Shannon Smith’s Calling

She represents clients accused of some of Michigan’s worst crimes

Published in 2012 Michigan Rising Stars — September 2012

A broken nose brought Shannon Smith to the law. It wasn’t hers.

When Smith was 20, she and three friends took what was meant to be a carefree road trip to Cedar Point amusement park.

Smith, who was driving, got into a bad car crash. “One of my friends broke her nose,” Smith says. “She sued me, seeking a crazy amount of money, and my insurance company hired a lawyer.” The case settled, but needless to say, the friendship was shattered. “It was so stressful; it was so traumatic, especially being a student, having someone come after you for hundreds of thousands [of dollars] … it was just incredible to see what my lawyer did,” Smith says. “She made me realize how much [lawyers] help people. It made me want to go into the law.”

Right out of law school, jobs were tough to find, so Smith took court-appointed work. “I thought I wanted to do more family law and divorce work, but I realized pretty quickly I couldn’t stand it,” Smith says. “I had a case where I got a letter faxed to me from the other attorney about how my client had left pee on the toilet seat. When I realized I was billing for these kinds of things … I felt like there was a better calling.”

That calling turned out to be exclusively defending sex crime allegations. Mentored by of counsel Gail Benson, Smith genuinely enjoys her emotionally charged work at her eponymous firm, a sentiment that she says even some members of her own family don’t understand.

“It definitely takes a toll emotionally,” Smith says. “When I’m representing someone who has done something bad, it’s difficult to find that place where I protect their constitutional rights and ensure they get the best possible representation. When I represent someone who’s been falsely accused, which is more often, the penalties are so high, and that’s difficult, too, because I know I have clients that could go to prison for the rest of their lives. If they’re convicted, they lose everything.

“I find the best way to figure out what’s happened or why a false accusation may have been made is get out there and talk to the people,” she says. “I have gone to trailer parks and apartment complexes and neighbors’ houses, and just knocked on doors randomly: ‘I’m a lawyer, I represent this man, he’s accused of doing this, what do you know about this family, what do you know about this kid?’ I have learned an amazing amount of information this way.”

Smith has her fair share of ups and downs, especially when her cases involve juveniles. A recent high point was a case she took on behalf of a 16-year-old boy who was accused of raping a 15-year-old girl. After talking to witnesses at the trailer park where both lived, Smith says she discovered that the girl, who suffered from drug addiction and mental disabilities, had falsely accused the boy as she had previously falsely accused others. “Being able to show the prosecutor each of these issues and having her realize that the case needed to be dismissed … that was a great feeling,” Smith says. “Especially knowing my client, who was just 16 years old, wasn’t going to be a registered sex offender for the rest of his life.”

Then there are the clients that make people ask, “How do you sleep at night?” One case involved a client who had sexually assaulted a child. “The case was very serious. It was very bad,” Smith says. “But because the family knew this had happened, they went to other children in the family to try to bolster the story and make it worse. So I think one of my lowest points was having to explain in court how my client had done some very bad things, but not all of the things he had been accused of. Moments like that make me realize that sometimes the justice system is just so stacked against you that if you’ve done something bad, it’s presumed you’ve done a lot more.”

So how does Smith sleep at night?

“My job is to protect my clients’ constitutional rights, the rights that every person in this country is entitled to,” Smith says. “I’m not sure people can appreciate just how important that is. But to me, it means everything.”

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