William & Mary Law School Launches Annual Speaker Series Commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

  • Honoring Dr. King
    Honoring Dr. King  Judge Brian Smalls, the first African American to serve as a full-time judge for the long jurisprudence history of the City of Williamsburg and James City County, Va., shared his inspiring story during the Law School's inaugural annual speaker series honoring the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  
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On Wednesday, January 26, William & Mary Law School inaugurated a new annual speaker series honoring the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Co-sponsored by the Office of Student & Academic Services and the Center for Racial & Social Justice, the event featured an online conversation with Judge Brian Smalls, the first African American to serve as a full-time judge for the long jurisprudence history of the City of Williamsburg and James City County, Va.

“It’s really special to have Judge Smalls with us in honor of Martin Luther King,” said A. Benjamin Spencer, Dean and Trustee Professor, as he welcomed attendees. “Martin Luther King once referred to himself as a drum major for justice, and our guest today certainly could be described as a drum major for justice here in Williamsburg.”

As a host for the occasion, Professor Vivian Hamilton, Director of the Center for Racial & Social Justice, urged guests to attend events like this to learn as much as possible about racial injustice and other dimensions of injustice in society, and use that knowledge in their own lives and careers.

“It’s also important to learn about overcoming injustice and succeeding in a society and a profession that can still be rife with injustice, because these stories can inform us as well as motivate us,” Hamilton said. “And so, I’m eager to learn from, and be motivated by, our distinguished guest today.”

Laura Shepherd, the Law School’s Associate Dean for Student and Academic Services and Chief Equity Officer, then interviewed Judge Smalls about his experiences and insights. In seeking to understand Smalls' path to the bench, Shepherd reminded the audience of Dr. King’s belief that “faith is taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”

Smalls, whose original plans hadn’t included becoming a prosecutor and eventually a jurist, affirmed the wisdom of that belief.

“Dr. King was right; you have to take those steps even if you don’t know where they’ll lead you,” Smalls said. “This time last year, I didn’t know that I was going to be a judge; I know I was in consideration, but never in my wildest dreams would I have thought I would be standing here before you as a judge this year, and I’m just grateful for the opportunity to serve.”

Smalls talked about mentors in his life, and the importance of mentoring young lawyers in return.

“I can't tell you how many folks have mentored me,” Smalls said. “I had one mentor tell me, ‘If you’re going to walk through a minefield, it’s better to walk with somebody who’s already walked to the other side.’ You can learn from their experiences if you’re willing to humble yourself.”

Smalls also stressed the importance of paying it forward for law students, as well as helping ensure that more people of color join the legal profession.

“When you see people that look like you, it gives you encouragement,” Smalls said. “It lets you think, ‘Hey, I can do this.’”

An alumnus of Lafayette High School in Williamsburg, Va., Smalls graduated from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, with distinction in 2003 and from the School of Law at the University of Miami-Florida in 2006.

Returning to Virginia, Smalls served as a prosecutor for the City of Newport News, as a litigator handling a variety of matters ranging from trespassing to murder, and argued before the Supreme Court of Virginia. Blessed with an entrepreneurial spirit, he also opened his own law firm, Cornerstone Estate Planners, in 2012.

In June 2015, Smalls was tapped as the acting Commonwealth Attorney for Surry County, serving in that capacity through December 2015. From November 2016 to January 2021, he served as President of the York-James City Williamsburg Branch of the NAACP, and also served as the Vice-Chair of the Board for Olde Towne Medical and Dental Center. He also co-founded Media Mentors, a non-profit that teaches media arts and entrepreneurial skills to youth.

In February 2021, the Virginia State Legislature elected Smalls to serve in his current position as judge in the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court for the City of Williamsburg and County of James City.

Discussing the arc of his career, Smalls said that his goal has always been to listen carefully and play an important role in the community—duties he doesn’t take lightly.

“I'm thankful that times are changing, that I have been afforded the opportunity to serve the community I grew up in,” Smalls said. “I would encourage everyone to do your part, whatever it is that you can do in your own respective life, because it will make a difference. If everybody does that, then you know the sky’s the limit.”

About William & Mary Law School
Thomas Jefferson founded William & Mary Law School in 1779 to train leaders for the new nation. Now in its third century, America’s first law school continues its historic mission of educating citizen lawyers who are prepared both to lead and to serve.