By Victor Skinner
When Te Smith graduated from Muskegon Heights High School in 2007, the accomplished jazz musician headed off to pursue his passion for music with dreams of becoming an entertainment attorney or music mogul.
Fourteen years later, Smith is enjoying a homecoming of sorts with the launch of a multi-state law firm based in Chicago, using affiliations in Muskegon and connections from a career in New York and New Jersey, Georgia, and California.
Smith said his journey took some unexpected turns along the way, but it’s now coming full circle with legal services for the community he grew up in, involving friends from his childhood.
“I’ve always known I’d go into law,” Smith said. “It’s ingrained in me, entrepreneurship and law.”
Those passions combined with a love for music that motivated Smith in high school, where his father the late Danny L. Smith served as a longtime educator and principal in the Muskegon Heights School District. His mother, Lanette M. Smith also worked for Muskegon Heights Public Schools, retiring in 2012 from the Preschool/Headstart Program.
Smith attended the Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp and toured with gospel artists, and later graduated from Alabama State University in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree focused on the music business.
“Music was a big thing for me. At Muskegon Heights High School, I was considered an all-state jazz musician,” Smith said.
It wasn’t until Smith returned to Michigan to attend Cooley Law School through Western Michigan University that his life began to take a different trajectory, he said.
“I did music for a few years. I got into law school with a focus toward entertainment,” Smith said, “but I learned early on in law school that arguments and public speaking were strengths of mine.
“That’s how I got the mentality I wanted to go into civil litigation,” he said.
Smith graduated with a Juris doctorate in 2017 and went straight to work for Johnson & Associates Law Firm’s Woodbridge, New Jersey office.
“I was kind of thrown to the wolves on day one,” Smith said, recalling his abrupt transition to the courtroom.
Smith said he arrived in New Jersey just hours before he was expected in court at 10 a.m. on his first day at work, with little briefing on the case.
“I had a successful first case, and that’s when it kind of hit me that litigation was my thing,” he said.
“I look at it like an actor performing, you have the end goal in mind” and use persuasive speaking to dissolve preconceived notions, Smith said.
“Making that bridge is addictive in the sense you know you have the ability to if not change their mind at least cast doubt,” he said.
Smith spent years working his way up through the firm as first and second counsel on numerous federal and state court lawsuits against a slew of behemoth entities including the State of New York, the New Jersey School Board, JPMorgan Chase Bank, the Bank of America, RJ Reynolds Tobacco, among numerous others.
The cases provided valuable experience representing both plaintiffs and defendants in a wide range of corporate disputes, from breach of contract, fraud, and breach of fiduciary duty claims, to cases centered on business torts, wrongful termination, governmental takings, copyright, trademark, race, and sex discrimination and other issues.
“During that time I met my lovely wife and we got married,” Smith said. Smith’s wife, Katila Smith Esq., landed a position with McGuireWoods, a renowned Chicago law firm, and the couple relocated to the Windy City in late 2019.
“She got her job here and I was in love, so I came with her,” Smith said.
Smith soon developed a plan to launch his own practice, but the timing couldn’t have been worse. “I started it two weeks before the shutdown, in February 2020”, Smith said. It was a rough start for Smith Attorneys Group At Law, P.C., he said.
“It was super difficult. It’s hard to use entrepreneurial skills when there’s a closed market,” Smith said. “It was not the ideal time to start a new business.”
“It started off slow, but luckily I have my wife,” he said. “She was amazing.”
During months with courts closed down due to the coronavirus, Smith focused on formalizing agreements for affiliations with colleagues from throughout his career, from his time at the high-powered law firm in New York and New Jersey, to his connections to the music industry in Georgia, friends, and associates in Michigan, and even a childhood friend Terrance Williams, Esq., who owns an entertainment-focused law firm in the entertainment industry in Los Angeles.
With many courts now reopened, “things have picked up tremendously,” Smith said. “Now we’re heading in a positive direction and I’m expecting exponential growth in 2021,” he said.
Smith Attorneys Group At Law, P.C. is based in Chicago, Smith said, with affiliations in New York, New Jersey, Atlanta, Grand Rapids, and California.
“I did go full circle and got back on the entertainment route by reconnecting with that childhood friend in the entertainment industry in LA,” Smith said.
“My firm’s primary focus is small business formation and operation,” he said, though other services include complex and commercial litigation, estate planning and planning for religious nonprofits, as well as legal services for the TV, music, and film industries.
Smith holds dual state bar admissions in New Jersey and Illinois and is admitted to practice before the U.S. District Court for the State of New Jersey. Outside of the courtroom, the five-instrument musician has continued to pursue his artistic passions at his church on Sundays.
Smith said his faith stems from an upbringing that taught him a lot about perseverance, lessons that undoubtedly aided his bid to launch a multi-state legal firm amid a global health pandemic.
“The teachers I had in my life from Muskegon Heights from kindergarten, till I graduated in 07 – those educators I definitely feel prepared me for all the success I experienced in my career,” Smith said.
“I, for a long time, struggled with reading,” he explained. “My parents got me help, teachers in Muskegon Heights took time outside of work tutoring me, and that got me from barely able to read going into high school to seven years later earning a doctorate in jurisprudence and going on to be a civil litigator in the largest market in the country, which is New York.”
Smith said his journey comes with a lesson struggling students from his hometown can take to heart: “Your beginning isn’t necessarily your destiny.”
“I want young entrepreneurs who may need legal services or advice to feel comfortable to reach out to me,” he said.
Smith is available through Linkedin.com/in/attorneytesmith, Facebook/Instagram @saglawpc, or through the firm’s website www.saglawpc.com. The phone number for Smith Attorneys Group At Law, P.C. is 708-320-3337.