Virginia’s First: An Interview with Judge Rebecca Beach Smith

The Bencher—January/February 2020

By Jennifer L. Eaton, Esquire

The biography “First,” written by Evan Thomas, shares the inspiring profile of the first female U.S. Supreme Court justice, Sandra Day O’Connor. But O’Connor is only one of a series of influential women in the profession who—on the state and federal bench—have significantly shaped the law.

This interview highlights one such pioneer, Judge Rebecca Beach Smith, who was not only the first female federal judge in Virginia, but later would go on to become the first female federal chief judge in Virginia. Smith grew up in Hopewell, Virginia, and was a civil practitioner before being appointed to the bench in 1989 by President George H.W. Bush. She has presided over many civil and criminal cases during her tenure, including the famous RMS Titanic case, in which she decided the salvage rights that allowed for the removal of artifacts from the famous vessel. She was also a founding member of the I’Anson-Hoffman American Inn of Court in Norfolk and Williamsburg, Virginia. The following interview provides only a small glimpse into her career and impact on the profession:

Q: You were the first female federal judge to be appointed in Virginia. Do you ever think about the significance of your appointment? Do you consider yourself a trailblazer?

A: At the time, I did not consider myself to be a trailblazer. I was just very honored and pleased to be appointed. Looking back now on the trail that led me to the bench and beyond, I am proud of how far we have come as a profession but cognizant that there is much more that still needs to be done to increase the number of women judges, managing partners, and business executives. Even now, I do not look at myself as a trailblazer any more than the few other women who started the practice of law with me and changed the course of our profession in their own right.

Q: What experiences or characteristics do you believe best prepared you to serve as a federal court judge?

A: I do not think that you can prepare to be a judge in any particular way because becoming a judge is like waiting for lightning to strike. Planning to be a judge will only hamper your abilities as an attorney and make you less happy as a person. I would advise to be the best attorney that you can be, and you will be noticed and respected. My dedication to the law and work ethic helped me adapt to the differences between private practice and the bench—what works for one works for the other.

Q: Who are some people that have inspired you throughout your professional career?

A: My parents and my judicial mentors. My parents taught me to work hard and stay focused; they gave me my work ethic. That work ethic has always served me well, especially when I started as a law clerk in the same Walter E. Hoffman Courthouse where I sit today. My clerkship led me to my judicial mentors: Judge J. Calvitt Clarke Jr., Judge Walter E. Hoffman, Judge Richard B. Kellam, and Judge John A. MacKenzie. I grew up as an attorney watching and admiring those judges. Their court presentation, professionalism, and exceptionalism inspired me.

Q: Has there been a case or judicial responsibility during your tenure as a federal judge that has been most impactful or meaningful to you? In what way?

A: There are a few things I can think of that touch on various different aspects of my role as a federal judge. In general, one of the most wonderful things about being a judge is mentoring law clerks. I do not have career law clerks because I enjoy the fresh ideas each year that law clerks bring to chambers. As hard as it is to see my law clerks leave at the end of the year, I think my mentorship of them is an important part of my role as a judge. As for a meaningful case, the RMS Titanic salvage case has been a highlight of my career. I have had the privilege of working to preserve the legacy of the people who lost their lives and to keep the artifacts together to tell their story. I am also proud of my service as a member and chair of the U.S. Judicial Conference Codes of Conduct Committee for eight years (2010–2018)—a role that I was appointed to by Chief Justice of the United States John G. Roberts Jr. In that capacity I directed the rewriting the Codes of Conduct for all federal judges and federal employees.

Q: The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia is sometimes called the “Rocket Docket.” What stands out about the Eastern District of Virginia to you?

A: In general, I am proud of the Eastern District’s recognition as being efficient. We are driven by the notion that justice delayed is justice denied, but we do not put speed over excellence and quality. The collegiality and cooperation of the judges make the Eastern District function as efficiently as it does, together with the outstanding support of our clerk’s office, our probation office, and all of our court units. In my opinion, we function together as a team to make the Eastern District of Virginia a court of excellence.

Q: Are there any misconceptions regarding federal court that you would like to set straight?

A: A common misconception is that federal court is not a place for young attorneys. I believe that federal court is a great place for young attorneys to practice because the rules are all in place—there are no unwritten rules. Young attorneys who are prepared have an early opportunity to exercise their written and oral advocacy skills and ultimately become seasoned practitioners. Do not be afraid to appear in federal court. We want you to succeed, as you are the future of our legal profession.

Q: What makes you optimistic about the future of the practice of law? Do you have any hopes or aspirations for what the practice of law looks like in 20 years?

A: I am optimistic when I see the quality and enthusiasm of newly admitted attorneys. They are the best and brightest of their generation, and I believe they will preserve and protect the rule of law. There have been so many changes over the past 40 years since I became an attorney, and I would not even try to predict the changes over the next 20 years, but my hope is that the changes will be ones that move our profession forward in a positive way.

Q: What is the biggest challenge you see for the next generation of young attorneys? How would you recommend addressing that challenge?

A: Balancing a law practice while achieving a sense of personal well-being is the biggest challenge I see for the next generation of lawyers. Improvements in technology have changed the practice of law over my career, in many ways for the better. However, these changes—with the ever-present emails and texts—have brought increased stress. To be a good lawyer, you need to enjoy other aspects of your life outside of the law. I would recommend finding some time on a regular basis to turn off electronic devices and spend more time with family and activities that totally separate you from your law practice.

Q: The path to an enjoyable, meaningful legal career is not a straight one. What advice would you have for someone dealing with obstacles or questioning whether the practice of law is right for him or her?

A: For anyone questioning whether the practice of law is a good fit, I would recommend taking time off, if at all possible, to see if you miss the practice. With all things, there will be times of boredom and stress, but as long as you enjoy your work more often than not, then you are probably doing something worthwhile and something you find fulfilling. However, ask yourself, “Do I feel passionate about the law?” and go from there. Life is a journey to be enjoyed and fulfilled, not to just be endured.

Q: You have been involved in many professional and community organizations. How, if at all, has this service to others shaped you as a judge?

A: My outside activities have helped me in three important ways. First, they give me a perspective outside of the law. Sometimes we get tunnel vision and forget that there is more to life than just the practice of law. Second, community involvement helps me show others that lawyers and judges care about the community and are “real people” too, just like them. It helps distill their negative image of lawyers. Third, my involvements have always made me feel good about serving others and promoting my community, together with contributing to a positive image of the legal profession.

Q: Do you have any recommendations for how others in the legal profession can pay it forward?

A: Be a mentor to a lawyer younger than you. You can pay it forward by setting a good example and by shining a positive light on our profession for future generations of lawyers to follow.

Q: What do you want your legacy to be?

A: She did her best and gave it her all. She may not have always done it right, but it was never for lack of caring or trying.

Jennifer L. Eaton, Esquire, is an attorney at Vandeventer Black LLP in Norfolk, Virginia. She is an Executive Committee member of the James Kent American Inn of Court. The views advanced in this article should not be mistaken for the official views of Vandeventer Black LLP.

© 2020 Jennifer L. Eaton, Esquire. This article was originally published in the January/February 2020 issue of The Bencher, a bi-monthly publication of the American Inns of Court. This article, in full or in part, may not be copied, reprinted, distributed, or stored electronically in any form without the written consent of the American Inns of Court.