Harley-riding attorney R. Pete Smith mixes two-wheel adventure with a historic practice
Published in 2008 Missouri & Kansas Super Lawyers magazine
on October 21, 2008
Updated on November 18, 2009
A restless rebel at heart, Kansas City attorney R. Pete Smith puts 15,000 miles a year on his Harley, roaming around the United States and Canada.
“Usually, I’ll drive anywhere from 600 to 1,000 miles a day,” says Smith, 63. “You can go farther in a day on a motorcycle than you can in a car. You never get tired or sleepy. You just want to keep going and going.”
Smith may be a man who lives for epic adventure, but his off-the-road life is surprisingly stable. He’s been working at the same firm—McDowell, Rice, Smith & Buchanan—his entire career.
“I’m one of the few attorneys in town who’s worked the same tax ID number for the last 44 years,” Smith says, explaining that his association with the firm began with a part-time job when he was just a college freshman. “My law career started before I was a lawyer. I started working in this office on June 10, 1964. I was 18 and I was a clerk in the firm’s bankruptcy section. I liked it here so much that I never left.”
Smith was mentored by Claude Rice, the firm’s founder. His first job for Rice was entering bankruptcy files on a huge IBM mainframe, a project that seemed outlandish at the time but eventually proved to be a brilliant idea.
“Claude was probably the foremost bankruptcy guru in the U.S.,” Smith says. “It turned out to be a perfect application for a computer, and Claude grasped that before anyone else.”
The mainframe project soon became known as the legal technology firm Electronic Processing Inc., or EPI, and Rice promised his young protégé a 25 percent share of the business if he stayed on board. Smith agreed, and continued to work for the company while he earned his bachelor’s degree in accounting and his J.D. at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Smith excelled at law school, editing the law review and graduating first in his class.
“When I got out of law school, the expected route would’ve been for me to take a job for the chief judge of the federal district court and then work for a large firm,” Smith says. “But I didn’t want to do that. I went to work with Claude.”
Taking the gamble on the 25 percent share of EPI turned out to be a good decision. When Rice and Smith sold the company in 1983 (now known as Epiq Systems Inc. and valued at more than $450 million), he got a “real, real nice return” on his investment.
Smith excelled at the unstructured, “jump in feet first” atmosphere at Rice’s firm (“I tried four jury trials by myself my first year out of law school,” he recalls) and quickly adopted the cowboy attitude, which helped him rise to the top.
“After I’d been working here for a time, I remember asking when I could become partner,” Smith says. “Everyone was busy and my question kept getting pushed aside, so finally I called the painter and had him put my name up on the door. Nobody complained, and it’s been there ever since.”
Four decades later, Smith is still working 50 hours a week. “I do it because I like it,” he says. “I wouldn’t do it if it didn’t make me happy. I’ve got a big caseload. I usually handle 30 to 40 cases at once. Working long hours is not very difficult for me. It doesn’t cause stress or tension.” Today, Smith’s firm employs 35 attorneys, a size that feels perfect to him.
Every year at the beginning of August, Smith hops on his cycle and heads to the infamous motorcycle rally in Sturgis, S.D. He’s been going there every year since 1990. He usually takes a circuitous route to get there, wandering for thousands of miles on his Harley before roaring into town.
After Sturgis is over, Smith makes his way back to Kansas City and McDowell Rice, where he’s ready for another year at the job he considers himself fortunate to have found right away.
“Some people can sing a song,” Smith says. “I can’t. Some people can look at something and paint an exact image. I have no talent in that area. The talent I have is to understand and organize and utilize abstract concepts. That’s exactly what a lawyer needs to do. For me, this job is like a glove that fits.”