PUBLISHED:September 04, 2019

Tanya Smith ’19


When Tanya Smith ’19 arrived at Duke’s Admitted Students Open House more than three years ago, she was leaning towards accepting an offer from a different law school. But she began to change her mind after hearing Jennifer Tian ’17 speak on a student panel.

Tian, a 2L at the time, was on her way to practicing corporate law in a big firm, exactly the path Smith hoped to follow. She approached Tian after the panel was over, they went for coffee, and shortly afterwards, Smith committed to Duke Law.

“Jenn was so energetic and passionate about all of the doors Duke had opened for her and about the strength of our alumni network,” says Smith. “After I met with her, I realized there was no way I was going to slip through the cracks here at Duke.”

That she didn’t. Smith, who is joining Weil, Gotshal & Manges in Silicon Valley as an associate, graduated in May with a record of bridging gaps and establishing close connections with faculty, alumni, and fellow students. She quickly became recognized as an academic talent in her class, excelling in an array of corporate courses. And she was an energetic participant in student life, taking on a number of leadership positions, including Duke Bar Association (DBA) academic chair, membership editor for Duke Law Journal, and director of communications for the Law and Entrepreneurship Society. She was also a member of First Generation Professionals and a recruitment assistant in the Office of Admissions.

“I wanted to be somewhere where I would really get to know people, where I could really get invested in the community,” Smith says. “It seems like it's worked out.”

As a girl, Smith thought she might grow up to be a professional tennis player. Her family relocated to Southern California from Calgary when she was 11 so she and her sister could pursue that dream, but neither ultimately did. Instead, Smith became a collegiate rower, graduating from the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she majored in Italian studies.

After graduation, Smith entered an executive development program with Macy’s, where at just 21 years old, she was responsible for a multimillion-dollar business and nearly 30 employees. But Smith knew her long-term future wasn’t in brick-and-mortar retailing. She took a job managing Anytime Fitness gyms in Florida, where she also taught spin classes and bootcamps. The owner, a Wharton graduate and former hedge fund manager, asked her if she had ever considered going to law school or business school. “A light bulb sort of went off at that point,” she says. “I thought ‘I do want to do more. I want more opportunities to open up.’”

The owner encouraged her to apply to law school, and after she was accepted, made an introduction that helped her land a summer job with the general counsel of a major New York hedge fund, who became another mentor. “She was brilliant and busy and a little intimidating, but she took me under her wing,” says Smith. “It was nice to have someone to look up to who inspired me in terms of career path and flagged the types of opportunities I wanted to be thinking about and taking advantage of while I was in law school.”

At Duke, Smith found more mentors. As DBA academic chair, she worked closely with Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Liz Gustafson ’86 to develop interest in a public speaking class. She spent her 1L summer as a research assistant for Brainerd Currie Professor of Law James Cox, whom she had contacted after she applied to Duke, noting his frequent commentary on corporate finance matters in the news. And Professor Doriane Coleman recruited her during her second year for a Bass Connections research project that spoke to her interest in business and athletics, Cheating in Competitive Environments.

“Tanya embodies the best of Duke,” says Coleman. “Whether it was in Torts or in Children and the Law or our Bass Connections project, her work and her work ethic were consistently excellent. She is a committed and engaged team player in whatever endeavor she takes on.”

And as she began her second-year job search, Smith turned to the alumni network that she heard so much about when she visited as a prospective student. She spent her 1L summer shuttling between New York, California, and Texas, meeting Duke Law graduates for coffee to learn about their practices and firms.

“Pretty much every coffee turned into an interview,” she says. “I think because I spent some time in each market, people assumed I was serious.” She has since forged close relationships with Chris Machera ’05 and Paul Genender ’94, Weil partners in New York and Dallas, respectively, as well as Caroline Gottschalk ’90, a partner at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett in New York, and Lila Hope ’02, a partner at Cooley in Palo Alto. In fact, Hope, who serves as president of the Law School’s Law Alumni Association board, invited Smith to join as a New Lawyer Division member.

As good as Smith was at finding mentors, she made sure to serve as one too. In presenting her with the Justin Miller Leadership Award in May, Ting Liu ’19 noted that Smith never turned down an opportunity to help a fellow student: “Whether it’s about becoming more comfortable with cold calls, finding research, or prepping students for interviews with firms, there is no hesitation to offer help and advice.”

Fellow students also praised Smith for spearheading conversations about diversity on DLJ and coordinating meetings with student affinity groups on the matter. And a 1L who nominated Smith for the DBA’s “Outstanding Contribution to the Duke Law Community Award,” which she received in April, credited a meeting with Smith during Admitted Students Open House with cementing her decision to enroll at Duke. “I was taken aback by the mentorship, by how many people made calls or introductions that led to interviews, so I tried to return the favor,” says Smith. “It's been amazing to see students enter Duke, scared like I was, and then to see this switch, to see them embrace the challenge and kill it here.”

Smith’s interest in business and finance drove many of her extracurricular activities at Duke. She organized multiple events to help broaden awareness of opportunities in venture capital and private equity, and after taking classes at the Fuqua School of Business, was asked to join a team of MBA students to compete in the Global Venture Capital Investment Competition at Yale. (Liu noted, in her May remarks, that Smith was “beloved” as a leader at Fuqua as much as at Duke Law.)

Smith will join Weil’s Private Equity and Mergers & Acquisitions group in Redwood Shores, Calif. She spent her 2L summer at the firm, splitting between that office and Weil’s New York office. At Weil, she expects to draw on the extensive list of corporate law and finance courses she took, including classes on private equity and mergers and acquisitions at both the Law School and at Fuqua. During her 2L summer she worked on a variety of deals, from venture capital financings to large public company transactions (a highlight was being asked to tap into her earlier experience as a spin instructor to work on a client’s investment in exercise equipment and media company Peloton). She found that she loved the smaller California office, both for the way it facilitated close working relationships with partners and for the fact that running trails and tennis courts were essentially across the street. If Duke still feels like home, and her classmates still feel like her family, her excitement about her next chapter is palpable.

“I feel so well prepared,” Smith says. “I've made so many connections and soaked up so much advice. Of course, it will be challenging, but I’m ready.”