Broward, Florida, United States — The night clearly belonged to Jamaica as top lawyers and judges of Florida’s Broward County Bar Association (BCBA) filled the grand ballroom of the glitzy Ritz-Carlton Hotel to install Jamaican-American Alison Smith, their first black woman president in almost a century, on Saturday.
But the talk of the evening was not about legal policy or the exciting new projects that the BCBA planned to roll out over the course of the next year. Instead, it was about the eye-catching green and gold lace dress, complemented by black accessories, that Smith wore to draw attention to her homeland Jamaica.
“I wanted to be the human Jamaican flag,” an elated Smith told the Jamaica Observer after she was sworn in. And, I also wanted to showcase Jamaica in a very tangible and meaningful way by wearing the colours of the flag in my dress, since the dress is always the most talked about part of the evening.”
In her address earlier to the sold-out installation banquet and gala, Smith, only the 11th woman president of the BCBA, paid tribute to “the little island in the Caribbean Sea named Jamaica” which is celebrating its 60th anniversary of Independence this year.
That was the cue for a sizeable group of Jamaican and Caribbean legal professionals to show their support for one of their own by loud cheers and hoots that spoke volumes about Smith’s popularity with the regional community.
Said Smith: “I felt so much love in that room. Coming from our little island and making a way here is not easy. To be loved and respected not just by your own people is really humbling. My word for the night was: gratitude!!!”
One of the highlights of the evening was a surprise proclamation from the mayor of the city of Tamarac, Florida, Michelle G Gomez who congratulated Smith on making history as the first black woman president of the association which was started in 1925. The proclamation was read by Vice-Mayor Mike Gelin, a personal friend of Smith.
Among those cheering for Smith was another history-maker himself, Robert Vaughan whose law firm is Kim Vaughan Lerner. In 2020-2021 Vaughan, who has lived in Florida since 1997, served as the first Jamaican-American president and only the third black man to lead the BCBA.
“I am pleased to say that our Jamaican attorneys have done very well for themselves in Florida. Alison is a perfect example,” the Munro College old boy shared with the Observer. “We have definitely been able to leave our mark.”
BCBA Executive Director Braulio N Rosa described Smith variously as: “smart”, “fiercely loyal”, “highly intelligent”, “vibrant”, “vivacious” and “an amazing bridge-builder”, noting that she was all about family and friends.
In the audience, among her biggest supporters, were her sisters Dr Jessica Smith, a pulmonologist who served spectacularly on the front lines during the height of the nove coronavirus pandemic; and Meisha Smith-Coulter, a senior attorney at Spirit Airlines. Upstairs in a hotel bed were her centenarian grandmother Keturah Wright and two young daughters, Emma Grace and Ella Rose.
In her role as president Smith is in charge of an organisation comprising almost 4,000 members, 19 practice sections, 19 committees, and three affiliate organisations which include the Association of South Florida Mediators and Arbitrators, the Collaborative Family Law Professionals of South Florida, and the North Dade Bar Association.
Smith was born in New York but at one month old was taken by her parents, Fay and Donald Smith — an attorney who practised in Black River, St Elizabeth — to Jamaica where she grew up. She migrated to the United States in 1996 after graduating from Manchester High School in Mandeville, Manchester.
Regarding herself as very Jamaican, even as she embraced her new home, the former member of talent group Ashe in Kingston said: “I’m extremely proud of my heritage, and everyone who knows me here knows that I am an unofficial ambassador for Jamaica.”
Speaking after her election she famously said: “As the first woman of colour to be president in our organisation’s history, I take this position with the utmost seriousness and am humbled to lead BCBA.”
Smith began blazing trails when she became the first black woman to be named partner at her Hollywood, Florida law firm — Weiss Serota Helfman Cole & Berman — which had been in business for a quarter of a century.
As an attorney she advises municipalities on labour issues, litigating when necessary.
Smith has always shone, notably becoming the valedictorian of her law class at Nova Southeastern University and graduating magna cum laude from the Shepard Broad College of Law at the university. Before law school she earned a BSc in Psychology with a Minor in Legal Studies. She is the current chair of the membership committee of the board of governors for her alma mater.
She spends much of her time giving back to the community, and is especially interested in programming that benefits the Caribbean-American community. As a past president of the Caribbean Bar Association she created mentorship initiatives to benefit minority students.
Smith is on the board of directors for Legal Aid and is a member of the Florida Association for Women Lawyers. Her legal practice is focused on labour and employment in addition to municipal, appellate, administrative and regulatory matters.
She pledged to give her all to the job as president for the next year and thanked the several lawyers and judges who mentored and encouraged her growth as an attorney.