Sometimes When You Lose, You Still Win
A tough case turned into a pro bono passion for Kate DeVries Smith
Published in 2017 Minnesota Super Lawyers magazine on July 5, 2017
Kate DeVries Smith’s first pro bono housing trial was technically a loss.
The partner and patent attorney at Pauly, DeVries Smith & Deffner in downtown Minneapolis got her start with Merchant & Gould. It was there, roughly 18 years ago, that she approached colleague Jeffer Ali about pro bono work.
“I really buy into that notion that if you have a law license, you have an obligation to provide direct services,” Smith says. “That’s just always spoke to me. But I was struggling with how to do that as a patent attorney.”
Ali convinced her to give housing law a shot through the Volunteer Lawyers Network. A week later, she had her first case: an eviction action against a mother of eight. “I was 28 also, and had no children, was making a good living, was in a stable housing situation, and it was just very stark—the differences between our two lives,” Smith says.
The woman had been living in her apartment for two years. When she signed the lease, there were four people listed: herself and three children. After moving in, her husband and other children rejoined the family, and then they had a baby. The landlord sought eviction for violating the lease agreement.
“Meanwhile, the house had significant rats that were so brave she could photograph them; the back door was not secure, and they were right at Oliver and Broadway, a dangerous intersection; there was a leak from the upstairs toilet down to the bedroom. I mean, it was bad,” Smith says.
Often, cases like these involve writing letters or appearing before a judge to assist clients with a motion or negotiation. Only four such cases Smith has handled have gone to trial, and this was one of them. “Even though I was a newbie in housing law,” she says, “just by having the ability to gather the facts, put together a written answer and ask questions of witnesses in court, I was able to help her present her story.”
Ultimately, the judge ruled that Smith’s client would be evicted. But there was a silver lining. “We were able to get her a backward-looking rent reduction,” Smith says. “The landlord refunded part of her rent, so she had about $1,600 to help her move on, and she was very grateful. It was an empowering experience.”
Smith loves assisting people with such a basic need, and remains in contact with several of her past clients. “It’s a big break from IP work,” she says. “[That’s] much more intellectual, and business-oriented, and long term-oriented. It might take two years after we file the patent application before the examiner even looks at it. Then we argue back and forth for a couple years. Then it becomes an issued patent and an important asset of the company. In the housing court cases, it’s two weeks often, from start to finish, and is about having a place to live.”
These days, Smith takes one or two full cases per year through Volunteer Lawyers Network, where she also serves on the board. She likewise takes three shifts per year at the Housing Court Project, which is run by VLN and Legal Aid.
The Hennepin County Bar Association recently recognized Smith with the Pro Bono Publico Award, and VLN once named her Volunteer Lawyer of the Year.
And the key? Jumping in and doing what you can. “There’s a lot of fear and concern about practicing in an area of law that you’re not familiar with,” Smith says. “Although I don’t have the level of experience and knowledge that a full-time housing law attorney does who works for Legal Aid, I can still make a difference just by having experience with writing, and putting the story down to present to the court in a coherent way. As I’m encouraging other people to volunteer, especially patent lawyers, I try to remind them that a lot of the clients don’t have experience with writing professionally.
“Just having that ability to articulate their stories, you can make such a huge difference.”
Volunteer Lawyers Network vlnmn.org/volunteer
Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid mylegalaid.org/get-involved