I’ve heard many discussions and presentations on the importance of increasing diversity in the estate-planning field. But putting these thoughts into practice isn’t always easy. As I was networking with my colleagues at the Heckerling Institute on Estate Planning, I spoke with one attorney, Alan Gassman of Gassman Crotty and Denicolo P.A., who’s created a program to increase diversity by partnering with Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport, Fla., to create a National Association of Estate Planning Diversity Fellowship and Award. The goal of the program is to introduce estate planning and elder law as a viable career opportunity for students of color by enabling two students to be selected for a two-semester fellowship beginning in fall 2023. Each fellow will receive an award of $1,500 per semester. They will join an estate-planning council and be mentored by two members of that group. I asked Alan what motivated him to create the program and to explain the details. Here’s his response:
I had a very strong desire to contribute to diversity and to thank the National Association of Estate Planners & Councils (NAEPC) for a recent award adding me to their Hall of Fame, given that when I started to practice law in Clearwater, Fla., in 1985, I wasn’t able to join certain clubs or to be involved with certain law firms or events that, quite frankly, gave other professionals opportunities that I didn’t have. My thought was to provide the opportunities that I found by being able to join and be active in the Pinellas County Estate Planning Council to others who wouldn’t have these available to them. I therefore joined NAEPC’s Diversity Committee but found no clear path of conduct that I could engage in to cause “diversity to happen.”
Last summer, I taught a course on Law Office Management and Professional Achievement at Stetson Law School and met several students who didn’t come from wealthy or well-educated families and felt they could use interaction with a local estate-planning council while in law school.
After a few months of attending diversity committee meetings, I realized that there was a natural need for students of color in law school to be involved in estate-planning councils and for them to mentor and nourish these students.
Law School Connection
I contacted a professor at Stetson Law School who had recently worked with my wife and I when we endowed a small perpetual award program to help students attend the LL.M. in Taxation program at the University of Florida. This same professor was involved in both diversity and student support arrangements and liked the idea of establishing a fellowship. He allowed me to interact with the president and the faculty sponsor of the Stetson Black Students Association and an estate-planning professor and an elder law professor. Everyone we spoke to at the school was not only enthusiastic, but also supportive of this opportunity. They also, however, made it clear that students need financial assistance to justify spending the time on this kind of project and explained how the students could get their required donated pro bono hours by helping disadvantaged persons in estate planning as part of the arrangement.
The professors who worked with me included Rebecca Morgan, who chairs the Elder Law LL.M. program at Stetson and is a well-respected author and editor, and Roberta Flowers, who’s the co-director for the Center for Excellence in Elder Law at Stetson and is a prominent author and member and leader in the National Academy of Elder Law.
The students must commit to join an estate-planning council and to be adopted by two mentors who are members of that group. We expect the students to attend the director meetings that precede the general meetings and the general meetings themselves or make-up meetings at other local councils and to meet and learn about the members and what they do. We’re starting the Stetson program with two students, so that they can work together on this. We’re also asking that they use their required pro bono hours to organize and present programs about estate planning for low-income communities or other groups that need help. They may also work on estate-planning projects for our law firm as clerks at a higher than the typical hourly rate.
Opportunities for Students
The students will receive $3,000 each ($1,500 per semester for each student), mentoring sessions, experience with respect to networking and leadership, contacts that may help them find their first jobs, an immersion into estate-planning law and associated professions and an effective use of their pro bono hours. The ability to walk into a room of unfamiliar people, meet them, work with them and be praised and encouraged by them can make a huge difference in the life of a law student and the thousands of people who may benefit from having new members of our estate-planning community. Interactive Legal has also agreed to provide these students with access to their drafting platform and member courses as part of their law school outreach program.
Benefits to Practitioners
Our law firm is getting publicity for being the donors to pay for this program and the satisfaction of helping to make this program come together. The publicity will help us be considered by students looking for clerking and associate positions at the law school and in our community. The estate-planning councils now have a new purpose that’s easy, not expensive and personally fulfilling for the members who choose to be mentors and supporters of these students. Doubtlessly, there will be friendships, exposure to the community and other benefits to be enjoyed by all concerned.
Starting a Similar Program
If someone is interested in starting a similar program with a law school in their community, they can just give me a call or send an e-mail to [email protected] and I’ll be glad to provide all materials and the brief agreement and announcements that we have had approved at Stetson. I hope to have 50 of these programs going by the end of 2024. Thanks to Marty Shenkman for his agreement to sponsor a student or students on Long Island in the same way, and to the members of the Diversity Committee of NAEPC for their input and wonderful intentions.