The dreamers of Seattle seem to come from one of two big tents. First are the artists – the musicians, painters, and writers who struggle between paying their rent and feeding their muse. And then there’s the entrepreneur – some variation of the Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos model, taking a great idea, running with it, and making a shit ton of money. Anne Dederer is from a smaller tent – the one where the Gandhi quote, “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members,” is a mantra.
When I contacted the Seattle attorney about doing an interview, she seemed unimpressed by my hectic schedule. “My office is virtual and I work 24/7, so let’s plan a time and place to meet,” she wrote in an email.
Dederer’s entire legal career has focused on serving marginalized populations, representing people whose welfare benefits had been denied or terminated for Solid Ground (formerly the Fremont Public Association), as a public defender in the King County Drug Diversion Court, and most recently as the director of the Disabled Homeless Advocacy Project for the Seattle Community Law Center. But in January, she and business partner Cody Fenton-Robertson launched the DFR Law Group.
“Most of our cases are Social Security/SSI Disability,” she says of the pro bono work that has yet to pay any bills. “It’s cases other firms can’t or won’t take. Most of these people are either in transitional housing or at risk of being homeless.”
To supplement her income, Dederer is taking occasional quick turnaround cases that involve sliding-scale programs and family law. She also works part-time in a bookstore. DFR Law Group is yet to have a website or a marketing plan – the pair stays busy mostly with cases referred by previous legal partners. She says eventually the firm will make money, and I ask her how that might happen. “You know the commercials where they say, ‘You don’t pay until we win!’,” she says. “That’s how it works. We’ve won a few already. But they take forever to get the person the pay.”
She says on a typical SSI case, she works with a client for 8 to 10 months before the first hearing, and she’s comfortable with that timeline. “If I have a year, I can space it out, review medical evidence, write a brief,” she says. But sometimes, even after all that work, they lose. “If we don’t win, we always appeal,” she says, “but that’s another brief, and that takes another year. It’s hard because we put a lot of work into cases that sometimes we don’t win.”
Dederer says merely being disabled isn’t enough to win an SSI settlement. “A lot of disabled people work,” she says. “You have to be too disabled to be able to work.”
She says frequently her clients also have substance and mental health issues.“When I worked in Drug Court, I learned about the whole concept of co-occurring disorders with mental health issues and with substance abuse, and that’s a real thing. But we have to prove that. It’s challenging to show that that’s a thing. People are really ill. It’s really sad. I see people who are in such despair, and they’re judged for trying to make themselves feel better. And until a year-and-a-half ago, there wasn’t medical that was automatic. I thank God for the AffordableCare Act.”
Her goal while attending the Seattle University School of Law was to become a judge. “The minute I became a lawyer, I realized I didn’t want to be a judge,” she says. The work didn’t seem fulfilling to her.
“I want to help people on a day-to-day basis,” she says. “That’s such a cliché, but I really mean it. In a way, it’s my lifeblood.”
After the experiment with judicial work, Dederer took a 2-year break from the law to work for a band that included her cousin Dave – Presidents of the United States of America. “It was fun and I liked it, but I wasn’t really helping people. I always felt there was something missing.” What was missing were those moments that make all her perseverance worthwhile. “I have a few people who stay in touch with me,” she says.
She reads me a letter she’d just received from a former client. “Did you know that I beat all the statistics?” she reads. “By rule, I’m supposed to be dead or back in prison. Crazy. Thanks to your help, I have a place and a life,” Dederer reads. “And of course, I get that and I start crying,” she says, looking like she might start crying again. “And I told him, ‘Thank you for saying that, but you did all the work.’ And he wrote back, ‘True, however, you will always be a special part of my life.’” “And that’s really nice because this work is pretty thankless. If you did it for being thanked, you’d quit. I have to admit, it’s pretty gratifying to have someone think that you helped them that much.”