Dawn Smith (J.D. ’89) is a partner at Smith & Lake, where she practices family and education law. She has served as deputy director of the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation and was named Atlanta Legal Aid Volunteer of the Year in 2016. She founded Cool Girls Inc. in 1989 and is an advocate for children in many capacities.
What led you to found Cool Girls Inc., whose mission is to empower girls?
Not long after graduating from Georgia State Law, I heard a story about a girl whose mother had forced her into prostitution, and I felt the need to do something.
Someone from my church connected me with a community organizer at East Lake Meadows, which was a housing project in a very dangerous part of Atlanta. At the time, the neighborhood was referred to as “Little Vietnam” because of gang violence. I met 25 girls at the community center who lived there. Together we decided to form a club, which they named Cool Girls.
At the time I was a law clerk for Judge Marvin H. Shoob, and, as long as I got my work done, I could leave early twice a week to meet with the girls. I recruited all of my friends who were also lawyers or in public health to help.
Initially we focused on child abuse prevention—many of the girls were telling us they had been molested. Then we started going on field trips. Most of them had never been even to other areas of Atlanta, so I’d make 25 peanut butter sandwiches and we would visit places like the Atlanta History Center. I soon realized it’s one-on-one mentoring can really make a positive impact, so we added the Cool Sisters program. From there, it just got bigger, and I started more programs in other areas. I stepped down from running it in 1994 and now serve in an advisory capacity.
Today, Cool Girls serves over 350 girls through partnerships with eight Title 1 schools in DeKalb and Fulton counties. In its 27 years, over 6,000 girls have come through our doors.
Many of the wonderful women that went through those programs are amazing mothers and citizens now. One of our first Cool Sisters is still a mentor to her Cool Girl who is now in her 30s.
Part of what Cool Girls does is teach leadership skills to young women. Why is it important for them to start developing leadership skills at a young age?
Now that the program is school-based rather than community-based, there is more of a focus on academics, in addition to life skills and health.
But it was one of the first and continues to be the strongest program that targets girls who are not necessarily getting all the support they need to make the most of their lives. We serve as partners with the girls’ families to help the girls be successful.
All the women that volunteer and work on in the program are really powerful women that serve as great examples.
Why do you give back?
I been given a lot in life. I have a position of privilege because of my resources, skin color and nationality, and I feel an obligation to use that to help empower others—not to do for, but to do with. My faith calls me to do it and my law license requires me to do it; the bar rules are clear in stating that we have an obligation to give back.
As a kid, people were there for me when things were tough, and I want to be there for others. I have advocated for and championed kids and worked to help them get services they need, help them in crises that occur because of poverty, help them through juvenile court or when their family is going through a mess.
Why is it important for lawyers specifically to ‘step up’ and lead?
Lawyers are taught to be advocates. I know Georgia State Law does a great job at this. We are trained to distill information and take from it those crucial points which are most compelling and to make the best presentation our cause. I firmly believe the law and the judiciary is the one branch of government we can count on to protect us. My knowledge and special training make my obligation even greater.
You are a mentor to many women lawyers. What advice do you give them?
I see myself as a placeholder for the women behind me that need to come up and take over, and I’m committed to helping them find their way.
I talk to them about the importance of knowing all they can about the subject they are going to speak about or advocate for. Those with confidence, grace and respect—both in giving and expecting it be given—are the people that are heard the most and are the most effective.
Many young women are learning how to find their voice, and then once they have it, how to use it effectively. In my career, at times I used mine ineffectively and at times I used it effectively, so I share with them the lessons I have learned.
Unfortunately, there is still a different standard for women—I see it in courtrooms and in business. I tell mentees it’s important what we wear because we are scrutinized. Just two years ago, a judge commented on my shoes and called me ‘girl.’ We have to talk about the realities of gender in today’s world.
I also tell them it’s important to realize that when people disagree or take a different position, it’s not personal. Taking it personally can get you really off track. Choose your battles wisely; is this issue the hill I want to die on? Don’t waste your currency—if you’ve built up good faith with someone, make sure what you’re fighting for is a top priority rather than just a fight for the sake of a fight.
Most importantly, I want them to know they can lead no matter what station of life they come from—you can use where you come from to relate to and inspire others.
What advice do you have for law students?
I made choices in my career that were not the most fiscally rewarding choices; instead I decided to do things for which I had a fire in my belly, pursued what I believed in, and because of that I can say I truly like what I do. Many lawyers are not happy because they are chasing the golden ring.
Wait before you hang your own shingle, and find someone you trust who can talk you through the early years of the practice of law. Most importantly, do what you care about.