Nancy Erika Smith ’77 has scaled the heights of her profession as a civil rights lawyer who, since the age of 25, has been breaking ground and making news, winning cases for those who face discrimination based on age, race, gender, sexual orientation or disability.
And as she squares off in court with lawyers who went to institutions like Brown, Columbia and Harvard, she remains proud and appreciative of her degrees from Montclair (Social Work) and Rutgers Law School.
“When an adversary feels the need to tell me where they went to college 30 years ago, I always tell them where I went – starting with Ocean County College. Then I beat them,” Smith told graduates as the Distinguished Speaker for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences Commencement last year.
Smith, who has argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, is perhaps most famous for her role in the sexual harassment suit that resulted in Roger Ailes being fired from Fox News, but she has many wins in her column starting with Slohoda vs. United Parcel Service, which ultimately rewrote the law on marital status discrimination.
“It helped that I didn’t know anything,” says Smith, who pursued an argument for the workplace termination suit that big firm lawyers thought was outrageous. “Jon Slohoda was fired from UPS for having a relationship outside his marriage, but he was separated, getting a divorce and not supervising his wife. They fired him because he was an ‘adulterer.’ Isn’t that marital status discrimination?”
It was a heady start to her career, but it didn’t go to Smith’s head. Coming from a working class background in Keyport, New Jersey, Smith is well grounded. After her father died when she was 15, she and her mother lived in a trailer park in Toms River. Smith started at Ocean County College and ultimately transferred to Montclair as a commuter student when she moved to Parsippany.
Now Smith lives a busy life, rich with court cases, five grown children, nine grandchildren (so far) and a successful law practice with her husband. One secret to her success: “Do your best in everything you do,” she told students last spring. “Never settle for OK.”
But she also says she doesn’t want to play into the Horatio Alger myth.
“Very few people change class in our society,” says Smith. “I’m really eternally grateful to Montclair State, and I really hope that we can invest in public education so that kids don’t leave with debt and they can afford to do public interest work.”
“I think that Montclair doesn’t get enough credit for that,” says Smith. “We need to really let people know that this is the place where we do public service and train people to do public service.”
She adds, “I appreciate and understand the privilege of an affordable public education that prepared me for a life of meaning.”
– Mary Barr Mann