September 2020 Volunteer of the Month

Every month, Southern Arizona Legal Aid’s Volunteer Lawyers Program (VLP) recognizes a legal professional for their legal voluntarism. The award is a distinct honor. Of the 533 attorneys and paralegals who volunteer their time, twelve are recognized annually for their dedication to access to justice.

Ben Smith is the September 2020 Outstanding Volunteer of the Month Award Recipient.

Ben was born in Boston. When he was young, Ben’s family lived in Cambridge, MA, and after visiting Tucson in the winter of 1952, decided to relocate to Tucson in 1954. Ben’s father was a lawyer who later became an archaeologist, which brought them to Utah and Northern Arizona, and eventually to Tucson, where Ben grew up. In 1961, Ben moved to Putney, Vermont for high school. He attended Antioch College in southern Ohio, and graduate school at Johns Hopkins University, studying Philosophy. After spending a few decades on the east coast, living in Vermont and Maine, Ben returned to Tucson in 1980, where he and his wife, Liisa, raised their son, Alex. Ben matriculated at UA Law in 1974, but didn’t enjoy it at the time and decided not to continue. In 1998, after encouragement from Liisa, he decided to finish law school. He graduated in 2001 and later passed the Arizona Bar.

Ben began volunteering at SALA in 2007 in domestic relations clinics. What he enjoys most about volunteering is meeting people with different backgrounds than his own. He finds it very interesting to talk with people from across a wide spectrum of life experiences. It is rewarding to him to help clients sort out their legal issues, and to help them understand what they need to do and why. Volunteering, he believes, provides a new perspective of the world, as it allows one to learn more about cultural issues and how people diversely approach interpersonal relationships. He works hard to ensure that when a client leaves a clinic, the client knows what the next step is. The advantage to volunteering, he explained, is that the limited scope of legal advice being provided at advice-only clinics is more compartmentalized than the practice of family law at the trial stage. The qualities he admires most in a lawyer are honesty, conscientiousness, and the ability to maintain objectivity while being genuinely interested in the legal issues and empathetic to the emotional experience of clients as they navigate divorce and paternity actions. Over the years, he has been pleasantly surprised how readily the people he has talked with trust the volunteer attorneys to listen to them and to take their concerns seriously. To Ben, this is touching but also a great responsibility.

Prior to becoming a lawyer, Ben had a variety of interesting career paths. He taught philosophy and the history of science and technology at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. He had spent his summers in Maine as a child and enjoyed the warm seasons there. After a short time teaching, he became involved in a shipbuilding business in Maine that built lobster and fishing boats, as well as small yachts. Although he misses the ocean in the summer, he prefers the desert sun over long, New England winters. He has also worked in the archaeology field and was an editor for the Arizona State Museum.

Ben is interested in history and literature, having taking online courses from the New School in New York for several years. He recently finished a course on the novels of Virginia Woolf. Ben’s grandfather was a judge in the Court of Common Pleas in Hamilton County, Ohio, and in the 12th Judicial District Court of Appeals. Ben found appellate opinions written anonymously by one of three justices between 1910 and 1915. These opinions were all short, well-reasoned, and occasionally humorous, with discussions of collisions between streetcars, automobiles, and horse-drawn wagons, before the rules of the road had been determined. Many decisions referenced the “fellow servant rule,” which shielded employers from liability for the negligent actions of employees toward other employees. Ben enjoys reading about the history of science and is interested in machinery, manufacturing, tools, the steel industry, railroads, and bridges. An author he admires is Henry Petroski, Duke Professor of civil engineering and history, who studies engineering failures.

Ben’s hobbies include railroads – both model and actual. He has a model train and, as a kid, traveled with his parents from Tucson to Bangor, Maine, on Amtrak Pullman trains. He also enjoys fixing things, as he and his wife have an older house that often needs repairs. His real-life hero is Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a 19th century engineer who designed tunnels, bridges, ships, and railways, including Paddington Station in London. Isambard was involved in the construction of the Thames tunnel, which was designed by his father, Marc, and was the first underwater tunnel in the world. Ben’s interest in Brunel began when, as a child, his father read a book to him about a ship Brunel built, the Great Eastern, which was the largest of its kind at the time in 1858.

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