Preparing Wills for First Responders: a Pro Bono Opportunity

Nathan Smith

Article by Nathan Smith Featured Author


During my early years of law practice, I often struggled to find pro bono work that aligned with my practice areas of estate planning and taxation. I volunteered for a low-income taxpayer clinic for several years, but it eventually died off from lack of participation. I also volunteered for a clinic known as “Wills for Heroes,” which took place at the Mississippi Bar building on State Street. Wills for Heroes offered basic estate-planning documents for first responders: police officers, firemen, and paramedics. I recall that we served comparatively few participants, but I learned a lot about estate planning in a big hurry.

Fast forward a few years and I randomly came across an advertisement for a program known as “Wills for First Responders.” I was a government lawyer with the Mississippi Department of Revenue for five years, so I had mostly dismissed pro bono work to the back burner. I was already a public servant, after all! This advertisement piqued my interest, though, I assume because old habits die hard. I contacted the organizer, a paralegal named Kristy Hogan, and asked if I could assist with their next clinic. Not knowing that she had opened pandora’s box, she allowed me to participate.

That first clinic was a bit of a shock. We had a lot of participants, over 50 people, and we had a lot of questions about wills, intestate succession, advance healthcare directives, and powers of attorney. Although I hadn’t been in private practice in several years, I was one of the only volunteers who had any background in wills and estates. Looking back, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. But I was surprised how much of it came back to me. There is a sense of fulfillment that comes from using your knowledge to assist others in technical matters, without the worry of eyeing your billing at every six-minute increment.

After that initial clinic, Kristy asked me to take a deep dive into the forms she had been using to ensure that they comported with Mississippi Law. I had to break open Title 91 of the Mississippi Code Annotated and look at the absolute bare-bones requirements for wills in Mississippi. In private practice I always had the benefit of estate planning forms, including wills, that had been handed down over the years and probated enough that we knew they worked. We spent most of our time crafting the complex provisions that minimized tax exposure for the testator. In this case, Kristy and I didn’t have that benefit. Not only did we have to double-check the requirements of Mississippi law, we also had to decide what was practical for us to accomplish in a one-day clinic.

Suffice to say, Kristy and I spent a lot of time hammering out the details. Meanwhile, due to the success of the program, Kristy asked if I could assist with the formation of a 501(c)(3) entity to operate the program. She reckoned that the program was big enough to be formalized in a non-profit entity, and I agreed. She did the hard work, but I was able to answer questions through the formation process and guide her through the Secretary of State and IRS forms. Within the space of a few months, Kristy had formed Magnolia Wills for First Responders, a Mississippi non-profit corporation.

The next clinic was postponed due to Covid-19, but we eventually held a successful clinic between variant waves. Wearing masks and observing protocols, we again dealt with a full day of participants. At this point I thought I was an old hand, but I wasn’t. Never underestimate the ability of law practice to surprise and humble you. Kristy introduced a new feature of the clinic for attorney volunteers by getting the program approved for four hours of CLE. I began offering one hour of training prior to the event that introduced our volunteers to the forms we use, explained the statutory and practical basis for what we were doing, and pre-answered frequently asked questions (a list which grows with each event). This training normally causes volunteers to flee for their lives, but we have bouncers/security to prevent escape. As the clinic goes on, though, and the volunteers have their first hands-on experiences, the training starts to click.

Our last clinic was held on March 19. We had 64 participants, which may have been our most yet. Eight attorneys volunteered to assist and really did a bang-up job. Our list of FAQs grew with each new question presented. Kristy and I will have more work to do in streamlining the process before the next event. At the end of the day, though, we were able to prepare estate planning documents for individuals who need them. First responders generally face death on a more regular basis than the average lawyer parked behind a desk, 1 and they are categorically underpaid. The program provides the basic documents that they need.

Why am I telling you all of this? Well, I have a couple of takeaways I have gained from the program.

  1. Rule 6.1 of the Mississippi Rules of Professional Conduct says that you should provide pro bono services to the poor, including the working poor. There’s a tendency to view this as an onerous requirement, but lawyers can learn from pro bono practice. I have learned things about estate planning that I never knew during private practice. There’s also a significant amount of face to face interaction with the participants. If you’re in a job where you only look at paper for 200 hours a month, pro bono work can really break up the monotony.
  2. Pro bono work isn’t just for lawyers in private practice. I still work in state government and, provided your agency’s general counsel finds no conflicts, government lawyers can and should engage in pro bono work just like their private practice counterparts. Trust me, it’s good for you.
  3. Pro bono work is helping people, the thing that we all wrote on our law school entrance essays. 2 But just because you’re helping people, don’t let your guard down. Wills for First Responders has a waiver and release. Be very careful about creating unintended attorney/client relationships. In the context of wills, be very wary of conflicts of interest. Remember that no good deed goes unpunished.
  4. Thank your paralegals. Much like private law practice, this program would not operate without the skills of paralegals. Given that the average law partner takes three hours, two phone calls to IT, and a series of dictated emails just to open a PDF, the paralegal is yet again the unsung hero.
  5. If you haven’t yet found a pro bono opportunity in an area of practice that has meaning to you, keep looking. Also, if you see a potential opportunity, do not hesitate to investigate further. I would have never found out about this program if I hadn’t randomly emailed Kristy (bless her heart).

If you have any further questions about the program, or would like to volunteer, please feel free to contact me.

  1. I realize there are exceptions. And one may argue that a lawyer parked behind a desk is a cardiovascular event waiting to happen…
  2. If you say you didn’t write that, you are a LIAR.