Get to Know Denise LaFave Smith

By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

A solo attorney in Lansing, Denise LaFave Smith opened her practice in 2004, focusing on family law, disability and public benefits, and probate law. 

In addition to her private practice, she has represented parents and children in juvenile delinquency and child abuse and neglect cases as court-appointed counsel for over 15 years; and also currently represents parents in an Ingham County treatment court.

LaFave Smith earned her Bachelor of Arts degree (management and organizational Development) from Spring Arbor University and her JD from Cooley Law School, with certificates in litigation and constitutional law/civil Rights.

Prior to entering law, LaFave Smith was a non-physician faculty and director of a family medicine residency program, a quality improvement specialist with a clinical laboratory, and managed a specialty medical practice and a medical care review program.

Why did you become a lawyer?
It may be cliché, but to make a difference.  

What would surprise people about your job?
I spend more time in the courtroom than litigators. I’m in a courtroom nearly every day, at least once.

What advice do you have for someone considering law school? 
Talk to lawyers and law students, and shadow lawyers to gauge whether law school is right for you. Study hard. Develop your writing skills. Network! If you decide law school is for you, commit fully. Be willing to sacrifice in the short-term. Finally, once you pass the bar, do court-appointed work! I learned more about lawyering and became a better lawyer by handling juvenile delinquency and abuse/neglect cases.

What’s your proudest moment as a lawyer?
Early in my career, a homeless woman walked into my office without an appointment. She said that she was hungry and needed help. My staff and I learned that her abusive husband of over 20 years had thrown her out of their home, she couldn’t work due to a disability, was sleeping on the couches of family and friends, had no money – and no hope.  We immediately obtained food assistance for her, filed her divorce, and applied for disability benefits. We helped her with clothing, food, and personal care items. Within three months, her divorce was final, and she was awarded long-term spousal support. Within six months, her disability application was approved.  She’s now living in her own apartment, happily ever after. I will never forget her. Be a hope dealer.

What’s your favorite law-related TV show, movie, and/or book?
So many books, but “To Kill a Mockingbird” is my favorite.  I just watched “12 Angry Men” for the first time, and it’s now my favorite law-related movie.  I don’t watch much television, but I enjoy the acerbic wit of “The Good Wife” and “The Good Fight.”

Who would you trade places with for a day?
An astronaut on the International Space Station so that I could do a spacewalk.

What do you do to relax?
Crocheting, baking, reading, and researching my family tree.

What would you say to your 16-year-old self?
The journey is more important than the destination.

Favorite local hangouts?
The Library of Michigan.

Favorite websites?
YouTube and Wondrium. They’re great for life-long learners.

Favorite app?
Facebook. Meaningful social connections are important and it’s a great way to keep in touch with people at a distance.

Favorite music?
I enjoy most music, but swing and hard rock are my favorite genres.

What is your happiest childhood memory?
Camping with my extended family, which could include any number of three grandparents, 20 aunts and uncles, and 36 cousins.

What is your most treasured material possession?
  The quilt my Mom made me from my Dad’s shirts after he died.

What has been your favorite year so far?
I can’t pick a favorite. Every year of my life holds at least one wonderful memory.

What’s the most awe-inspiring place you’ve been?
The Grand Canyon. The sheer immensity of the canyons, and the vistas left me speechless.

What superpower would you like?
Teleportation. Instantaneous travel between two locations would save me a lot of time!

What’s one thing you’d like to learn to do?
I love football, but don’t fully understand the rules of the game, plays, or strategy. I’m currently reading Football for Dummies.

What is something most people don’t know about you?
I’m a bit of a thrill-seeker. I’ve sky-dived, hot air ballooned, sky-jumped off the Stratosphere Hotel in Las Vegas, zip-lined, and plan to rappel down the Boji Tower in Lansing this year.  I’m not fearless, but I am brave. I’m also a huge KISS fan.

If you could have dinner with three people, past or present, who would they be?
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, my younger self, and Frida Kahlo.  

What’s the best advice you ever received?
If you don’t like where you are, move. You are not a tree.

What is your motto?
Some of the best things in life are mistakes.

Who do you most admire?
I most admire my dad and my husband. My dad had a very strong work ethic and taught me to be on time and reliable. He was the first person to offer a helping hand, and the last to remove it. He taught me the importance of helping others. My husband believes that service to others is the rent that we pay to live in this world. He makes me want to be a better person.

What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?
My greatest achievement was raising my three daughters as a young, single impoverished parent. My daughters are strong, independent women who are hard-working, funny, smart, and compassionate. Each one is successful and contributing to society in their own unique way.

Any final words?
As the Child Protective Legal Representation Task Force states “Michigan’s current system of providing legal representation to children and parents involved in child protective proceedings is in crisis. Courts across the state are struggling to obtain and maintain court appointed attorneys for this important work due to low funding, competition from other private and publicly funded legal systems, and the complex nature of child protective proceedings.  This leads to inconsistent and inequitable legal representation for parents and children across the state.”  
I urge attorneys to consider joining the Ingham County court-appointed counsel lists for juvenile delinquency and child abuse/neglect cases. This work is extremely important and rewarding.

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