James D. “J.D.” Smeallie, a partner at Holland & Knight with a reputation for civility and professionalism in both the courtroom and the boardroom, began his one year term as BBA president on September 1, 2012. In keeping with time-honored BBA tradition, he has already done three things: secured a speaker for the BBA Annual Meeting on September 21 (Senator Patrick Leahy, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee), appointed new BBA Section Co-Chairs, and grudgingly agreed to a presidential profile interview.
“It makes me really uncomfortable to talk about myself,” insisted the man who has succeeded Lisa C. Goodheart of Sugarman, Rogers, Barshak & Cohen. Nonetheless, we managed to sit down with him more than a month ago at his office on St. James Avenue just before he headed out of town for three weeks of depositions.
These days Smeallie spends much of his time on business litigation, especially in the healthcare and insurance industries. He also specializes in education law and, until 2012, headed the top ranked Holland & Knight team representing colleges and independent schools.
Smeallie’s entrée into BBA leadership came in 2002, when he was asked to co-chair the BBA Diversity Committee with Henry T.A. Moniz. Through his work on that committee, he impressed Kay Hodge, now past chair of the ABA Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity, enough to include him on her team working to address the issue at the national level.
“J.D. is willing to roll up his sleeves, and not just push the ball forward, but ask the hard questions,” says Hodge. “Talking about race is not easy for anyone, but J.D. brought thoughtful comments and insights into the conversation.”
Steve Wright, the first African-American Partner at Sherburne, Powers & Needham and now the Executive Partner of Holland & Knight’s Boston office, met Smeallie back in the early 1980’s. At the time Wright was working at the MA Attorney General’s Office, and Smeallie was an associate at Sherburne, Powers & Needham. The two got to know each other playing on the “Lawyers Weakly” basketball league, no relation to the legal trade publication.
Troubled by the lack of diversity at Sherburne, Powers, Smeallie encouraged Wright to apply for a position at his firm. While things did not progress at that time, Smeallie remained confident Wright would be a good fit for the firm’s partnership, and re-connected with Wright again in 1995. The rest is history.
“J.D. is a strong leader with a very steady and inclusive style,” says Wright. “He clearly understands the most pertinent issues but allows everybody to participate in a meaningful way in arriving at what is invariably the right decision.”
When Sherburne, Powers merged with Holland & Knight in 1998, Smeallie served on the committee that negotiated the merger, and in 2001 began a two year term as Executive Partner of Holland & Knight’s Boston office.
From “Certified” Law Clerk to Best Lawyers in America
The oldest of six children, Smeallie grew up in the Amsterdam, New York area. He lost his father at age 8 when he says “I had to grow up very quickly.” While his mom is his hero (“she raised the six of us on her own for many years with a grace and calm that was extraordinary”), his step-father, Dick Horigan, a man he describes as being “a terrific trial lawyer and even better person,” became his role model.
“During one summer in high school, Dick employed me as his ‘certified’ law clerk where I got my first look at trial practice,” said Smeallie. “It was hectic and exciting. Not much has changed.”
During his undergraduate years at Yale, Smeallie played football and golf, and wrote for the Yale Daily News. After college, he spent two years working on Capitol Hill as a legislative aide to Sam Stratton, his Congressman from upstate New York.
“Sam was a ‘hawk’ on military issues, and I was a liberal with hair down to my shoulders back then — an odd match, but a great experience as the Watergate hearings were held just down the hall,” said Smeallie.
Thinking that he might ultimately want to apply to law school at the University of Virginia, he established residency in Virginia. While studying law at UVA, he and his classmates tried to one up each other by landing summer clerkships in exotic locales. So it was that he spent a summer working in San Francisco, at the big but now defunct litigation firm, Bronson, Bronson & McKinnon. After getting his J.D., he returned to the firm to launch his career.
“As with many East Coast people, San Francisco felt like a long vacation. I loved the firm and the city, but wondered when I would get back to the real world,” he recalls.
So he moved to Boston and joined Sherburne, Powers in 1980 where he served as second chair in a trial representing Trinity Church in its multi-year construction suit against John Hancock, a case which received national attention.
“I learned to be a trial lawyer during that month-long trial,” he recalls. “Some of the top lawyers in town, including the venerable Dick Renehan, represented the defendants. I was like a sponge, absorbing all I could from them.”
Even more notable was his representation of Boston College in litigation arising from B.C.’s move from the Big East Conference to the Atlantic Coast Conference. Smeallie successfully obtained summary judgment in favor of Boston College in The Trustees of Boston College v. The Big East Conference .
“We ended up with resolution by mediating with as many as 6 or 7 university presidents,” says Joseph Herlihy, General Counsel at B.C. “In addition to a certain amount of polished presentation, it was a matter of gaining extreme credibility with the various parties, and that was J.D.”
Ken Quigley, President of Curry College, echoes similar sentiments: “J.D. brings a unique and valuable blend of legal knowledge and practical application. He’s a counselor in the true sense of the word. On a number of occasions the College has benefitted from J.D.’s ability to assess complex situations and fashion beneficial outcomes.”
Lawyers he has mentored respect him as both an effective counselor and a gentleman who never mistakes acrimony for effective advocacy. Josh Krumholz, now a Holland & Knight partner who leads the firms intellectual group practice, has this to say about Smeallie:
“J.D. taught me the value of building relationships with opposing counsel and how that benefited clients, lawyers, and the case as a whole. He also taught me how to think like a trial lawyer — identifying issues that are not always self-evident — what’s going to drive a jury in one direction or another, and what’s going to drive a judge in one direction or another.”
Life Beyond the Law
Krumholz credits Smeallie with also teaching him about balance, where maintaining one’s life and relationships outside of work are just as important as performing at a high level professionally. A mere handful of phone calls to those who roomed with Smeallie at Yale and UVA reveal that he makes and retains friends easily, with each proud to call himself “one of J.D.’s closest friends.”
Smeallie and his wife, Martha, a pediatric nutritionist, live in Beverly and have two grown sons: Thomas, a B.C. graduate working in software sales, and Andrew, a rising senior at B.C. He has served as a highly valued trustee at the independent schools his children attended, Shore Country Day and Pingree, where he served as Vice President. “J.D.’s leadership was just fabulous. In the face of difficult decisions to make he was diplomatic and thoughtful,” says Jane Riley, Past President, the Pingree School.
Read what colleagues, clients, classmates, and friends have to say about J.D. here.