October 28, 2013
A career in public interest law was always on the agenda for Suzette Smikle ’02, who currently serves as an Assistant U.S. Attorney (AUSA) in the U.S. Attorney’s Office (USAO) for the Northern District of Georgia. Smikle was born in a poor neighborhood of Kingston, Jamaica, and grew up in New York City, where she attended public schools. She then received a scholarship to attend an independent preparatory school in Connecticut. Her Jamaican-American background inspired an interest in international and community service. “I’ve had so many great opportunities,” she says. “I knew I had to give back to my community, both locally and internationally.” A skilled oral advocate, Smikle decided from an early age that a career in law would be her way to give back.
When Smikle arrived at Harvard Law School in 1999, she knew that she wanted to pursue public service. At HLS, Smikle was active in the Black Law Students Association and served as Co-Chair of the Africa Summit Committee. She planned and attended humanitarian trips to South Africa, Kenya, and Haiti, and served as the president of Direct Action, a human rights group on campus. Her 3L year, Smikle arranged a for-credit internship in Jamaica with the Independent Jamaica Council for Human Rights. She remarks, “I found that there were an abundance of international opportunities available to me at HLS. […] I figured out that I loved international work.” Smikle also pursued many traditional opportunities. She participated in the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic, the Family Law Clinic at the WilmerHale Legal Services Center, the Criminal Justice Institute, and the Child Advocacy Program. At the same time, Smikle kept busy as a member of the Harvard Law Review. Smikle recalls, “I never went to bed before midnight at HLS. There were too many exciting things to do!”
After graduation and a judicial clerkship, Smikle was awarded a Heyman Fellowship and began work as an Honors Attorney at the Department of Justice in the Civil Division’s Office of Consumer Litigation. After almost five years, however, international work still sparked her interest. In 2008, she was appointed as a Foreign Service Attorney at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Because of her French language skills and previous experiences, Smikle expected a post in West Africa. Instead, USAID offered her intensive Spanish training and sent her to Lima to serve as the Regional Legal Advisor for Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia. There, she provided training and legal advice on USAID’s programs in health, education, agricultural development, democracy promotion, water sanitation, and economic growth. Smikle found this work challenging and broadening, but missed the opportunities for trial advocacy she had at DOJ.
Smikle’s interest in trial work ultimately led her to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Georgia, where she prosecutes violent crime, gun and drug cases, bank robberies, human trafficking, and gang-related cases as an AUSA in the Major Crimes Section of the office’s Criminal Division. Smikle’s day-to-day work involves writing motions and briefs, researching the law and investigating the facts of her cases. She also uses her oral advocacy skills, appearing in court for trials as well as sentencing, suppression, detention and mental competency hearings. She comments, “I get to do work that suits my skills and at the same time is important and benefits the public good.” An added bonus of her cases is that their fact pattern is always stimulating. “All of the witnesses are characters, and every case is like a soap opera,” she says.
Smikle’s advice to HLS students is to pursue whatever interests them. “Don’t follow a particular path because it’s easy, you’re being recruited, or you have too much student loan debt,” Smikle remarks. Citing her own experiences, she advises that students need not consider debt an obstacle because HLS programs, like the Low Income Protection Plan (LIPP), offer many opportunities to lessen the burden. “The most important thing is to love going to work in the morning,” she says.