The Evel Knievel of Boston Law
Think Darin Smith is daunted by much after taking turns at 125 mph? Not likely
Published in 2005 Massachusetts Rising Stars magazine
on April 26, 2005
Updated on August 14, 2015
In 1987 Darin Smith was a recent college grad working for a bank in Atlanta and looking for something fun to do, when a rather bold idea took hold: motorcycle racing. This despite the fact he had never even ridden a motorcycle before.
What happened is he had discovered Road Atlanta, a top-of-the-line track that is about an hour’s drive northeast of Atlanta. Smith, who is African-American, grew up in Massachusetts. When he asked his co-workers at the bank about Road Atlanta, they depicted it as a redneck hangout. “There is an element that won’t necessarily be accepting of somebody like yourself,” Smith remembers them saying.
Undaunted but on guard, Smith attended a race at Road Atlanta. He was pleasantly surprised to discover that the other spectators were hospitable to him. He returned for more motorcycle races and, the more he watched, the more determined he was to try it.
By August 1994, he had moved on to Northeastern University Law School, graduated, taken the Massachusetts bar exam and accepted an offer to join the Boston law firm of Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo. His first lawyer’s paycheck within reach, he felt flush enough to buy his first motorcycle, a red, black and silver Honda CBR 600F2. He dipped into his savings for half of the $5,200 cost and financed the rest.
Much has changed in Smith’s life since then. Now married and the father of two young daughters, he is a seasoned securities lawyer and a partner at Mintz Levin.
And motorcycles? They excite him more than ever.
Life in the Fast Lane
Smith is currently on his third bike, a $17,000 high-performance Ducati 996. Some weekends, he and a group of buddies head off for track racing as far away as Ontario and Alabama. To hone his racing skills, he visits the New Hampshire International Speedway in Loudon, where he can get the throttle on the Italian-made Ducati up to 125 miles an hour — the cycle’s top speed is around 163. On “track days” the speedway sponsors races for amateurs. Some of the races are for real, with the bikers competing fiercely for prizes. Other races are noncompetitive exhibitions. Smith has participated only in those.
But this year Smith, who turns 40 in July, aims to enter the Formula 40, the race for the over-39 set. The competitors in that event “are not trying to do whatever it takes to get first place,” he says. Translation: The race is reasonably safe for someone of his ability.
The world of motorcycle riding has been rewarding to Smith on many levels. He exults in the sheer speed of roaring about on his bike — the “adrenaline rush that’s almost like a drug.” Then there is the camaraderie that he and his riding friends share, along with the joy of being outdoors and the release from the stresses of the office.
Also bound up in Smith’s passion for motorcycling is a highly personal stake that relates to his identity as an African American. “I’m one of only a handful of people of color who are doing this,” he says. By disregarding the notion that people of color would be unwelcome at motorcycle tracks, he believes he is acting on principle. He explains, “I don’t want to live my life being afraid to do various things because, if I did, I wouldn’t be where I am now.”
A Knievel in the Making
Smith grew up in the 1970s and early 1980s in the Boston suburbs of Arlington and Medford. Back then, he fashioned himself a boyhood version of Evel Knievel. He recalls madly pedaling his bicycle down his driveway, vaulting over a makeshift ramp, hooking a hard left and weaving past some garbage cans. “There were a couple of times when I took some spills,” he recounts, “but nothing major.”
Playing — or not playing — on Medford High School’s basketball team did assume major proportions for him. In his estimation, he should have been the starting guard during his senior year, but, according to Smith, his coach (who was white) picked a less-talented player (also white) because of skin color.
Being sidelined by “racial issues,” in Smith’s words, was a blow, but in hindsight he sees redeeming value in it: “I think the experience helped me grow as a person. Certainly, I used the experience to understand myself a little bit better and to understand how life is.”
