One Year Later: Serving Our Seniors

Volume 37, Number 3


Alyesha Asghar is an Assistant Editor of The Affiliate and an Associate with the Charleston, West Virginia, firm of Spilman Thomas & Battle PLLC.

Inspired by the need to serve America’s fast-growing population of senior citizens, the American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division (ABA YLD) launched the Serving Our Seniors program as its national public service project for 2010–2011.

“The project has been very well received nationally,” said Justin Heather, the Senior Advisor for the Serving Our Seniors program. “Since the public service project was launched during the ABA YLD Annual Meeting in San Francisco, California, David Wolfe, ABA YLD past Chair, and the ABA YLD have encouraged Affiliates to implement the program in their own jurisdictions. Young Lawyer Affiliates throughout the nation have responded by introducing the project in 8 states and implementation in 13 other states is still in progress.”

The Past

“In 2009–2010, Scott Henry, the former Chair of the Chicago Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Section, spearheaded a volunteer initiative titled ‘Justice Never Retires,’ which was focused on providing low-income seniors with direct legal services” said Heather. “David Wolfe, who was also very interested in serving the nation’s older population during his term in office, was inspired by the Illinois program and under Wolfe’s chairmanship, the ABA YLD took the successful model from Illinois’ ‘Justice Never Retires’ seniors’ initiative and worked on executing it on a national scale.”

Ultimately, Serving Our Seniors was designed by the ABA YLD, along with the Chicago Bar Association Young Lawyers Section, the Chicago Bar Foundation, and Illinois Legal Aid Online. The program aimed to provide seniors with legal advice and guidance to help them understand the importance of basic estate planning and to complete the necessary documentation to reflect their wishes at critical points in their lives. The ABA YLD served as the national coordinator for Young Lawyer Affiliates around the nation who wanted to bring the Serving Our Seniors program to their own jurisdictions.

Working in conjunction with TV star and Chicago news anchor, Bill Kurtis, Wolfe and Scott brought greater attention and star power to the program. In addition, many attorneys and legal aid providers helped develop an Orientation and Implementation Manual to help ABA YLD Affiliates and others implement Serving Our Seniors in their own jurisdictions. Finally, several attorneys from Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, LLP and law students at John Marshall Law School, under the direction of Professor Barry Kozak, developed a 50-state survey of estate planning law to help lawyers in various jurisdictions identify pertinent state laws regarding estate planning.

“As a result of this program, ABA YLD Affiliates across the nation have organized several events during which they conduct four to five hours of estate planning advice for seniors at local community centers,” said Heather. “However, the path to implementing the program has not always been easy. Affiliates have often had to think out of the box to tailor the program to fit the unique needs of their jurisdiction.”


The Present

While some programs in places such as Atlanta, Georgia, with Tyronia Smith at the helm, ran “as smooth as butter,” said Heather, “others had to face and overcome some obstacles.”

“Early planning is the key,” said Smith, who set up individual stations for her volunteer attorneys to meet with their senior clients during the Serving Our Seniors event that she planned during the Midyear Meeting. “We even had a holding area with food, games, and music so that the clients could relax before they were introduced to their attorneys. We wanted to make this a real event for them.”

Because the malpractice insurance carrier that Smith partnered with through the Georgia Senior Legal Aid Hotline only covered advanced directives and financial powers of attorney, the volunteer attorneys at Smith’s event were unable to draft wills. Smith saw her way around this “hiccup” by referring seniors to local attorneys and legal aid organizations who would be able to draft wills on a pro bono basis.

Most importantly, Smith emphasized the need for volunteer attorneys to build a trust relationship with their senior clients and to do it fast. “We budgeted approximately 45 minutes to one hour per session because we did not want the seniors to feel rushed. It was important for us to remember that the seniors may be reluctant to share their private financial information with someone whom they had just met,” said Smith. “Even before the seniors were willing to participate in developing advance directives and powers of attorneys, they had to feel comfortable signing an Attorney-Client agreement with the volunteer attorney.”

In Minnesota, Samuel Edmunds, who organized the Minnesota State Bar Association New Lawyers Section team that implemented the Serving Our Seniors program for that Affiliate, faced his share of unique complications. “Minnesota was very lucky to receive a subgrant from the ABA YLD to help us carry out Serving Our Seniors within our communities and after being put in charge of the Minnesota project during the summer of 2010, I followed the road map that Justin Heather and the rest of the national team put together. I was able to train young lawyers quickly on the basics of estate planning,” said Edmunds.

Edmunds faced a conundrum, however, when it came to securing malpractice insurance to cover the volunteers who participated in the program. The ABA YLD Serving Our Seniors literature was silent on how to obtain malpractice insurance to cover volunteers. So, Edmunds and his team identified a creative solution to the problem.

