PHOTOS BY Kameron Ashford, Masko, ag.Visions & Maria

Meet Shakierah Smith, a remarkable entrepreneur, lawyer, and the embodiment of inspiration. As the cover woman for Rochester Woman Online Magazine’s special Western, Central and Upstate NY women entrepreneurs section, she exemplifies resilience, determination, and the pursuit of excellence. Shakierah’s journey is one of overcoming barriers as a first-generation college graduate, paving the way for others and building a legacy of both wealth and knowledge destined to transcend generations.

With an entrepreneurial spirit that knows no bounds, Shakierah has carved her path in the business world, proving that hard work and perseverance are the keys to success. As a lawyer, she champions justice and empowers others through her legal expertise, advocating for fairness and equality in every endeavor. Her multifaceted career showcases her versatility and dedication to making a positive impact on both her community and the business landscape.

Shakierah’s story serves as a beacon of hope for aspiring entrepreneurs and professionals alike, demonstrating that with determination and passion, anything is possible. Her journey reminds us that regardless of our background, we have the power to shape our destinies and leave a lasting legacy for future generations to emulate and admire.

Can you share a bit about your background and upbringing?
Certainly! I was born in Rochester, NY on September 7, 1996. Interestingly, this date holds significance in rap culture as it marks the day Tupac was shot and later passed away. A grim yet intriguing fact. My mother gave birth to me on that eventful night. Both of my parents were young and low-income when they had my older sister and me. Reflecting on the past, I see that my parents did their best with limited resources. Despite growing up in poverty-stricken areas and attending public schools like School Without Walls, their hard work and independence shaped me into the person I am today. Witnessing their resilience inspired me to strive for success and provide a better future for my children, aiming to break the cycle of limited opportunities and create a legacy of wealth and knowledge for generations to come.

What inspired you to pursue a career in law?
Throughout my life, the law has played a significant role in various ways. Initially, my exposure to the legal system came from watching crime shows like Law and Order: SVU, Cold Case, Without a Trace, CSI, and many others alongside my late grandmother, who was an avid fan of such shows. Her influence shaped my interest in crime and the legal process. As I grew older, my understanding of the legal system deepened as I witnessed my uncles, who are Black men, navigate their own legal troubles and encounters with law enforcement. This experience opened my eyes to the unique challenges faced by Black individuals within the legal system, a topic that deserves further discussion.

However, it was a personal incident that truly sparked my desire to become an attorney. My life took a turn resembling a real-life episode of Law and Order: SVU when someone close to me was sexually assaulted by a person we had trusted and been around. The victim bravely disclosed the sexual abuse to the authorities, leading to charges being filed against the alleged perpetrator. However, to my dismay, the trial resulted in a not guilty verdict. Witnessing the entire case unfold and witnessing the profound mental and emotional harm inflicted upon the victim ignited a fire within me. This experience not only changed my life but also solidified my determination to pursue a career in law.

How did it feel to graduate from law school and become a licensed attorney?

Inexpressible. It’s hard to adequately convey the overwhelming emotions I felt as I made my way across the stage to receive my diploma, successfully passed the bar exam, New York Law exam, and multistate professional responsibility exam on my initial attempt, navigated through the character and fitness evaluation, and ultimately was sworn in as a licensed attorney in both New York and New Jersey. Each of these milestones left me speechless, filled with awe and gratitude for how far I had come against all odds.

Reflecting on this journey never fails to stir up deep emotions within me, as I recall the doubts and struggles I faced, contemplating dropping out of college and law school due to the immense pressure and challenges. However, looking back, I realize that there was a higher purpose guiding me through those tough times, and I am immensely grateful that I persevered and did not succumb to self-doubt.

While it may be difficult to fully articulate the profound impact of these moments, I can confidently say that the journey was a humbling and unforgettable experience that has left an indelible mark on my life. It serves as a reminder of the power of resilience and determination, and I will forever cherish the memory of that significant achievement as a testament to what can be accomplished through unwavering perseverance.

What motivated you to start your own YouTube channel, “Lawyer Bae and the City”?
Definitely. I currently work in New York City as a commercial real estate attorney. So, I started the YouTube channel to essentially document my transition from law school to the big city.

