Obituary: Nellie Fergus Smith | First female attorney at law firm Reed Smith

Oct. 22, 1919 - Aug. 6, 2012

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Nellie Fergus Smith, the first female attorney hired by prominent Pittsburgh law firm Reed Smith, who left the firm to have children but continued her legal career as a solo practitioner until age 80, died Monday following a lung infection.

Mrs. Smith, a lifelong resident of Mt. Lebanon, was 92.

After graduating from Mt. Lebanon High School in 1937, Mrs. Smith enrolled at Mount Holyoke College, a women's school in Massachusetts where the faculty "encouraged students to reach for the stars and not be held back by traditional stereotypes," said her son, Templeton Smith Jr. of Mt. Lebanon.

Though she initially considered social work, she decided on law "because that was her manner of reasoning and that appealed to her," he said.

Her parents didn't have a lot of money, Mr. Smith said, but because her father was serving as treasurer at the University of Pittsburgh, he was eligible for the faculty discount on tuition. So she enrolled in Pitt's School of Law, where World War II had reduced the class size to only half a dozen students.

"She told us that everyone made the law review because they needed the whole class to get it out."

In 1943 she joined Reed Smith, where she focused on business law and financial transactions, her son said.

But the firm sometimes dispatched its only woman attorney to conduct undercover detective work.

For instance, when the Elizabeth Arden salon at Kaufmann's department store, a Reed Smith client, was being prosecuted by the state for employing nonlicensed Swedish masseuses, Mrs. Smith, who weighed 107 pounds, was told to pose as a customer who wanted a weight-loss program so she could observe what the masseuses were doing.

In 1948, she married Templeton Smith Sr., an attorney at Koppers Co. She left Reed Smith in 1952 prior to the birth of their first child. Her husband died in 2007.

While raising two children in Mt. Lebanon in the 1950s and '60s, Mrs. Smith maintained a private practice doing wills, trusts and other estate matters. She delivered her notes and documents to a stenographer and visited clients while her children were in school.

"She would pick me up after school with a puppy and briefcase on the seat next to her," said her son, recalling that she was among the few working mothers of the era. "She managed it so people didn't even know. Everyone else's mom was there when they came home for lunch, and so was ours. But when we went back to class, she went back to writing wills. She was equally at home with the PTA and the IRS."

In addition to her son, survivors include a daughter, Eliza Smith Brown of Squirrel Hill, and five grandchildren.

Friends will be received 4-8 p.m. today at Laughlin Memorial Chapel, 222 Washington Road, Mt. Lebanon. A memorial service will be held at a later date. The family requests memorial contributions to Southminster Presbyterian Church, 799 Washington Road, Pittsburgh, PA 15228.

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Joyce Gannon: or 412-263-1580.


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