Oct. 21, 2020 – What kind of pro bono work can a lawyer seek outside of litigation? The Wisconsin Wills for Heroes Program is a great way to say ‘thank you’ to first responders. For the past decade, Kris Havlik of Foley & Lardner LLP, Milwaukee, has coordinated the program. In this Pro Bono Spotlight, Havlik answers questions about the program.
What Is Wills for Heroes?
Wills for Heroes is a national program that provides free basic estate planning documents (will, living will, health care power of attorney and financial power of attorney) to first responders (police, fire, and EMT/paramedics) and their spouses or domestic partners. Traditionally, this is done in a clinic setting – at their places of work. It was created by the Wills for Heroes Foundation after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
During a typical Wisconsin clinic, a number of attorney and nonattorney volunteers meet at a first responder site and prepare, witness, and notarize documents for the first responders and their spouses or domestic partners. This is done via scheduled appointments. During a typical one-day, on-site clinic, we can complete approximately 36 estate plans.
How Did Wills for Heroes Begin in Wisconsin?
Back in 2007, a team of attorneys, including myself, approached the State Bar about partnering together to bring the program to Wisconsin.
The State Bar, through its pro bono program and Young Lawyers Division, agreed not only to partner with us but to sponsor this program. Since then, we have created one of the top Wills for Heroes programs in the country.
Our first clinic was held in fall 2009, and was a joint clinic for the Milwaukee police and fire departments. Since then, Wisconsin Wills for Heroes has expanded to encompass southeastern Wisconsin, Madison, and the Green Bay areas, and we have been providing clinics to these areas for the past 10 years.
Over the past decade, we have held hundreds of clinics and completed thousands of estate plans for our first responders.
From program launch in 2009, my primary responsibilities are scheduling all southeastern Wisconsin clinics, coordinating the majority of these clinics (by ensuring that there is adequate attorney and non-attorney volunteer staffing and acting as a liaison with the first responder organization), and serving as a volunteer estate planning specialist or attorney at these clinics.
Lawyers Needed – No Experience Required
Volunteer attorneys play one of two roles in the program: Estate planning specialist, and general attorney volunteers.
Wills for Heroes clinics are generally held on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Attorneys choose to volunteer for the entire day, or for a morning or afternoon shift.
Attorneys must attend online introductory training, available through the State Bar, before serving as an attorney at a clinic.
This program is sponsored by the State Bar of Wisconsin, so when you volunteer in one of our clinics you are covered for the professional services that you provide in the clinic through the professional liability insurance that the State Bar has in place for its volunteers. There is no additional cost to you for this benefit.
To find out more about volunteering, visit WisBar.org. More information for the public is also available on Wisbar.org.
Why Did You Chose This Type of Pro Bono Service?
I have always had an interest in doing pro bono work, but the majority of the projects seemed to be litigation based. As an estates and trusts attorney, I did not feel that I had the skill set to take on a pro bono litigation project.
So, when I was asked to take the lead in bringing Wills for Heroes to Wisconsin, I jumped at the opportunity, as this was a project where I could use my unique skill set as an estates and trusts attorney to give back to my community.
The rest, as they say, is history, and I have been doing pro bono service through the Wills for Heroes program for the past 10 years.
What About Wills for Heroes During the Ongoing Pandemic?
Prior to the pandemic, we had 10 clinics scheduled for March, April, and May 2020, and those all had to be canceled because of COVID-19. Unfortunately, these cancellations occurred at a time when our first responders needed this service the most. In addition, we have requests from several other first responder organizations to schedule clinics.
Since we are unable to currently meet in person, I have transformed our Wills for Heroes into a virtual clinic. Now, attorneys are meeting virtually with our first responders by phone, email or video, to prepare and review their estate planning documents with them. Once the documents are completed to the first responder’s satisfaction, we send them instructions on how to properly sign the documents and have them witnessed and notarized.
Since the pandemic, we have been able to offer this virtual service to all of the first responder organizations that had their clinics canceled this spring – and we are now offering it to others as well.
With virtual Wills for Heroes, we are also able to expand the program to other parts of the state where previously we were unable to provide this service due to distance or lack of volunteers.
What Is the Most Rewarding Aspect of Your Pro Bono Work?
For me, the most rewarding aspect of the Wills for Heroes program is knowing that we are providing peace of mind to our first responders and their families by having their estate planning and other documents in order should the unthinkable happen.
I begin every clinic by telling our first responders that we are providing this free service to them as a way of saying thank you to them for putting their lives on the line every day, and to thank those at home who put up with it. The gratitude expressed by our first responders and their families for this service is at times overwhelming.
Some tangential benefits of the Wills for Heroes program that I did not expect are the close relationships that I have developed over the past several years with my first responder site coordinators and my numerous repeat volunteers, as well as having the opportunity to consult with other organizations wanting to start similar programs, such as Wills for Veterans.
During these uncertain times, pro bono service is more important than ever, and I am so grateful to have an expanded opportunity to continue to provide the Wills for Heroes program to our first responders and their families.
Know a Member We Should Highlight for Pro Bono Service? Tell Us!
The State Bar of Wisconsin is proud to salute members who make a personal commitment to providing access to justice for low-income Wisconsin residents.
Do you know a member who should be highlighted for pro bono service? Contact Jeff Brown, State Bar Pro Bono Program Manager, by email or at (608) 250-6177 or (800) 444-9404, ext. 6177.