Oregon State Bar Bulletin — JULY 2005

Profiles in the Law
Going the Distance
By Cliff Collins

For Steven Smucker, running long distances gives him time both
to think about his cases
as well as leave them behind.
They don’t call them "ultramarathons" for nothing. An ultramarathon is defined as a footrace that exceeds the 26 miles of a marathon. Most are between 50 and 100 miles.

Some might define that distance as "crazy," but not Portland lawyer Steven R. Smucker. For him, running long distances outdoors over uneven terrain serves several purposes. So far, all are positive for him, including giving him time both to think about his cases as well as leave them behind. Running also keeps him in top shape — he has remained free of chronic injuries — and gives him a competitive outlet left over from his athletic high school days.

There, in Elkhart, Ind., he participated in virtually every sport except for track and field or cross country. Smucker’s primary athletic activity through college was tennis, but going to law school at the University of Oregon in the track capital of Eugene whetted his interest in running. Over the past 20 years, Smucker has competed in about 30 marathons and 75 ultramarathons.

He often finishes among the top three in the Master’s Division (for those over 40 years old) at the U.S. Track and Field 50 Mile Championships. Last year, at age 50, he finished 20th out of 400 and first in the 50-plus group in California’s Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, which he says is like the Boston Marathon of ultramarathons. At 41, he held course records at all three Pacific Northwest 50-mile trail races and appeared in Sports Illustrated’s "Faces in the Crowd."

Smucker, one of four brothers (Steve, Stu, Stan and Sterling), visited Portland with friends in 1971, and liked the area. He went to Reed College, where he majored in psychology. But his idea to pursue clinical psychology as a career changed in his junior year, thanks to a political science professor, who sparked his interest in the law. After graduating and working for two years as a trial assistant for the Metropolitan Public Defender, he entered law school aiming toward criminal defense.

He worked a variety of jobs while in Eugene, one year commuting to Portland "in a beat-up Triumph" to wait tables at the Old Spaghetti Factory. But after serving a clerkship at the Portland law firm Dunn, Carney, Allen, Higgins & Tongue, and passing the bar, he was offered a job there, where he worked as a defense attorney representing insurance companies.

Smucker then took a hiatus from the practice of law after falling in love with Laura Paxson. They married in 1984 and spent the next two years serving as Peace Corps volunteers in Paraguay. Smucker had grown up a Mennonite, and that may have been an influence in his decision. Regardless, he says, "It was an opportunity for what I thought might be a real adventure."

And so it was. While Paxson traveled to remote areas as a health care worker giving children vaccinations, Smucker stayed in their rural village working as a beekeeper. Honey production served as a good supplemental income for the villagers. His father had kept bees, but these were Africanized, so-called "killer bees." Smucker claims that the bees have gotten undeserved bad press: "They are hard workers, but a little hard to manage." Although suffering his share of stings, he learned to manage them, and the villagers benefited.

He returned to Portland changed. "When I came back, I was more determined to help people — normal, ordinary people," he says. "I wanted to help individuals get their day in court." For the past 15 years or so, he has been in solo practice, specializing in personal injury cases. He also was savvy enough to be "early" in getting a site on the Internet, snagging the address www.PortlandLawyer.com.

"I love the practice of law and what I do," says Smucker, who is a compact 5 feet, 7 inches and 140 pounds. "I have control over my schedule," and because of his success — he is rated A-V by Martindale-Hubbell — he mostly can be selective about choosing his clients, saying, "I pick primarily people I like."

Smucker and wife Laura Paxson, a high school teacher," have two sons. They enjoy their boys’ ballgames, and he says the family is supportive of his running, though perhaps a little less enthusiastically than in the earlier years. He generally runs to and from work, then early mornings on weekends. When training for an upcoming race, he runs 25 to 30 miles each Saturday and Sunday, and up to three hours other times.

Smucker says ultramarathon running is a metaphor for his approach to the practice of law. He takes a deliberate approach to developing clients’ cases — in effect, putting one foot in front of the other, moving each case to its finish line.

Cliff Collins is a Portland-based freelance writer.

© Cliff Collins

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