Mary Smith is President-Elect of the American Bar Association. She has held a number of positions in both the private and public sectors, including as chief executive of the Indian Health Service, a $6 billion agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services responsible for providing federal health services to over two million American Indians and Alaska Natives across the country. This interview has been edited for publication.
Q. Tell us about where you are from. Did you grow up in a Native community?
I actually did not grow up in a Native community. I grew up in Chicago. I didn’t become connected to my Native American heritage fully until my dad passed away. My grandmother was born in Westville, Oklahoma, and she always talked about her Native American heritage. As a young girl, I really didn’t focus on it, but of course I remembered her stories. Then, when my father passed away, I really wanted to connect with my heritage. My grandmother was still alive, so I was able to use her Tribal ID card and become an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation. Then, I just started learning as much as I could and became involved with the community.
Q. How did you first develop an interest in becoming a lawyer?
Growing up, neither of my parents went college, and my dad didn’t even graduate high school. He lied about his age and enlisted in the Navy during World War II. I don’t think I really knew any lawyers growing up or even when I started my career after college. I majored in math and computer science. I enjoyed other subjects just as much, but I am pragmatic, and I wanted to be able to get a job. I worked as a systems programmer for a few years, and while I enjoyed helping people with their problems, I felt like there were other parts of me that could help people in broader ways. I ended up going to law school.
Q. You’ve held positions both in the private and public sector. Is there a thread that ties your experiences together?
For all of the jobs I’ve held, I’ve asked myself three questions. One, is it something that I’m passionate about? Two, am I the right person for that role? And three, if I take the role, will I make a difference? One thing that connects all the positions I’ve held is that there is some element of service, whether it’s service to the profession or service to the country at large. I enjoy helping people, and I enjoy trying to make a difference.
Early in my career I really wanted to be a trial attorney, which is one of the reasons why I went to the Department of Justice. While I was there, I became fascinated with politics and political campaigns, and I ended up quitting my job to volunteer full-time on a presidential reelection campaign. This led to my position at the White House Counsel’s Office. It was a unique and special opportunity: I worked on domestic policy issues such as homelessness and domestic violence, civil rights issues and food safety. I also worked on Native American issues and Native American policy.
Later in my career, I had the opportunity to head the Indian Health Service, which provides health care to Native Americans around the country. That was not a job I was expecting. In fact, when I got the call—and this is probably not the best thing to do when you get a job offer—I said, “you know I’m a lawyer, not a doctor, right?” They said that what they were looking for was someone who’s a strong manager. That goes back to the three questions I had to ask myself. I don’t have a medical background, so am I really the right person for this role, and will I be able to make a difference? So much is at stake when people’s health is involved, so I wanted to make sure that I would be adding value. I reached out to a few of the tribal leaders and others in the Native American community, and I ended up taking the position. It’s a difficult job because the Indian Health Service is underfunded, but it was an honor to hold the role. I’m so glad that I was able to do it.
Q. Tell us more about your experience as CEO of the Indian Health Service. What were some of the challenges? What parts did you enjoy?
The Indian Health Service is one of three federal health systems that provide direct care to people, along with the Veteran’s Administration and the Department of Defense. IHS provides healthcare to over two million Native Americans around the country. There is a trust responsibility for the federal government to do so, but unfortunately the Indian Health Service has been severely underfunded for decades.
The Native American population is one of the fastest growing populations in the United States. So, even though IHS has always been underfunded, every year that funding gap increases due to population growth. We also have some unique challenges because many of the facilities and communities supported by IHS are in remote rural areas that don’t have schools or housing nearby. That makes it difficult to attract providers and other healthcare professionals.
One part of the position that gave me joy was meeting the people who work at IHS. There are so many dedicated people who work there, and working with them and the people that we serve was a highlight.
Q. Which of your past positions have prepared you best for your role as President-Elect of the American Bar Association?
I’ve worked at a very large law firm, at a small woman-owned firm and as in-house counsel. I’ve also worked for the federal government—both at the Department of Justice and in the White House—and for state government. I think it’s all of those positions that have prepared me to be President-Elect of the American Bar Association. The ABA is the largest voluntary bar association in the country, and we represent lawyers and legal professionals throughout the profession, including people from all different backgrounds. I think my own background helps me to understand the needs and perspectives of people whether they work at a law firm, in-house or for the government. I also hope that my holding this position will lead more people with diverse backgrounds and from different segments of the profession to join the ABA.
Q. Many companies and law firms are increasing their efforts in diversity, equity and inclusion, with varying degrees of success. What do you think companies can do to better achieve those goals going forward?
We’ve seen that the legal profession is still lagging. Women have constituted at least 50% of law firm classes for probably about 30 years now, but women are only about 19% of law firm partners. For women of color, that percentage is even lower. There are a lot of things that go into making progress, but one thing that’s critical is that the people at the top have to value that progress as important. From my perspective, to progress more rapidly, there must be some metrics and accountability. We’re seeing corporations incorporate Diversity, Equity & Inclusion into performance goals. There’s this saying that “what gets measured, gets done.” For decades, we’ve seen that a lot of people have good intentions, but progress has been glacial. So, in order to expedite that, there need to be some accountability metrics.
Q. As a Native American woman in law, what are the greatest challenges that you faced? How did you overcome them?
In the Native American community, there are very few people who go to law school. When I was President of the National Native American Bar Association, we did the first—and to this day, the only—comprehensive study on Native American attorneys. One of the challenges for Native American women in the legal profession is that there aren’t very many of us, so it’s harder to build a sense of community. Recently, I transitioned to serving on corporate boards. With respect to aspiring board members, there are many organizations that focus on women and other minority groups, but there are no organizations for Native Americans. I would love to see more Native Americans serving on corporate boards.
Native Americans are also underrepresented on the federal judiciary. Diane Humetewa, who became a district court judge in 2014, was the first Native American woman in the history of our country to become a federal judge. There’s a saying that “if you can see it, you can be it.” What I wish for Native Americans is to see that they can be a lawyer, and once they are a lawyer, that they can be anything.
Q. Tell us about the Caroline and Ora Smith Foundation, which you helped found. We were so curious about why you chose to pursue a foundation for Native American girls in STEM.
A lot of people who know me as a lawyer don’t realize that I actually have a STEM background. After serving as CEO of the Indian Health Service, I recognized the acute need for equality and accessible healthcare in Native American communities. Right now, the glue that holds together medicine is the electronic health record, which means that information technology is essential in the health fields. I saw how few Native Americans go to school to focus on medicine or even information technology.
I’ve always had a passion for helping women, and particularly Native women, so that’s why I started the Foundation as a way to support Native American girls in STEM. I named the Foundation after my mother, who recently passed away, and my grandmother, who was an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation, as a way to honor both of them.
Melissa Muse is an associate in the New York office and Katlin Bowers was a summer associate in 2022.
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