Sheniece Smith first decided she wanted to be an attorney in sixth grade when her class held a mock court project based on the novel “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.”
Smith acted as an attorney for one of the characters – a young black man who is framed – in the novel set in Mississippi in the 1930s. “That sparked an interest in me,” said Smith, who graduated from La Verne Law in May 2012. She realized lawyers could help innocent people, she said. Decades later, Smith is doing just that, juggling a full-time job as associate counsel for Children’s Hospital Orange County (CHOC) while also helping those who can’t afford legal services.
Smith founded HOPE through Affordable Legal Services to bridge the gap between pro bono legal services and full-price attorneys. HOPE stands for Helping Other People Everywhere. “I just felt empowered to do it,” said Smith, who has funded the project out of her own pocket. “I feel like everything I have is such a gift. I owe it back to society and to my community to do something positive to empower people to take the next step in their lives.”
“Many people don’t qualify for free aid because they make too much money but don’t make enough to afford lawyer fees of $200 an hour,” Smith said. HOPE offers quality legal services at 50 percent or more below the market rate and charges a flat fee for services for the case from beginning to end.
“We help those who cannot help themselves,” said Smith, who works with clients from the Santa Ana office she shares with her husband, Darnell, who is studying to be a paralegal. HOPE helps people with bankruptcy, expungements, conservatorships and a variety of other targeted issues.
The 25-year-old Smith entered La Verne Law in the fall of 2009 while working as a paralegal for CHOC. The general counsel at the hospital had seen potential in Smith and encouraged her to apply to law school. She attended classes at night while working full-time, catching a few hours of sleep each night and drinking lots of coffee. “I didn’t really sleep. I literally was up day and night,” she said.
Smith graduated in the top 15 percent of her class, carried a full load, tutored other students, was an editor for a law journal, and participated in extracurricular activities such as the Black Law Student Association.“When I have a goal, I just really put that goal in front of me,” she said. “I just keep going. I worked around-the-clock to meet all the demands.” She is continuing to do that because she feels the services she is offering through HOPE are so needed.
She has over 30 open cases and has been reaching out to La Verne Law graduates for help. She also would like to train law students and offer internships. “Any attorney looking for a way to give back can pick up a case with us any time,” she said. Her goal is to offer 30 percent pro bono and 70 percent low bono services. She takes appointments in the evenings or weekends and works around her full day at CHOC.
“I know there are a lot of people who don’t think very much of attorneys,” she said. “I think that having a firm like HOPE is a way for me to change that image. There are a lot of good attorneys out there who really care about their clients.”
Those interested in learning more can contact Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or go to www.hopetals.com