Interview with DHS Deputy Director Keesa Smith


Arkansas lawyer Keesa Smith will become the deputy director of the Arkansas Department of Health and Human Services next month. Ms. Smith was kind enough to take the time to answer some questions from Hawg Law Blawg. 

HLB: Where are you from? 

KS: I grew up in a small town named Havelock, North Carolina. I am a military child (my father is a retired Marine) and I was born in Portsmouth, Virginia. From there, my parents moved to California and Okinawa, Japan (where I started school). We moved to North Carolina when I was in the third grade and that is where I grew up. 

HLB: Where did you go high school, undergrad and law school? 


KS: I went to high school at Havelock High School. Undergrad: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Law School: University of Arkansas at Little Rock (both of my parents are from North Little Rock and they moved here when my father retired so I decided to follow them when I graduated- smile)


HLB: What was your major in undergrad?  


KS: Journalism and Mass Communication with a concentration in Public Relations.


HLB: What were your best (or favorite) subjects in law school? 


KS: I actually received Top Paper in Evidence so that automatically made it my favorite class for all three years!! I loved all of my classes pertaining to Criminal Procedure although I never practiced that area of law. I also enjoyed Law Skills II as it allowed you to actually try a case. 


HLB: What did you do after graduating law school? 


KS: After law school I actually attempted to practice on my own for a few months. I did not enjoy the business aspect of being a solo practitioner, so I was always actively applying for work throughout that time. Several months after I graduated, I got a wonderful job as a Staff Attorney for the Center for Arkansas Legal Services. 


HLB: For each place that you worked, was having a law degree important for that job?  


KS: I believe that my law degree was important for each job I have had. Clearly it was required for my staff attorney position at CALS. When I left to work for the Governor, I actually started in his office as a speech/talking point writer. My law degree was important because various opportunities arose where I was able to apply my legal knowledge. The more I did so, more opportunities occurred for me and I ultimately ended up having the opportunity to join the Governor’s Legislative Team and analyze bills based on their legality and impact. Once that session was completed, I was able to step into the role Deputy Legal Counsel and was given the opportunity to assist in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (stimulus) implementation. My current position as the Chairman of the Arkansas Board of Review statutorily requires that I be an attorney and I am very confident that my law degree will be benefit me when I take on the role of Deputy Director at DHS.  


HLB: How did you come to be appointed deputy director of DHS?  


KS: I was contacted by John Selig. He and I, along with Deputy Director Janie Huddleston and many DHS division directors, worked together to implement stimulus programs during my tenure at the Governor’s Office. I was brought in for an interview and, thankfully, I was the candidate that was chosen for the position. 


HLB: What are your goals for DHS during your directorship?  


KS: My primary goal is to ensure that the divisions I work with are running properly and efficiently, while keeping the people that we serve as our first priority. 


HLB: Is this the career path you expected to follow? 


KS: No- when I was in high school, I wanted to work in the medical field. When I was in law school, I wanted to do criminal law. However, I am extremely grateful for the path my career has taken as it has allowed me to help people every, single day and I have a great sense of satisfaction at the end of the day. 


HLB: What do you do outside of work? 


KS: My family is extremely important to me. I have a daughter named Afiya who keeps me very busy with her school schedule (she recently started 7th grade) and extracurricular (soccer season just started as well). Also, I moved to Arkansas to be close to my parents so I enjoy spending time with them as well. I am active in my church (St. Luke Baptist Church in North Little Rock) and my sorority chapter (Beta Pi Omega chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.) 


HLB: What advice would you give to a law student or someone just starting their practice? 

KS: My number one piece of advice is to get connected with individuals who are currently doing the things that you would like to see for yourself in the future. Since I was not from Arkansas and did not have much connection to the legal communities, I definitely attached myself to individuals that I felt were excelling in their career field. I would invite them out to lunch or ask if I could come by when I was in law school and continued to do the same thing when I graduated. These individuals have been invaluable to me. As I continue with my career, I pick up more mentors!


Best of luck to Keesa Smith in her new position!