Can you tell us about the concept behind your YouTube channel and what viewers can expect?
The idea behind my channel, which is currently not very active due to my focus on other projects, revolves around showcasing my life as a Black, first-generation, female attorney in both Big Law and a White male-dominated industry. My goal is to use my YouTube platform to challenge stereotypes about attorneys’ appearances and redefine the traditional image of what it means to be a lawyer. Additionally, I aim to highlight my personality and demonstrate to viewers that it is possible to embrace diverse interests such as loving the color pink, being a food enthusiast, enjoying outings with friends, and rapping Nicki Minaj lyrics while still maintaining a professional identity as a member of the legal profession. This approach emphasizes the importance of being multidimensional and not allowing societal expectations associated with being an attorney to limit one’s true self-expression.

What degrees do you hold, and how have they contributed to your journey in law?
With a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and communication, a master’s degree in criminal justice, and a juris doctor degree, which is a law degree, I have acquired a diverse educational background. The communication degree I obtained has proven to be extremely valuable in my professional journey. It has significantly enhanced my communication skills, particularly in public speaking and interpersonal communication. As a result, I have developed an advanced level of proficiency in these areas.

On the other hand, my criminal justice degrees have provided me with a comprehensive and holistic understanding of the criminal justice system and criminality as a whole. Through my studies, I have come to realize that although many laws were created with the intention of equality, they often disproportionately impact certain groups, leading to unjust outcomes. This realization has shed light on the inadequacies of our system and has motivated me to seek areas of reform that I aspire to contribute to in the future.

Overall, my educational background has equipped me with a unique combination of skills and knowledge. The communication degree has honed my ability to effectively convey ideas and engage with others, while my criminal justice degrees have deepened my understanding of the complexities within the legal system. Together, these qualifications have shaped my perspective and fueled my passion for advocating for a fair and just society.

Reflecting on your time in law school, what were some of the biggest challenges you faced?
Law school is an incredibly competitive environment, both in terms of gaining admission and throughout the duration of the program. This competitiveness was something that I, as a first-generation law student, did not fully comprehend at first. Specifically, I am referring to the intense competition that exists among students once they are accepted into law school. Despite being academically successful and actively involved in various law school initiatives, I found that being at the top of my class could be isolating. Instead of being seen as a peer, my classmates often viewed me as a rival. This was a stark contrast to my experiences in undergraduate and graduate school, where collaboration and camaraderie were more prevalent. Additionally, I placed immense pressure on myself to excel academically and contribute as much as possible to the advancement of both the law school and students who shared my background. Although this responsibility was burdensome, I now realize that it was well worth it. Looking back, I am proud to see that the initiatives I helped establish, such as the First-Generation Law Students Association and the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Editor position on the Buffalo Law Review’s Executive Board, continue to thrive and grow even in my absence.

What triumphs have you experienced throughout your journey as a legal professional?
The initial success I encountered can be attributed to the learning curve. Being a first-generation lawyer, I was astounded by the sheer steepness of the real estate learning curve. Fortunately, my department offers exceptional training programs that have significantly eased the learning process. Additionally, another triumph I have encountered is the occasional feeling of inadequacy or self-doubt, which has persistently challenged me throughout my professional journey.

Could you share some memorable moments from your career so far?
The establishment of the First Generation Professionals employee resource group at my firm stands out as one of the most significant moments in my career. Over the course of nearly a year, we diligently worked towards its creation, and I am delighted to share that our efforts have paid off as this resource group has received official approval. I am honored to serve as one of the co-chairs, alongside two of my esteemed friends and colleagues. This resource group mirrors the First Generation Law Students Association (FGLSA) that I founded during my time in law school, as it aims to provide first generation attorneys with invaluable resources to navigate their careers in the realm of Big Law. It is worth noting that our law firm is one of the few that offers such a resource, making me immensely proud to be at the forefront of this pioneering initiative. I am filled with joy knowing that future first generation attorneys will have a smoother transition into their careers, thanks to the support and guidance provided by this resource group.

As a woman in a male-dominated field, what unique challenges have you encountered?
In my opinion, the primary obstacle lies in the pressure to conform to masculine traits to be respected. However, the dilemma arises when one displays assertiveness, confidence, or firmness, as they are often labeled as trying to emulate men, derogatory terms are used, or stereotyped as an angry Black woman. Striking a balance becomes challenging, but I choose to stay unapologetically authentic to myself because I am aware of the strength and influence my voice and presence hold, even in a male-dominated industry that sometimes tries to diminish or suppress it.

