PHOTOS BY BRODY WHEELER
Tell our readers a little bit about yourself and your background and who is Shakierah Smith.
Who is Shakierah Smith? Well, that’s quite a complex and rather loaded question. But I would say Shakierah Smith is an unapologetic, revolutionary, ambitious, hard-working, empathetic, sensitive, intelligent, down to earth, humble, quirky, funny, dramatic, forward thinking, aspiring attorney and judge. I’m somewhere between Elle Woods and Thurgood Marshall, which is why I like to call myself the Female Thurgood Marshall and Melanated Elle Woods
Where are you from? Tell us about where you grew up and your family.
I’m from the inner city of Rochester, NY. I’ve lived in almost every part of the city but I primarily grew up near Emerson and Dewey. Growing up in Rochester was definitely a different type of experience. I was surrounded by immense poverty, death, despair, hopelessness, heavy policing, and worn-down buildings and homes. Luckily, my parents did everything they could to shield me from this morbid reality.
I was born into a working-class family. I’m actually the first in my family to get my bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, and attend law school. My parents were teenagers when they had me. They gave up their youth, dreams, and aspirations to make sure that my sisters and I were taken care of, regardless of their limited resources.
Education has always been a top priority and primary value in my family. My parents wanted me to thrive, become the best version of myself, and go farther than they ever did. In elementary school, my father actually came up to my school every day on his lunch break to check on me and talk with my teachers to make sure I was doing well. He came to my school so much that my teachers gave him an award and blow pops since that was his favorite candy at the time. Those kinds of moments meant the most to me and ultimately made me into the successful young woman I am today.
What makes you hustle?
Have you ever watched your grandmother suffer from depression, battle diabetes, and wear a colonoscopy bag due to health complications? Have you ever slept at the hospital after she went into cardiac arrest hoping she’d wake up, but she never did? Have you ever watched your parents work numerous jobs to make ends meet? Have you ever had to visit your uncles in prison or talk to them on a jail call? Have you ever had to help your older sister heal after being hit by a motorcycle and molested by someone you trusted? Have you ever watched your grandmother suffer from alcoholism and a gambling addiction?
Have you ever had to stay in a home with your mother and sisters so she could qualify for government assistance? Have you ever had to light candles because the gas and electric bill was not paid? Have you ever been in an emotionally, physically, financially, and verbally abusive relationship? Have you ever been depressed and anxious? Have you ever wanted to give up and questioned your mere existence on earth? Have you ever been hopeless? Pain. Poverty. Adversity. Hardship. Death. That’s why I hustle. There’s no other option.
How do you balance work and life responsibilities, especially when you were going to school full-time as well? God. School. Family. Everything else. I order my life this way so there’s never any confusion about my top priorities. I will say, though, that I’m usually all work and no play. I’ve been in school for almost eight years straight and I’ve never attended a college party, gone on vacation, or indulged in spring break fun. I’m a nerd and home body at heart. But next year I definitely plan to travel more and enjoy the fruits of my labor.
Who inspires you to live your best life?
Beyoncé. Hands down, hands up. I unequivocally loveeeeee and adore her! She is so fierce and poised, and an all-around powerhouse. She’s an amazing singer, actor, business woman, philanthropist, mother, and wife. She’s a phenomenal woman and a constant reminder that you can do and have it all. That’s what I want. All of it.
What do you feel are the most important attributes of successful leaders today? Successful leaders are great listeners who constantly seek out intellectual stimulation. They look for opportunities, and are not afraid to take risks. They are genuine, hard-working, focused, determined, and understand that no just means next opportunity. Leaders are confident, humble, transparent, and authentic. They also welcome opportunities to learn from, and at times, follow others.
Where do you see yourself a year from now? 3 years? 5 years?
A year from now, I see myself working in NYC at the top real estate law firm after graduating from law school and taking the NYS bar. Three years from now, I see myself continuing to work hard at my law firm while also opening new businesses, investing, traveling, and potentially teaching criminal procedure at a university as a visiting professor or adjunct. Five years from now, I see myself still working at my law firm, looking into judgeships, engaged, and the mother of at least one child.
What would you say are the top three skills needed to be powerful and empowering leader in the judicial system?
Integrity. Impartiality. Righteousness.
Who would you define as your hero? Thurgood Marshall is my hero. He was the first African American U.S. Supreme Court Justice, and as I like to say, the GOAT of the legal system. He paved the way for young minority law students, like myself, and attorneys in the legal field. He fought tirelessly for equality, and used the Constitution as his weapon against injustice. He was fearless, even after receiving numerous threats, being verbally abused and berated, and almost lynched for representing African American defendants who had been condemned and deemed guilty solely on the basis of their skin color, not the sufficiency of the prosecution’s evidence. He is unquestionably the epitome of black excellence, and what I hope to one day become; a revolutionary attorney and judge who does what’s right while “let[ting] the law catch up.”