“We ended up getting insurance through the Minnesota State Bar Association’s malpractice carrier,” said Edmunds. “While the malpractice insurance carrier for the state bar was initially hesitant to do this because they are not used to being the primary insurance provider to pro bono attorneys, they ultimately worked with us.”

Meanwhile, in New Jersey, Blake Laurence and the New Jersey YLD Affiliate faced their own challenges in their attempt to implement the Serving Our Seniors program.

“We had great success when we implemented the ‘Wills for Heroes’ program in 2007–2008,” said Laurence of the ABA YLD’s public service initiative, which focused on providing basic estate planning services to emergency first responders free of charge. “For New Jersey, the primary key to success in that project was the fact that we used a computer-based program called HotDocs to help us create the estate planning documents. But, because of the sale of the software by LexisNexis to HotDocs Limited (formerly Capsoft UK LTD) in 2009, we were unable to receive a donation of the software when we started to implement ‘Serving Our Seniors.’”

Nonetheless, Laurence, who is determined to implement the program in New Jersey, is exploring several different avenues to overcome the issue. “I am trying to get HotDocs to donate the program to us so that we can use it in implementing ‘Serving Our Seniors,’” said Laurence. “Alternatively, I am soliciting donations so that the software and hardware that is currently being used for the ‘Wills for Heroes’ program in New Jersey can be used for ‘Serving Our Seniors.’”

Even though implementation of the project in his jurisdiction has been something of a challenge, Laurence is hopeful that he will be able to implement the program during the 2011–2012 year. “Serving Our Seniors is a great program,” said Laurence. “There is a real need for the program among low-income seniors in New Jersey and across the nation. Once we implement this program in New Jersey, I believe that we will be able to provide a valuable service to this important and underserved segment of the population.”

The Future

Following the successful completion of the Serving Our Seniors project in Minnesota, Edmunds says that he has learned many lessons that he believes would translate well for future public service projects. “An unexpected challenge was that local firms and attorneys kept telling us that the market was already saturated with similar pro bono projects and that we would be stepping on toes by implementing this entirely new project within the same community,” said Edmunds. “Although we were initially quite discouraged by this response, we did our own research by talking to community members and we quickly determined that there were still many underserved seniors who needed our assistance. The real challenge was effectively reaching the groups that needed our help.”

In particular, Edmunds recommends that attorneys who are planning to implement a public service project consider partnering with a local legal aid or legal services organization early in the process. “Not only does this partnership provide the local ABA YLD Affiliate with a knowledgeable partner for the joint venture,” said Edmunds, “but it may also help Affiliates secure malpractice insurance under the legal aid organization’s malpractice insurance carrier.”

Edmunds also suggests that attorneys who are stepping up to implement public service projects in their jurisdictions partner with other volunteer attorneys to create a formal committee early in the process. “It’s always better to share the work rather than trying to do everything alone,” advised Edmunds. “Stepping up and taking a lead on the project was a lot more of a challenge than I originally expected, but it was also very rewarding. I would recommend participation in the ABA YLD’s future public service projects to young attorneys across the nation.”

Meanwhile, in Atlanta, Smith was careful not to neglect the volunteer attorneys who donated their time and expertise to help make the program a success. “All of the volunteer attorneys received certificates and CLE credit for their participation in the program,” said Smith. “The State Bar of Georgia even gave each of them a $75 CLE credit for their service to the public. The volunteer attorneys didn’t even know about this gift from the state bar and it was a great bonus.”

For his part, Heather, who helped organize the project on the national scale, has two suggestions for attorneys who plan to undertake future public service initiatives. “Plan early and deal with the big issues such as insurance and locating forms specific to your jurisdiction up front,” said Heather. “For attorneys who are planning to participate in implementing the new Project Salute: Young Lawyers Serving Veterans, I would recommend early partnerships with local veterans’ aid organizations such as the local VFW [Veterans of Foreign Wars]. These organizations are sure to have a wealth of experience working with veterans in their communities as well as a stock of forms and contacts that veterans and their counselors will need to operate effectively within that particular jurisdiction.”

Although Serving Our Seniors is in no way at an end, Heather looks back at the one-year old project with fondness. “It was great to see a project you worked on have such an impact,” remarked Heather. “I am especially happy that we met several of the goals that we set for ourselves and that we were able to implement Serving Our Seniors nationally. But the most rewarding aspect of the experience has been listening to the stories and experiences of attorneys who were able to help seniors as a result of this public service initiative.”



  • Don't Forget

  • About The Affiliate

  • Stay Connected

  • Reprints & Back Issues

  • For More Information

  • Contact Us