Kate Cook spent more than 20 years as an FDA lawyer, working toward the goal of doing what was good for society, people, and public health. She left the agency in 2016 and now has her own practice, but it was those same goals combined with the opportunity to help individuals that motivated her to volunteer with MVLS.
In her time as an MVLS volunteer, Kate has taken more than 50 cases, assisting clients with expungements, housing stability, and advance planning. She recently dedicated 100 hours to a deed change case, working with her client to save a five-generation family home.
Today, MVLS is proud to recognize Kate Cook as Volunteer of the Month. Read on to learn more about why she volunteers and donates, and why she ends each pro bono case by asking her clients if they’re ready to make a will.
What made you pursue a career in law? I’m a third-generation lawyer. My mother was a federal government lawyer, and my grandfather was a criminal defense lawyer in Chicago.
What inspired you to get involved in pro bono? My work was always done with the goal of trying to do what’s good for society, for people, and for public health. But I had not had a practice that was one-on-one, where I could do something that would have a specific benefit for a client – something seen, perceived, or enjoyed. I saw MVLS’ pro bono work as an opportunity to make those differences in individual peoples’ lives.
What have you enjoyed about your volunteer experience? I’ve valued the opportunity to learn a new area of law while enjoying the assistance and oversight of mentors. I’ve really learned a lot in my MVLS practice, and I’ve had the chance to work with good lawyers like Alice Young who has been a mentor to me.
You also give to MVLS. What inspired you to give? Knowing it makes such a difference for people. I’ve worked at some of the clinics and know the value of having decent equipment – I really wanted to support that.
How does volunteering and donating impact you? I feel part of a bigger effort. Donating for me is all about the personal satisfaction of supporting the organization.
Could you tell me about some of the cases you’ve worked on? I recently worked on a case that wasn’t complicated in a legal sense but was complicated by poverty. I was working to get my client’s name on the deed to her family home. My client was the third generation of her family to live in the house, and two more generations were living with her. This was a house that needed to stay in the family. But there was an almost $9,000 water bill. It’s such a chicken and egg situation. You can’t transfer the deed to a home when there’s an outstanding bill. And the person who is entitled to own the property can’t get assistance from any of the community programs because the house is not in her name. And that makes it even harder.
What happened? My client is a really remarkable woman. She devoted every penny to this in order to get it transferred. We ended up setting up a GoFundMe. It didn’t cover all of it, but what she did get put her over the top so that she was able to pay off the bill. It really was satisfying at the end of the case to say, “Here is your deed. It has been recorded. You can now look it up here.”
Is there anything else you would add? Whenever I do an estates case like this I say to my clients when we’re done, “Can I do a will for you now?” Most or all of the people I work with are seeking help from MVLS because the person who owned the property died without a will, which really complicates things. And that’s not what the homeowner would have intended. Last year, I worked with a widow whose husband had owned their house outright but hadn’t put her name on the title. We were able to wrap up that case appropriately and fairly. She died a few months ago, but we had made arrangements for her. We’d titled the house in her and her daughter’s name. So now, her daughter owns the home, which is what my client wanted.
How do you explain the impact of pro bono? For the estate work, the impact is clear – suddenly a client owns their home! It’s in their name. For expungements, just imagine being able to put someone in a better position to get a job. I also think it really makes people feel valued – that someone is willing to do this for them. It’s a great thing.
What would you say to people who are considering volunteering or donating? Do it. As I mentioned it’s a chance not only to connect individually with clients. It’s also a chance to learn a new area and work with good lawyers.
*Interview edited for length and clarity.