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Live from Heckerling: Increasing Diversity in Estate Planning, One Year Later

Two fellowship participants share their experiences.

Last year, at the Heckerling Institute on Estate Planning, I had the chance to speak with attorney Alan Gassman of Gassman Crotty and Denicolo P.A. about program he started to increase diversity in the estate-planning field.  The program’s goal is to introduce estate planning and elder law as a viable career opportunity for students of color. Students were given the opportunity to participate in a two-semester fellowship that involved joining an estate-planning council and being mentored by two members of that group. Alan has pledged to re-up this program for two more fellows at Stetson Law School this year and to keep this going for many years. He’s also offered to contribute money to any similar program with a goal of having 50 of these in operation within the next five years. 

This year at the conference, I had the pleasure of speaking with two individuals who participated in this program: Chriseanna Mitchell (a 2L at Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport, Fla. who works part-time as a law clerk for Alan’s firm); and Jeffrey Southerland (a recent graduate of Stetson University College of Law who’s is currently working as a law clerk at Alan’s law firm). Jeffrey met Alan through Alan’s outreach efforts at Stetson, and Chriseanna met him through the fellowship program.

Try It, You’ll Like It

Alan gave both students the chance to try out what it’s like to be an estate planner by inviting them to his firm and giving them some sample assignments to complete. They apparently liked what they saw because they both ended up working for the firm. Jeffrey enjoys meeting with clients and providing comfort to them. He’s involved in drafting documents and seeing clients’ wishes come to life in the document. Chriseanna enjoys writing. She’s co-authoring a book with Alan and another attorney, Martin Shenkman, on the Corporate Transparency Act. When working on estate-planning issues, she likes the idea of putting the different puzzle pieces involved in the client’s estate together to create an estate plan.

Helping the Community

Chriseanna and Jeffrey mentioned that they like working in the estate-planning field because it gives them the chance to work with the Black community and disenfranchised individuals to help them get organized and keep control over where their assets will end up after they die. They note that if individuals die without a will, it’s typically the state that gets control over the assets and so the individuals lost that control.

As part of the fellowship program, Chriseanna and Jeffrey also are involved in community outreach. They speak at community centers, churches, etc. to raise awareness about the need for estate planning and provide attendees with a planning document, such as a signed health care power of attorney. They find that attendees are very appreciative to get this information.

A Win-Win

Alan indicated this program was a win/win for his firm, the students and both the St. Petersburg, Fla.  estate-planning and underserved communities there. Participating in this program gave his law firm a presence on the campus for hiring law clerks, an enhanced reputation in their community and, as it turned out, two great law clerks.  It gave the students a nice experience and communication skills and, hopefully, their first jobs as lawyers.  A good many people living in St. Petersburg got advice and powers of attorney and direction on wills that they never would have gotten.  

TAGS: Careers
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