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Pro Bono Estate Planning: Wills Clinics Leverage Limited Resources to Make a Huge Difference

Susan G Gobbs and Joy Barber

Pro Bono Estate Planning: Wills Clinics Leverage Limited Resources to Make a Huge Difference

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Many people attend law school thinking they would like to use their skills to help people. If you were among that group of people and, after being out of law school for a couple of years, you have not found many opportunities to feel like you are making a difference in someone’s life—I can assure you that your skills are wanted and needed. Pro bono estate planning clinics may be a way for you to help those in your community and get mentorship in the process.

Pro Bono Will Clinics Can Offer Mentorship and Training Opportunities

Not long out of law school, meaningful, low-stakes mentorship opportunities may quickly dry up. But what if you had the chance to gain marketable skills in a supportive setting where you could ask “stupid” questions, spitball ideas off experienced attorneys, workshop sticky client dilemmas, all while providing high-impact legal access to people in need? The Legal Services Developer Wills Clinics offers new attorneys just such a space. Robust training covers common issues with wills, transfer on death deeds, and powers of attorney and provides insights and practice tips important for working with seniors.

By participating in pro bono will clinics, new attorneys have the opportunity to think about and practice crucial interpersonal skills in their meetings with clients. Participants are provided with document templates, and a staff attorney is constantly on-hand for a sidebar during client meetings. You get substantive feedback on drafted documents and dedicated time with the staff attorney to review your work. The entire experience is fun and a real chance to practice law in the type of mentorship environment that we often wish we had. The time commitment is minimal and bounded, with virtually no need for any prep. You also get to provide tangible, significant pro bono legal services with consequential impacts to a population that goes largely under-served.

Clinics Are Key in Preventing Elder Financial Exploitation

Our clinics are supported by grant funds that help prevent elder financial exploitation. If individuals have done their estate planning and designated who they want to assist them in making financial and healthcare decisions, they are less likely to be subject to exploitation. We receive support from our local Area Agencies on Aging and individual attorneys and paralegals who volunteer their services. We also receive funding from AARP to support our volunteers and clients during the clinics.

Clients are screened to ensure that their estate planning needs are simple and they sign a limited scope representation agreement. All legal volunteers are provided training, support, and malpractice insurance, if they don’t have any, for their work during the clinic. Each client has an hour-and-a-half appointment. In most cases, they can get all of their estate planning documents completed, printed, and executed in that time. They then receive instructions on what to do with their documents when they leave the clinic.

We prepare wills, durable powers of attorney for financial and healthcare decision making, living wills, and perform simple deed work if needed. While the documents are not complex for attorneys to prepare, many seniors cannot complete these independently and need the support and a place to complete these documents at one time. Seniors’ lack of knowledge of estate planning documents is a significant cause of financial exploitation. As a result, these clinics educate seniors by helping them complete the appropriate documents and provide an access point to report and uncover financial exploitation, abuse, and neglect.

Limited Resources Can Generate a Large Impact through Will Clinics

Even with a tiny staff, these clinics can be successful and wide-reaching. The need for these services is especially evident in rural areas. Our clinic transports everything from set up to clean up, including copy machines, computers, and printers to as far as 500 miles away from our base in Helena, Montana.

Client participants tell us that they are relieved to have these documents completed. Hugs (pre-COVID) are not uncommon, and there is much laughter and sharing of stories by the seniors we serve. They genuinely appreciate the assistance they receive, and we appreciate the ability to serve these individuals.

If you are looking for a chance to give back but have limited time for pro bono work, wills clinics offer the opportunity to provide essential services with meaningful input in an easy, fun, and supportive environment. Check with your local agencies or bar association and see how you can help.