Matter of faith: Attorney makes switch to another point of law

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By Paul Janczewski

Legal News

Robert D. Smith Jr. wears his faith like a badge of honor. And now, the former attorney wears another badge--as an officer in the Dearborn Police Department.

Smith, 32, said he felt lost and unhappy when he was practicing law. But he's found his way now, along with happiness and career satisfaction, patrolling the streets of Dearborn as a cop.

"I love it," he said. "I wake up and I'm literally excited to get here. I can't wait. It's an awesome feeling to know you're doing what God has called you to do."

To say God works in mysterious ways is one thing. But to be the one being worked on is an entirely different matter.

Smith grew up in New Philadelphia, Ohio, a small, slow town 20 miles south of Canton, where the Professional Football Hall of Fame calls home. He graduated from Indian Valley High School, knew practically every one of the 65 or so students in his graduating class, and lettered playing varsity basketball for two years. But he wanted more.

"I needed somewhere faster," Smith said. "I knew very early on that I would not live there my adult life, that I would have to go somewhere where there was action and activity."

Several events, and people, helped shape Smith's future. The first, and most influential, were his parents, who still live in Ohio. His father, Robert Smith Sr., a part-time preacher and pastor, and his mother, Dora instilled a deep belief of God and Christ in him through the Pentecostal religion.

"I tell people I grew up with Jesus," he joked.

In 1997, his father, who also plays piano at gospel events, was invited for a three-day revival in Carrollton, near Saginaw, from friends in the area. It was Smith's first time in Michigan, and it was where he met Janice, who three years later would become his wife.

Also about that time, Smith had started at Monroe Community College to pursue a degree in elementary education, and in his first semester he met Joseph A. Costello Jr., a political science professor and Monroe County judge. Costello had a profound effect on Smith, who decided he wanted to be an attorney.

"He was so passionate about the law, and portrayed it as the greatest profession in the world," Smith said.

He saw how happy and satisfied Costello was, and Smith became inspired by it.

Later, Smith transferred to the University of Michigan-Dearborn, and graduated with a degree in finance in 2004. He then entered the University of Toledo Law School. Smith loved doing oral arguments, and excelled at moot court competitions. But by now, married with a son, Kyle, and a son Janice had from a previous relationship, Michael, he could not put in as much study as other single students who did not have family responsibilities.

In law school, Smith became Judge Costello's law clerk and described it as "one of the most rewarding experiences of my life." He marveled at Costello's integrity and passion for every case, and calls him "my friend and mentor."

Smith also interned at the Monroe County Prosecutor's Office during law school, and really enjoyed it. But that office was not hiring. Smith said he might still be in law today had he been able to become an assistant prosecutor there.

Smith imagined he'd practice some type of business, corporate or tax law after graduating in 2006, and after passing the Michigan Bar, he joined a Southfield law firm, handling civil law cases, bankruptcy and personal injury. But instead of feeling like he had a career, and the passion that comes with doing something you love, Smith felt like he only had a job, and began wondering if he chose the right profession.

"I hated it, and it was nothing against that type of work, or the firm, but I couldn't stand doing it, and I was miserable," he said.

Smith asked himself, "Am I doing what I was called to do?" And it was then he started thinking about a career in law enforcement.

"Maybe I could actually do something with my knowledge to help the public, to help the community," he said.

He left the firm, and started seriously looking for work as a cop. Smith said he prayed, but gave God an almost impossible scenario.

"The only way I'll be a police officer is if I can find a department that's going to pay for my academy and give me a regular salary while I'm going through the academy," he said.

With a family, he had to have an income. But at that time, many police departments were cutting people.

"It seemed like an impossible dream," he said.

So he took a job with another law firm, in Wyandotte, thinking a law career might fulfill him if he gave it another chance. But it didn't.

"I just grew more and more restless, and it became a job as opposed to something I loved," Smith said. "And if you spend $70,000 (in student loans) on something, you should love it. And I was not loving it. And I never did. But I tried everything I could. I knew there was no way I could do this the rest of my life."

Months passed where the family had to rely on Janice's salary as a nurse, when Smith was between jobs at the two law firms, and after he left the second.

"She sacrificed as much or more than I have during this process," he said.

But it wasn't easy. Smith said at first, she thought he was out of his mind, but she also sensed his unhappiness.

But God was listening to Smith's prayers. One day, while researching the police profession and different departments, he saw Dearborn was hiring. He applied, was hired and found that they would put him through the Police Academy. Smith said, "It was like winning the lottery."

Many people might not think twice if a cop changes his career to become an attorney, but the other way around might raise questions. Dearborn Police Chief Ronald Haddad was one.

"But after talking with him, I was convinced his heart was in what he was doing, and was real happy to get him here," Haddad said.

Smith started at the police academy in August 2009, and four months later started as an officer for the department.

"It's the greatest job in the world," he said.

Although he's still paying off student loans, Smith said "It was never about money.

"I have the opportunity to help people every day, and you cannot put a price tag on what I do," Smith said.

Any questions Haddad had have long disappeared, too. He said he's been very impressed with Smith's credentials, and "he's doing exceptionally well." Haddad said this a very complex time in society, and he values education in his department.

"Officer Smith models the future of this department," he said. "He's very proactive, a great communicator, and we're very proud of him."

Like any good cop, Smith also credits his partners for always having his back. One would be his wife, Janice.

"She's the hero more than I'll ever be because she sacrificed everything so that I could finally get to the point now where there's a little reward," he said.

Another, of course, is his God and Jesus Christ. Smith wears dog-tags with Roman 13:4, which is a Biblical reference of God granting authority to government officials and police officers to carry out the law. He considers himself one of God's warriors which strengthens him.

Smith believes he made the right choice, from forsaking a career in law to one enforcing it.

"I'm a man of faith, and none of this has come without a lot of prayer," he said. "The responsibility and accountability we have as police officers is great. and I believe it's a calling. I answer to my superiors, but I do this job as if God himself is directing me."

Smith, who lives in Newport with his family, said every officer in the Dearborn Police Department also has his back. They know of his intense faith, but Smith said he doesn't try to push religion down anyone's throat.

"But in this profession, what greater thing to bring with you every day on the shift but God and Jesus Christ," he said. "I take great pride in what I do, and satisfaction comes from doing something that pleases God."

Whether he's patrolling the streets, arresting drug dealers or getting involved in high-speed car chases, Smith said the high he gets every day is the greatest feeling in the world.

"Every day is different," Smith said. And he loves every aspect of Dearborn--the department, the community, and its people. "Dearborn is fast-paced enough to keep it exciting, but not so dangerous like other metro areas," he said.

Still, Smith knows being a cop anywhere can be dangerous, and even a saint must sometimes kick some bad-guy butt.

"You've got to sometimes be mean and forceful, and let them know you're in charge, and God has given me the ability to do that," he said.

Smith said the law background is helpful, but is just a small part of what a police officer does.

"The stuff that's on the street, you learn on the streets, and I've come an awful long way since I started," he said.

Smith has no regrets leaving law, and looks at that part of his life with pride. He got through the rigors of law school, passed a hard bar exam, and met Judge Costello. But he's also learned a lot in everything he's done.

"I'm a better person now, as human being and as a police officer," Smith said. "And I can see myself doing this a long, long time."

For the future, Smith said he might someday like to be a detective.

"There's nothing the attorney profession can possibly offer me more than this job does," he said.

Published: Wed, Mar 9, 2011

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