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  • InsideTrack
  • February 01, 2023

    Meet Ashley A. Smith: President of the Wisconsin Association of African-American Lawyers

    Ashley A. Smith is president of the Wisconsin Association of African-American Lawyers (WAAL). Find out more about Smith and her thoughts on being a new lawyer and improving diversity, equity, and inclusion in the profession.

    Shannon Green

    Ashley Smith

    From left: Judge Kori Ashley, Judge Brittany Grayson, Kristen D. Hardy, and Ashley Smith pose for a photo at the Milwaukee Times 35th Annual Black Excellence Awards​ in February 2020. The four were recognized as Special Honorees in Law.

    Feb. 1, 2023 – Ashley A. Smith, an attorney at Godfrey & Kahn S.C. in Milwaukee, seeks opportunities to create community and advocates for self-care, while assisting businesses in her corporate practice. She’s also president of the Wisconsin Association of African-American Lawyers (WAAL).

    Why did you choose to become a lawyer?

    When I was growing up, I had many interests, including science. I made a good-faith effort to pursue the pre-med track in college to go on to be a psychiatrist – I even made it through organic chemistry!

    However, while in my junior year of college, I had a “come to Jesus” moment, and thought about who I was – and started to focus on law. Like many Black and brown attorneys, I didn’t have anyone in my family who was a lawyer, so I sought out opportunities to be around lawyers and landed a secretarial position at a small women-owned law firm in Pittsburgh. I also found role models in TV shows – Annalise Keating in “How to Get Away with Murder” and Olivia Pope in “Scandal.” I wanted to be a bad ass like them!

    I chose law because I wanted to be in a service industry. What also interested me is the advocacy inherent to the profession. In the spring of my senior undergraduate year, when I had completed all of my applications for law school, I knew I was going in the right direction.

    As a new lawyer, what challenges did you face?

    In your first years as a new lawyer, you definitely experience imposter syndrome. As a new lawyer, your job is to figure out how to be a lawyer – law school doesn’t prepare you for the practice of law. Especially in those first three years, your learning curve is really steep.

    You’re just figuring out how to do your job, and unfortunately you learn by messing up. And you’re going to mess up a lot. But that’s OK, because that’s how you learn. The best thing that a new lawyer can bring to the table is a good attitude and a willingness to learn and work hard.

    As a person of color, there’s an additional burden: to prove that you’re indeed competent. In my experience, I feel as if I always have to prove myself.

    Combine that with imposter syndrome, and it’s difficult to see that what you’re experiencing could be normal, because there’s that extra layer. Until you get confident, I think that’s a very natural reaction and experience for a lot of attorneys of color – especially if your mentors were TV personalities because you’re a first-generation lawyer or professional!

    Ashley Smith with pups

    Ashley Smith relaxes at home with Lola, a 10-year-old Maltese, and Lulu, a 9-year-old Yorkshire Terrier.

    What keeps you in Wisconsin?

    I’m a Wisconsin transplant. I’m from the south suburbs of Chicago. I knew right away that if I was going to stay in Wisconsin, I would need to build a community here outside of work.

    In law school, I was president of Marquette’s Black Law Student Association and was the Midwest Black Law Student Association regional secretary. I was super-passionate about community then. When I was a 1L, the 3Ls then – in particular, Larry Whitley (counsel at Northwestern Mutual), Hiriam Bradley (counsel at Northwestern Mutual) and Meghan Pirics (counsel at the Milwaukee Brewers) – really took me under their wing. Their guidance and mentorship is in part why I was successful in my 1L year. I also felt that it was important for the rest of my time in law school to be that same mentor and provide that same guidance to those who came after me.

    As I got closer to graduation, I started making connections with attorneys who had graduated ahead of me such as Kristen D. Hardy (counsel at Northwestern Mutual) and Makda Fessahaye (associate vice chancellor and chief human resources officer with UW-Milwaukee). These lawyers were WAAL board members, and they encouraged me to join the WAAL board. In addition to continuing the work I began in law school with the Black Law Student Association, trying to find and build a community was a big motivation for me joining the WAAL board. I’m glad I did, because it has really influenced my career.

    What do you like best about your job?

    First and foremost, it has to be my colleagues. I am truly honored to go to work every day and work and learn from such brilliant minds and genuinely kind and caring people. My practice focuses on various aspects of corporate law, including mergers and acquisitions, corporate governance and general corporate matters, representing businesses of different sizes in a variety of industries. As a member of the Startups and Venture Capital Team, I often assist investors and companies in connection with equity financings. I am particularly passionate about helping early-stage companies and founders navigate the common pitfalls of entrepreneurship.

    As a person of color, I feel that a lot of us go to law school because we want to change the world. It is very important to me that I​ use the tools and knowledge that I have to give back to my community. I have been very intentional about taking the skills I have learned and helping Black and brown business owners navigate entrepreneurship. I hope that in my community, I’m seen as an asset.

    Biggest reward in my job: I really like it when I have a good rapport with my clients. Among the most rewarding moments in my job is when client follows up with a thank you because I made a difficult process or issue easier for them to navigate. That what warms my heart.

    What will it take to bring greater diversity and inclusion to the legal profession?

    Deviating from what is always done. I think a lot of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives are set up to fit in the framework of how the legal profession has always operated. That’s not how you create change. While organizations will say DEI is priority, there’s a strong resistance to actual change, and for that reason it’s going to take a while to do what we need to do.

    I think it is important that organizations who are committed to DEI initiatives do their due diligence and engage actual DEI experts. DEI is a whole science – an area of research and study. Let’s make sure the experts are part of the conversation, because they have the actual education and knowledge on enacting DEI initiatives. One of my pet peeves – I think that so often this can be true for people of color – is that we are looked at as DEI strategists. But I can only speak from my own experiences, and I do not have the educational or professional credentials to be considered an expert in the space.

    Ashley Smith with members of WAAL

    In October 2022, WAAL received the Milwaukee Bar Association's inaugural Community Development Award. Pictured, from left: Judge Charles N. Clevert; WAAL: Past President Judge Maxine Aldridge White; Elise Ashley; WAAL President-elect Brittani Miller; WAAL President Ashley Smith; Jade Hall, WAAL co-communications d​irector; Kristen D. Hardy and Makda Fessahaye, WAAL past presidents; Emil Ovbiagele; and Naomie Kweyu, WAAL co-communications director.

    What do you love doing in your free time?

    I am a big proponent of self-care. In my free time, I get my nails done, my hair done – I try to prioritize myself. I don’t have a lot of it, so time on self-care is nonnegotiable.

    About WAAL

    • Mission: WAAL is an association of African-American lawyers dedicated to ensuring diversity in Wisconsin’s legal community.
    • Current president: Ashley A. ​Smith
    • Number of members: 100
    • When organized: 1988 – but its roots have a longer history.
    • Annual dues: $75-100; membership runs annually Oct. 1 to Sept. 30
    • Learn more: Visit

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