That experience, along with others in high school, propelled him to historically black Hampton University. “I wanted to be in an environment where, if I deserved to be on the basketball team, I was on the basketball team,” he explains. He graduated cum laude with a major in business management.
For the next four years, he worked in banking, first in Atlanta and then in Boston, where he was an assistant vice president at the First National Bank of Boston. His job was overseeing loans to companies in the city’s disadvantaged neighborhoods. The work was “extremely satisfying,” Smith recalls, because it enabled him to help “folks who were not getting the attention that some of their contemporaries in other parts of town were getting.” Some of his less-educated borrowers needed a lawyer more than a banker, he discovered. To serve such folks better and to avoid the barrier that he expected to hit as a bank executive without an MBA, he decided to become a lawyer and enrolled in law school at Northeastern. “With a J.D. the worst-case scenario is I could hang a shingle and do some things on my own,” he says.
His decision to join Mintz Levin, where he had been a summer associate, was a logical move. He was able to leverage his banking experience, notably his knowledge of financial statements and business operations, into a career as a securities lawyer (his practice centers on public offerings, mergers and acquisitions, and venture capital deals). And he respected Mintz Levin’s history of sensitivity to issues of diversity. That tradition, in Smith’s view, reflects Mintz Levin’s origins in 1933 as a firm founded by two Jewish lawyers, Haskell Cohn and Benjamin Levin, who were disenchanted with what they considered a lack of religious tolerance and collegiality at the old-line Boston firms where they had practiced. A member of Mintz Levin’s diversity committee since its inception last June, he says, “We strive to be a leader in [issues of diversity] and are pushing hard to make it happen.”
The Two Darin Smiths
In his workday attire of dark suit and buttoned-down shirt, Smith looks the part of the squared-away, even-keeled lawyer. Round-faced and of medium build (he stands 5 feet 11 inches), Smith projects an easygoing manner. Wearing rimless glasses over gentle brown eyes and speaking in a measured baritone, he seems very much at home in the genteel Mintz Levin offices that occupy one-fifth of the floors in the 46-story tower at One Financial Center.
Yet Smith’s plunge into the leatherjacketed, wind-burned subculture of motorcycle riding suggests a wildly contrasting persona. Indeed, the glossy photos that he keeps in a desk drawer at the office attest to another Darin Smith. Gladiatorlike, he is helmeted, booted and gloved, and sheathed in a black-leather, padded jumpsuit.
Nor did Smith’s maiden ride on his Honda, which he bought from a dealer in Beverly, exemplify the utmost degree of lawyer-like caution.
The whole of his motorcycling experience then amounted to what he had picked up in a two-day street-riding course. From the dealership he headed home to Boston on Route 128 in rush-hour traffic. “So I was going 55 on 128, and everybody was whizzing by me,” Smith recounts. “It was like the Daytona 500.” Hugging the righthand lane, as he did at first, meant that he had to contend with the relentless charge of cars and trucks from behind. The best hope was switching one lane to the left.
As he changed lanes, he accidentally pressed the Honda’s horn button. “Scared me to death,” he continues, “because I thought I was clear, and I had never heard the horn on my bike. I thought someone was about to run me over. When I got home, I could barely get my hands off the handle bars, I was holding on so tight.”
Thousands of miles of hard riding later, Smith is quick to say that he is acutely safety-conscious when he is on a motorcycle. His longtime motorcycling pal, Noel Groves Jr., a statistician with the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, concurs, “You’re not going to see him on a bike on Saturday morning with shorts on. He’s not into that stuff. For him it’s always safety first.”
Smith has a motto: “There are two types of riders, those who have been down and those who will go down.” This is where his lawyer’s training and methodical temperament come in handy. Just as he would prepare for a client merger, he meticulously studies the art of motorcycle riding, from body positions to correct shifting points. It’s this attention to detail and commitment to preparation that keeps him safely in the driver’s seat, both on the track and in the courtroom. It’s the reason he hasn’t gone down.