Sitte honored for lifelong commitment to pro bono
Few Montana attorneys have had more decorated careers than Missoula’s Klaus Sitte.
Sitte has received enough honors to fill a trophy case, including the State Bar’s highest award, the William J. Jameson Award, in 2013.
But Sitte said it was especially sweet to learn he would receive tthis year’s Neil Haight Pro Bono Award. That’s because the award’s namesake was his boss and mentor for 30 years as executive director of Montana Legal Services Association.
“This is a hallmark of my career,” Sitte said. “There’s something special about getting awarded for the one named for Neil. He was just a stalwart mentor. I couldn’t have asked for a better boss.”
Sitte will receive the award at the bar’s Annual Meeting in Helena on Thursday, Sept. 22. He will also be recognized as a 50-year member the same day.
The Pro Bono Award is a fitting tribute for Sitte. Colleagues say that in his 40 years at MLSA, including 10 years as its executive director he was a core designer of Montana’s pro bono system. He trained and mentored countless attorneys in handling pro bono cases. He was instrumental in developing Montana’s limited scope rules. He drafted the very manuals, procedures and initiatives necessary for pro bono work to get done.
But Sitte’s work for pro bono wasn’t finished when he left MLSA in 2011. Over the last three years, in fact, he has worked with MLSA to develop, implement and run its Housing Justice Project – crucial to its response to the eviction crisis in the wake of COVID-19, according to MLSA Deputy Director Angie Wagenhals.
Sitte, whose family came to the U.S. from Germany when he was 5, points to his immigration story as his motivation for continuing to do the work. He said that as a child he faced many of the same challenges immigrants do today – called names, told to go back to his country.
“That’s the only reason I practiced law – to give back to the community what I’ve learned,” he said. “It’s easy for me to give my expertise because I know it so well. It’s no effort and it continues to make me feel good. To me it’s not a problem to keep doing it.”
Now retired, Sitte maintains an Emeritus license, allowing him to continue representing clients on a pro bono basis. In fact, two of his recent pro bono clients were among the many people who wrote letters supporting his nomination for the award.
One of those clients, Sarah Kate Wallace, wrote: “My gratitude for my new life because of Klaus’ pro bono work is unending and has formed an ability in me to pay it forward. I suppose I feel I could never pay it back, largely because there is no expectation of anything in return. What a humbling gift.”
Sitte was nominated for the Pro Bono Award by Louis Villemez, director of the University of Montana’s ASUM Legal Services, who is one of many Montana lawyers who count him as a mentor in their own careers.
“Klaus has been a dominant figure on Montana’s access to justice scene for close to 50 years,” Villemez wrote. “Not coincidentally, he has been a consistent thread through much of my own career in public interest law. We first met in early 2000 when I interviewed with him for a staff attorney position with Montana Legal Services, and over the past few years he has worked tirelessly on pro bono cases out of my current ASUM Legal Services office. I have benefited greatly from his mentorship and presence.”