litigation expert. “Starting with Dick Foster, all of the people have always been first rate and it’s just been a great place to work.”

The firm takes great pride in the longevity of its employees. Smith, for example, worked with his legal secretary Kathy Zmitko for more than 40 years.

“When you have that kind of continuity, it just makes it a comfortable atmosphere,” he says. “I can honestly say that in all that time, I’ve really enjoyed coming to work every morning.”

Smith, named among Michigan Super Lawyers, listed in Best Lawyers in America since 1994, and named a “Top Commercial Litigator” in 2006, was honored with the Leo Farhat Outstanding Attorney Award in 1997, and is a Master of the Thomas M. Cooley Law School American Inns of Court. Of all his many achievements, he’s most proud to be a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers, inducted at their annual meeting in London in 2006.

“It’s a great organization that includes many outstanding trial lawyers and I feel very fortunate to be a part of it,” he says. “I’m also a Fellow in the Litigation Council of America. I also consider it an honor to be a member of the Michigan Defense Trial Counsel where I received the 13th Annual Excellence in Defense Award in 2005.”

Not bad for a fellow who, when it was time to consider career choices, didn’t really know what a lawyer did every day.

“So there was a lot of luck involved,” he says. “I thought law would be interesting and I thought that with a legal background I couldn’t go wrong. I moved ahead.”

Armed with a pre-law degree in social sciences from Michigan State University, Smith headed to the University of Michigan Law School where he earned his LL.B. in 1963. Although he jokes that graduation was the highlight of his three years, he adds, “I have great respect for the law school and appreciation for the training I received. I will be forever grateful I had the opportunity to attend school at that fine institution.”

In law school, moot court and practical trial advocacy were dreams, he says –it wasn’t until he was clerking at Foster Swift in 1962 that he got a taste of this experience.

“Once I got to see what it was like to be involved in the trial process, I was hooked and was sure it was what I wanted to do for the rest of my work life. I enjoy it because it’s competitive and challenging and you must continue to learn new things.”

One of his challenging cases involved litigation in the Ingham County Probate Court regarding a family dispute over a sizeable trust.

“The legal questions were numerous and the competition amongst the respective clients was vigorous to say the least,” Smith says. “At one point I think I counted there were some 35 appeals taken during the course of that litigation, that included appeals to Circuit Court, the Court of Appeals, the Michigan Supreme Court and the United States Supreme Court.”

One of his niche specialties, Energy, Oil and Gas Law, has produced fascinating legal battles, including a corporate espionage case the firm handled for a multi-national oil and gas company, with several parties on the opposite side.

“Painfully we discovered wrongdoing both inside and outside the company – the results of the wrongdoing led to a murder, and a suicide. We reached settlements with several of the parties and a substantial judgment after a 10-week trial against the primary defendant. It was a challenge that demanded a lot of hard work.”

A challenging environmental case for the same multi-national oil and gas company concerned oil and gas leases obtained by the client and others, concerning their right to drill and explore in the Pigeon River County State Forest near Gaylord. The major claim was that the oil and gas activities would interfere with the largest elk herd east of the Mississippi River. Parts of that case went on for nearly 20 years, with hearings at the administrative level and a lengthy trial in the Ingham County Circuit Court with an ultimate appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court. The final resolution – that led to 20-plus years of oil and gas production – came after legislation was enacted by the Michigan Legislature.

“All branches of government in the state were involved and it was a testy, yet interesting piece of litigation,” Smith says. “By the way, the oil and gas activity did not affect the elk that environmentalists claimed would be doomed. They’ve reproduced and have done so well that the State now has annual elk hunts to thin the herd.”

“The thing I enjoy most about Energy, Oil and Gas Law is that there are always opportunities to learn new things, generally there is a lot of risk so that all sides are well represented, the competitive features are at a high level and the human aspect is almost always a matter of major concern. I didn’t have any background on that topic when I started doing that work but through the expertise the various clients have, I’ve been able to learn a great deal and it’s been most satisfying.”

Smith also specializes in commercial and general litigation, and insurance defense.

“I started out doing insurance defense work in cases that involved negligence, products liability, legal malpractice, medical malpractice and just about anything else that is insured. The thing I enjoyed about that was that you go to trial often and the topics are so varied that you really have an opportunity to learn a great deal.”

Smith doesn’t just work in Lansing, it’s been his hometown all his life except for his time at law school in Ann Arbor, and a stint for Uncle Sam. In fact, Smith met his wife, Patricia, while on active duty in the U.S. Army in 1964 in Virginia.

“That’s one reason why I say ‘military service is good,’” he says with a smile.

Married for 47 years, the couple has three children, eight grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.

Smith’s volunteer activities are primarily centered around the State Bar – where he currently serves on its Committee for Resolution of Disputes Among Attorneys – and around St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Lansing.

He and his wife enjoy local theater, where Smith recently became a member of the Advisory Board of Peppermint Creek Theatre, which provides “cutting edge” plays designed to make people think.

He also just completed six years on the Advisory Board of the MSU Wharton Center.

“I’m committed to the center – I think it’s one of the greatest assets our community has,” he says. “The center provides us all with great cultural exposure and learning experiences. When we think about attracting employees to our firm, we realize how great an asset the Wharton Center is.”

An avid sports fan, Smith particularly enjoys football, basketball, baseball – “and just about anything else with a ball,” he says. “I bleed green – I’ve been a Spartan fan for over 65 years.” He and his wife have enjoyed taking their children and grandchildren to all kinds of sporting activities.

He proudly wore the Spartan colors while an undergrad at MSU, participating in cross country and track and field, and winning varsity letters on the  1957-59 cross country team that won two national championships, claimed three IC4A championships and three Big Ten titles.

“It was my good fortune to compete and run with not only some outstanding athletes but tremendous people who are life-long friends,” Smith says.