How do you navigate and overcome obstacles as a female leader in the legal industry?
My work is a testament to my abilities and expertise. When one excels in their field, there should be no room for doubt or controversy, particularly when it comes to factors such as race or gender. Essentially, I strive to perform my duties to the best of my abilities and hope that my accomplishments are not overshadowed solely due to my race or gender, as I possess qualities and skills that extend beyond these attributes. It is crucial to bear in mind that there are individuals relying on my perseverance to carry on with the marathon, establishing an environment of security for them, and embodying the transformation I aspire to witness. By setting aside personal pride and emotions, I can concentrate on the broader perspective and successfully accomplish the task at hand.

What advice would you give to other women aspiring to pursue a career in law?
Remain authentic to your true self, have faith in your abilities, and understand the significance of your existence in this specific industry. I am eagerly anticipating the opportunity to honor and embrace your accomplishments as you join us at the bar.

How do you balance your professional life with other aspects of your life?

Working in a large law firm can be extremely demanding, particularly for junior associates, as time is your most valuable asset, which is why it may seem like you’re on call around the clock. To manage this, I ensure to allocate time in my hectic schedule for traveling, spending time with friends and family on weekends, exercising, working on personal projects, and relaxing at home. I have also set boundaries at work and feel comfortable informing my practice group manager when I am overwhelmed or unable to take on additional tasks. Fortunately, I am part of a department that respects boundaries and provides coverage when necessary.

What initiatives or projects are you currently working on that excite you the most?
My upcoming book, documenting my path to becoming a lawyer, which is set to be published in the early months of next year. Additionally, I will be launching my candle business, Ambiance Aroma Candles, on April 24, 2024.

What impact do you hope to make through your work as an attorney and content creator?
My goal is to challenge the common misconceptions about attorneys and showcase their human side. There are many stereotypes surrounding our appearance, behavior, and background, but my presence in the legal field has already shattered many of these preconceived notions. However, my aim goes beyond that – I want people to understand that you can be an attorney while staying true to your authentic self. As evidence, I proudly embrace my love for pink and my admiration for Nicki Minaj, which are clearly evident on my social media platforms, particularly TikTok. These aspects of my personality have always defined me, and I believe that the legal system would benefit from greater diversity not only in appearance but also in interests and perspectives. By remaining true to ourselves, we can contribute to this much-needed change.

How do you stay motivated and inspired in your career?
Remembering where I come from, where I’m headed and who’s counting on me to get to that destination.

Can you tell us about a particularly challenging case you’ve worked on and how you overcame obstacles?
In my role as a transactional Big Law attorney specializing in real estate, I rarely come across cases that are truly challenging in the conventional sense. However, I must admit that all the pro bono housing cases I’ve handled have presented unique emotional challenges. It is during these cases that I find myself face-to-face with clients who are going through one of the darkest periods of their lives. Many of them are overwhelmed and filled with intense emotions, and rightfully so, as they are facing the imminent threat of eviction without any alternative housing options. These cases are particularly tough because they require me to strike a delicate balance between empathy and professionalism. It can be incredibly difficult to remain composed and objective when listening to the heart-wrenching stories of these clients, knowing that I may be their last hope for a resolution.

In your opinion, what changes still need to occur in the legal profession to promote diversity and inclusion?
In my opinion, the root of the issue lies within the upper echelons of an organization. It is crucial to have a greater representation of diversity in leadership positions. To achieve this, we must not only enhance our recruitment practices to attract diverse talent, but also prioritize the retention of such individuals. It is common for companies to prioritize diversity in their hiring process, but they often fall short in ensuring that these individuals feel included, comfortable, and confident in their roles and responsibilities. Therefore, it is imperative that we concentrate on both recruitment and retention as they are interconnected and cannot succeed without one another. I have personally witnessed the impact of this firsthand, and it is essential that we address this issue in real time.

Looking ahead, what are your goals and aspirations for the future?
My long-term aspiration is to pursue a career as a judge. In addition to this, I am keen on engaging with students in educational settings to motivate and empower young individuals by recounting my personal journey and experiences.