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Susan Smalley ’18: Inspired Career Changer

Smalley, the recipient of the Jean Robertson Scholarship, is inspired by the award’s namesake: Jean Robertson ’70, who pursued a law degree at the age of 43 and became one of Bergen County’s first public defenders


Susan Smalley ’18 is the 2015 recipient of the Jean Robertson Scholarship, awarded annually to a woman attending a New Jersey law school. The award was presented at the Women Lawyers in Bergen Association’s annual dinner this past summer.

As an accomplished woman who chose to pursue a law degree after her children had grown, Smalley has much in common with the woman for whom the scholarship is named.

Jean Robertson '70 (1924-1985) entered law school in 1967 at the age of 43 after raising her four sons. She was one of the first female public defenders in Bergen County and a founding member and President of the Women Lawyers in Bergen Association. She was known for her high ethical standards and her fierce advocacy on behalf of her indigent clients, always putting their rights and welfare first.

Smalley seriously considered going to law school in her twenties, but felt it wasn’t the right financial choice for her young family. She focused instead on her career in federal service, and over the next 25 years, rose to her current position as a Supervisor and Office Manager of the Presentence Investigation Department of the U.S. Probation Office for the District of New Jersey.

As Smalley’s children headed to high school and college, her dream of attending law school resurfaced. She is fascinated by the law and wanted to reinvent herself, changing the way in which she could help people. “I’ve been watching lawyers my whole career,” she said. “I feel I could add something to that community.”

Smalley works full time, attends Seton Hall Law’s evening program, and at Thanksgiving time, she volunteers through her office for various organizations that feed the homeless, including the Salvation Army in Union City, New Jersey. “I am deeply appreciative of the support and inspiration I’ve received from the judges,” she said of her law school journey. “It’s a balancing act.” Two district judges especially stand out for their mentorship and encouragement: the Honorable Katharine S. Hayden ‘75 and the Honorable Jose L. Linares, both adjunct professors at Seton Hall Law.

Through her own experience as a first-generation Chinese-American and in her work with Federal Probation, Smalley has witnessed the challenges that language and culture barriers can create. Mexican underage girls who were in the country illegally and victimized by numerous defendants. Smalley contacted them to include victim impact statements in the defendants' presentence reports for consideration by the district court judge in sentencing the defendants. The victims did not speak English and were placed in temporary shelters while their immigration status' were being resolved. She plans to take on pro bono work when she graduates, serving those who are economically and educationally disadvantaged.

In her application essay for the scholarship, she wrote,

“I would also like to assist immigrants who are challenged by the legal system and language barriers… While the legal system is difficult to navigate and understand for an average person, I find it more daunting for others who have to overcome the additional hurdles of a language barrier.”

Smalley concluded, “If I can assist these vulnerable individuals in similar situations in any way, I will have considered my investment in law school to have paid off tenfold.”