What made you decide to want to go on the journey to become a judge?
I was initially exposed to the legal system by watching crime shows with my grandma. We absolutely loved watching Law & Order: SVU, Monk, Criminal Minds, CSI etc. We also watched all of the courtroom series like The People’s Court, Judge Joe Brown, Judge Mathis, The Hot Bench and so many others. It was our guilty pleasure.
But my perception of the legal system went from positive to gravely negative after my uncles were incarcerated. My family, especially my grandmother, was devastated. It took a toll on all of us, and still bothers me today.
Despite all of this, I only became interested in becoming an attorney and eventually a judge after my older sister was molested by someone close to my family. The perpetrator was found not guilty by a jury of his peers. The verdict divided my family, and has had a long lasting, negative impact on my sister. This experience made me want to become an advocate for survivors of molestation. That’s still one of my primary passions.
What is your biggest fear?
What goes through your mind when you think of women who have sat on the bench before you will? What would you do the same or differently?
For starters, I think there’s a common misconception that overly successful women, whatever that means, can’t hold such high positions while also simultaneously being bomb mothers and wives. I think there’s also a misconception that women who sit on the bench have to exhibit stereotypical male-like characteristics, like assertiveness and dominance. Well, I want to change all of these misconceptions. I want to be immensely successful while also being an amazing mother and wife. I want to be a judge who is impartial but also personable, respectful, humanistic, and authentic. I want to wear a pink robe and bring optimism and hope to my courtroom. I want to be me, and not the person society or the legal system thinks I should be. I wasn’t created to fit in a box, and I don’t want to start now.
How do you find strength when you are going through hardships?
I find strength through prayer and self-reflection. God has always been with me in my darkest moments and when I felt like I had no one or nowhere to turn to. As far as self-reflection, I love siting in complete silence and thinking about how far I’ve come. It gives me so much motivation to keep going despite my hardships.
What motivates you to work hard? Watching my family struggle. Struggling myself. That within itself has been enough to ignite a fire in me to hustle hard. I also do not want my future children to ever know the struggle or experience what I went through.
What is your proudest accomplishment? Every accomplishment and accolade I’ve received in my lifetime makes me proud. However, I’m most proud of all of my degrees, and both advocating for and becoming the first Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion of the Buffalo Law Review.
What is one thing you have done that not many people know about you? I founded the First-Generation Law Students Association at the University at Buffalo School of Law. I am now the first President of this student organization.
What is your favorite thing about the career path you have chosen? The law is constantly changing, and if you disagree with something, you can always advocate for change. That’s what I plan to do, especially with regard to no-knock warrants, but that’s another story for a different issue.
What makes you laugh the most?
Funny memes, quirky jokes, and dry humor, kind of like what you’d see on The Office.
If you could choose to do anything for a day, what would it be and why?
I would choose to be a doctor. Honestly, if the process of becoming a doctor wasn’t so lengthy, I’d probably be an attorney and doctor. It’s actually something I’m still kind of considering. That was one of my passions, too.
What advice would you give to the next generation of minority female leaders? Believe in yourself, and know that you are worthy of whatever opportunities you’re seeking. I know that sounds super cliche but I missed out on so many opportunities because I was afraid and doubted my own capabilities. Let’s stop doing that. Also, know that you will end up exactly where you’re supposed to be in life. “No” simply means to seek out a new opportunity. Lastly, remember that you make the opportunity, the opportunity does not make you. No matter where you go or what you do, be an absolute BEAST at it.
What family member do you call when you have good news to share?
I definitely call my parents as soon as something positive happens. I love making them proud. I also want them to feel like everything they sacrificed for me was well worth it.
Aside from necessities, what one thing could you not go a day without?
My phone. I literally need to check my email like every five seconds and talk to my loved ones when I can.
If you were a super-hero, what powers would you have?
To heal people, not just physically, but also mentally, emotionally, and psychologically.
What is some of the advice you share with young women entering a male-dominated profession?
Girl, you got this. Own your greatness. Walk into each room with confidence and show everyone why you are the best thing since sliced bread. Don’t be afraid to speak up and never allow anyone, regardless of their gender, to silence you. Your voice matters. Your opinion matters. You matter.
What is your favorite childhood memory? My favorite childhood memory is watching my grandmother cook for the holidays, especially Thanksgiving. She was from Alabama, and let me tell you, southern women know how to throw down in the kitchen. I actually wished I would have helped out more in the kitchen. Nonetheless, I just loved watching her cook, and secretly eating food while she wasn’t looking.
Where will we see you in the future? In NYC working at a big law firm. Maybe in ads, on television, billboards, all over the place. The sky is not the limit for me and being an attorney is not the only thing I want to do in life. Basically, expect the unexpected.
What else would you like our audience to know about you?
I’m a foodie, like ridiculously obsessed with tacos, a hopeless romantic, gosh, I love, love, and I’m looking forward to changing the world. The end.