On Call

Laura Hensley Smith explores the intersection between medicine and law

Published in 2010 Mid-South Super Lawyers — December 2010

Laura Hensley Smith grew up sure she would follow in her father’s and uncle’s footsteps with a career in medicine. While majoring in biology at Southern Methodist University, Smith spent her summers as a camp counselor—and later, camp director—at Aldersgate medical camp, passionate about giving disabled children the normal camp experience that she had grown to love as a Girl Scout. But after graduation in 1977, while traveling the country as a consultant for her sorority, Alpha Delta Pi, Smith discovered a new calling.

When visiting ADPi’s University of Arizona chapter that fall, Smith met several alumni who shared their stories and experiences of law school. “It just sounded great,” she says. “That’s the first time I ever thought of law school. I didn’t know a lawyer, I didn’t know anything about law … so I started checking out law schools and decided it was where I needed to be.”

Smith, who was raised in Benton, Ark., returned to her home state to start her new career, earning her J.D. from the University of Arkansas School of Law. She still spent her summers at Aldersgate. And during a 1980 summer clerkship at Friday, Eldredge & Clark in Little Rock—where she is now a partner—Smith’s mentor, William Eldredge, learned of her medical background and invited her to join him as a medical malpractice lawyer.

“I truly believed I was leaving one life behind and starting another,” Smith says. “But [my legal career] made use of everything I had ever done: my biology from college, my working with doctors and knowledge of children with disabilities all came together.”

Smith became one of two of the first women litigators for Friday, Eldredge & Clark. While the firm had originally wanted Smith to practice commercial law—because in those days “women couldn’t be litigators,” she says—she overcame the few gender issues she encountered in the courtroom. “Some of the judges were very chauvinistic,” she says. “But the juries weren’t. And the clients certainly weren’t. They were very welcoming.”

Smith laughs as she remembers one incident in the early ’80s. Wearing her standard skirt and jacket, she was confronted by a judge in a crowded courtroom. “I do not allow lawyers to appear in my court without wearing ties,” the judge gravely told her. Smith said the first thing that popped into her head: “Your honor, I tried to find a tie that went with my outfit and I just couldn’t find one today.” The other attorneys stood up, clapping and laughing—forcing the judge to pass his comment off as a joke.

Clients and juries have been welcoming Smith for more than 29 years now. For the last decade she has focused on birth and OB/GYN defense cases, as well as other catastrophic injury cases.

Smith recalls one of her more unusual cases. On one Fourth of July in the late 1980s, a teenager was drinking with his friends when he dove into a shallow area of the Arkansas River and broke his neck. His friends—not realizing the injury—threw the boy in the back of their truck and brought him home to his bed, thinking he was only drunk. His mother later found him barely breathing and rushed him to the emergency room. Sometime after surgery, the boy’s breathing tube fell out. The plaintiffs argued the incident was the fault of the doctors and nurses, and that now the boy would be ventilator-dependent in addition to being a quadriplegic. The parents secured a lien for medical expenses of more than $600,000, which, Smith remembers, was “unheard of” in those days. Smith’s position was that no one had done anything wrong, and that the boy would have been ventilator-dependent no matter the circumstances. The jury agreed. “That was really the start of a big case that lasted a long time,” Smith says, “and there have been many since then.”

Smith sees the emotional difficulties both parties face in medical malpractice suits. “Plaintiff’s attorneys—and rightly so—keep focusing on the trauma their clients have gone through, but it hurts the medical profession, too,” she says. It isn’t uncommon for a physician to see at least one lawsuit during his or her career. According to a study released this year by the American Medical Association, an average of 95 medical malpractice lawsuits have been filed for every 100 physicians now in practice.

These lawsuits can damage more than just a physician’s reputation. Smith has seen many doctors quit practicing medicine because the trauma of a lawsuit was more than they could take. “There are some exceptions,” Smith says, “but the overwhelming majority [of physicians] are in the practice of medicine, or nurses in nursing, because they want to help people. And when there’s a bad outcome, it’s devastating to them, and it makes them second-guess everything that they do and think. For them to understand you can be sued and you did nothing wrong, and to have aggressive representation, allows them to go back and keep doing what they’re doing.”

Whether she’s representing doctors or enjoying the outdoors on the weekends, Smith strives to, as the Girl Scouts say, do a good turn daily. Active in the organization since 1962, she promotes its life lessons. “You just learn to take care of yourself … treat everybody with respect and take care of your environment,” she says. “I still use all of [those values].” 

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