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Jan Smit LLM’19 pivots from private practice to international law

May 06, 2019

Already more than a decade into a legal career, Jan Smit LLM’19 is using his time at Penn Law to pivot from private practice into a career on the international stage.

Smit grew up in Cape Town, South Africa, and even before he entered into law school he knew he wanted to see more of the world. After graduating from high school, instead of going straight to university, he worked in a restaurant to save money for an extended visit to the United Kingdom.

“I arrived in London with nothing — I just had a flight ticket,” he said. “At the same time, I quickly made a lot of friends.”

He lived in London for a year, and there he got his first — albeit very indirect — exposure to law practice by working as a security guard at the Canary Wharf offices of a major international law firm. When he was off the clock, he used the time to travel, visiting Greece, Italy, France, and even Dubai.

After his year abroad, Smit returned to South Africa to begin his studies, but was still unsure exactly what field he wanted to go into. 

“I thought I was going to be an accountant,” he said. None of his family members had ever practiced law — his father is a business strategist and his mother is a microbiologist, and before that Smit’s family had deep roots in South Africa’s farming and mining industries.

Even without exposure to the field of law, when Smit enrolled at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and decided to try out the law program he found it to be a surprisingly good fit.

“I just took to it—that kind of analytical reasoning without using algebraic numbers but using language as your tool,” he said. “I was fortunate to be able to completely immerse myself in all the work and quickly took a liking to international-related law.”

The experience was not without its challenges however. Because Afrikaans was Smit’s first language and law classes were taught in English, the language barrier required some extra work to overcome.

“I was really challenged with the language so I had to really knuckle down and work hard,” said Smit.

In 2008, Smit successfully graduated from UCT with his LLB degree and went to work at a South African law firm in Johannesburg, 1000 miles away from his hometown and family. He worked at the firm for eight years, completing two years of training before ultimately being admitted to the bar and becoming a solicitor. Looking back on the early trajectory of his career, Smit noted how the legal profession can sometimes “funnel” graduates into taking on conventional corporate work even if their passions lie elsewhere.

In his case, he ended up working in commercial litigation, with a focus on private arbitration. His years at the firm “went by in a flash.”

“Of course, there were incredible projects along the way,” he said. Because of the focus on arbitration, he said, “my exposure to trial litigation and appellate litigation was less than I would’ve liked, but when I did enter that forum it was meaningful. For example in 2013, [the firm] ran a case relating to the first private law class action in our country.” At that time, Smit explains, the concept of private tort class actions was alien in South Africa, so he and his team were entering legally uncharted territory. It proved to be a memorable experience.

“In the process, we were part of forming this body of private law, and it went all the way up to our Constitutional Court,” he said. “When you see the judgment, you see some of your own work and the research you had done reflected in there, it’s great. That was very meaningful.”

Still, even as Smit quickly rose through the ranks at his firm, making partner in March 2017, he felt a pull to reevaluate his career.

“I said to myself, ‘I’m 31, I’m a partner at a firm, this is going one way,’” he said. Once again, he turned to travel to help him decide the next step, this time visiting the United States. “I got onto a plane and thought, I need to reevaluate my life. I’m a litigator and I’m good at it, but it’s not necessarily what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

He visited the United States during a particularly tumultuous time just after a new president had been inaugurated. The state of apparent upheaval facing the world caught Smit’s attention.

“I’ve always been well-tuned into world affairs, and that helped inform my thoughts that while I was taking time think about my life, it was also an inflection point in world history,” he said. The more he considered it, he realized that he wanted meet the moment by shifting from private practice into a career in the international arena. He quit his job and applied to LLM programs in the United States, ultimately deciding to attend Penn Law.

Penn Law’s interdisciplinary programs played a significant role in enticing Smit to attend.

“What sealed the deal for me was that, unlike any other law school that I’m aware of, I can go to Wharton and take classes, and also take classes in political science, medicine, engineering, and more,” he said. “It’s a big selling point, and I think [graduates] come out a lot more balanced.”

In the fall, Smit took a course with former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell C’65 on the science of elections. “It feeds into policy, so if you’re doing foreign relations law, election law really dovetails really nicely,” said Smit.

In addition to foreign relations and European Union law, Smit has also studied national security law and international law while enrolled at Penn. “After graduating this month, Smit will sit for the New York bar exam before deciding on the next step in his evolving legal career.”