Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, December 17, 2021

DeVoe’s detour tops practice she foresaw

Mary Frances DeVoe is the head of the Pro Bono Project at the Chattanooga office of Legal Aid of East Tennessee. She says her budding career looks very different from what she imagined it would when she started law school. - Photo by David Laprad | Hamilton County Herald

While in law school, Mary Frances DeVoe had a vision of what her practice would look like.

Now, as a working attorney, DeVoe is pleased to say she has her dream job – and it looks nothing like that law school fantasy.

DeVoe, 28, earned an undergraduate degree in art administration at Elon University in North Carolina with an eye toward working in the music business. When she realized she didn’t want to spend the first few years of her career answering a phone, she took a hard right turn toward the law.

“I worked with entertainment attorneys while interning with a publishing company, and it seemed like an interesting way to be involved with the industry,” DeVoe explains.

After a single semester of law school, DeVoe made another right turn.

“I realized I liked things about the law that had nothing to do with the music business and ended up working on several government projects,” she recounts.

DeVoe spent her 1L summer working for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Mississippi and her 2L summer with the office of the general counsel for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in Tennessee.

DeVoe tweaked her destination again after her time with HUD.

“My favorite thing about working for HUD was visiting the projects we’d helped to build,” she says. “I liked seeing what all the paperwork and documents and opinions had turned into. Seeing the effect our work had on the community affected me in a big way.”

DeVoe is now impacting the lives of people in the Chattanooga community as the Pro Bono Project attorney for the local office of Legal Aid of East Tennessee. In this role, she arranges clinics, recruits attorneys to take on pro bono cases and engages her creative side as she develops special projects designed to convince attorneys to contribute their time and talents to Legal Aid.

“I run the nonprofit branch of a nonprofit,” she laughs.

While taking classes at Belmont University College of Law in Nashville, DeVoe imagined a more traditional route for the first stage of her career such as joining a firm and paying her dues as an associate.

But just five months after joining Legal Aid, DeVoe is the lead on a program she says provides a vital service to the community and is working on a variety of cases that not only challenge her legal acumen but also touch her emotionally.

“One of the first cases I placed involved a single mom. Her situation really hit me in the heart and made me wonder if I was strong enough for this job.

“I called every attorney people recommended. When I finally found someone who said yes, it was the best day of my life.”

Other matters DeVoe helps to resolve include housing issues, uncontested pro se divorces and expungements, to name a few. Legal Aid tackles these tasks through various means DeVoe oversees, including phone and in-person clinics and special events such as the annual Pro Bono Christmas tree.

DeVoe says Legal Aid couldn’t do this work without the support of the attorneys who volunteer to take cases or serve during a clinic. At the same time, the dam is never large enough to hold back all the floodwaters.

“For every 11,000 eligible cases, there’s one in-house legal aid attorney, so support from the private bar is important,” DeVoe notes. “It’s is a great way to fulfill the reason we all went to law school, which was to help somebody.”

DeVoe is turning to largely untapped resources to boost the number of attorneys who volunteer with Legal Aid, including solo practitioners, small firms and young attorneys like herself.

“The big firms are important partners in our mission, but they would agree we need to get everyone involved.”

A Mississippi native who moved to Chattanooga after landing her current job, DeVoe is spending her free time getting involved outside the legal community.

This includes building friendships with people who aren’t attorneys.

“Spending time with people who don’t do what I do gives me a sense of balance,” she says. “I’m a big believer in female friendships, so I join a group of women once a week for dinner or drinks. It’s something to look forward to that doesn’t involve work.”

DeVoe’s black Goldendoodle offers her even more balance in the form of nonhuman companionship. Named Penny Lane, DeVoe adopted the pup during her first year of law school.

“She went through the whole thing with me,” DeVoe says. “I tell people she earned her paw degree.”

All of this is in service to striking a balance between work and personal time.

“I know maintaining a healthy work-life balance is very millennial of me, but if I didn’t have it, I wouldn’t have the energy to do my job,” she says.

Although DeVoe isn’t practicing the kind of law she once expected to, she says working for Legal Aid truly is her dream job, as it entails the things that are the most important to her, including nonprofit work, helping people and being involved in her community.

This unexpected upshot of her still-brief journey has her reimagining what she’ll be doing many years from now.

“I can see myself practicing at a small firm or transitioning into nonprofit development,” she speculates. “But for now, I’m very content to be a part of the Pro Bono Project. I’m looking forward to trying new things, and failing at some of them, but hopefully being really successful at what I do.”