The Community You Have Cultivated
When local medical residents on the frontlines fighting COVID-19 needed help preparing estate plans for their families, SLU LAW alumni responded to the call.
Sometimes, all it takes is a single email to change an untold number of lives.
On March 25, 2020, a week after classes commenced remotely, second-year law student Reid Simpson reached out to a few people, including Dean William P. Johnson and Dean of Students Jon Baris, with “a particularly unusual request.”
“My wife is a surgery resident at Barnes. ... One of the main concerns residents have right now is less the inevitability they feel around getting COVID, but most do not have appropriate estate planning and directive documents written. As the mortality rate for frontline doctors has been unusually high, the concern for getting their affairs in order is quite pressing for many.
[They] are seeking resources from volunteers who would be willing to help draft wills and directives. … Any help you can provide in finding the best avenue to get our doctors peace of mind as they tackle this pandemic would be much appreciated.”
Simpson was advised to get in touch with ArchCity Defenders, who then forwarded the request to the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis (BAMSL)’s Pro Bono Committee, chaired by Mark Timmerman (’17) and Jim Guest (’97). The two alumni sprang into action.
With a few more emails to BAMSL leadership, they were put in touch with Rixey Ruffin, chair of the organization’s Probate and Trust Law Section at the time, who immediately helped launch the COVID-19 Emergency Pro Bono Estate Planning Task Force.
“This task force was quickly formed over email, just like ‘here’s 10 of us on this email chain, BAMSL leadership, probate leadership, pro bono leadership – let’s brainstorm what we can do,’” Timmerman said. “My role was facilitating with Reid and a hospital. Barnes [Jewish Hospital] is where we were really focusing our effort. I started contacting health professionals there.”
Timmerman connected with Dr. Paul Wise, director of surgery residency at Barnes where Simpson’s wife worked, and they came up with a plan. Wise would email about 120 residents working on the frontlines fighting COVID-19 to let them know that the task force was going to host a Zoom informational session about how health care professionals could get basic estate planning needs met.
The second part of the effort was to reach out to St. Louis-area probate attorneys to recruit volunteers willing to stand by to assist those in need of more personalized legal assistance. Attorneys would be paired with a health care professional and prepare an estate plan – including a will, durable powers of attorney, and a health care declaration/living will – for that person and her or his spouse, free of charge.
The task force created a webpage where people who could not attend live could view the recording afterwards. Then the initial Zoom training was held on April 2, starting with ER and critical care fellows.
“We set it up in a very short period of time, and still 20 to 25 of those 120 residents who got the information logged on and were in scrubs, watching from the hospital or their home where they’d just gotten off a shift,” Timmerman said.
“It was emotional to see them: they just have spent 10- or 12-hour shifts working, and then learning about estate planning to try to help their families while they’re trying to help their community – it’s just a very human moment, and I’m thankful to be a part of helping people in the medical community right now.”
It was pretty impressive to see the power of two or three emails. This huge rallying call was really impressive."Reid Simpson, second-year law student
“The response was very, very successful,” Simpson said. “From our side, my wife and I watched the Zoom meeting, and they established an email address so any resident who had questions could send an email and would be paired with a lawyer. My wife did this – within 24 hours she had a response from a lawyer, who within 48 hours had a two-hour call with her.”
Simpson said they formed a client relationship with this volunteer, established their powers of attorney and had a great experience. It gave them, parents of 18-month-old twins, some relief in the midst of the chaos.
“It was pretty impressive to see the power of two or three emails, and to see this materialize from what was a concern at a meeting of a bunch of residents,” he said. “This huge rallying call was really impressive.”
After the initial call, the task force decided to expand the offer to all residents in the hospital, totaling more than 1,000 residents.
“In no way were we trying to favor Barnes over other hospitals, or residents over other health care workers, but Reid’s wife worked there, so we just started with them and tried to work it out,” Timmerman said. “We thought if we could just help some people, we’ve done something worthwhile.”
Participants who watched the Zoom recording would be equipped with the knowledge of how to do basic estate planning themselves, but for those who would want a personal consultation, the appeal for volunteers expanded.
In a call to action to BAMSL members on April 7, Ruffin wrote: “Our neighbors and friends in the health care industry are putting themselves at great personal risk in the fight against coronavirus. We, as estate planners, are uniquely positioned to help them and to give them one less thing to worry about.”
More than 75 probate attorneys signed up in the first week. Timmerman was initially worried they’d be barraged with requests right away and would not have enough volunteers, but it ended up being “slow and steady.”
As of mid-June, approximately 50 health care professionals and their spouses had received personal assistance from a volunteer. Beyond that, it’s difficult to track how many others had watched the Zoom session and filled out the documents themselves.
“It was a very organic, messy process, but it was really cool to see people who had not worked together spend so much time emailing every day,” Timmerman said. “It took many weeks and is still unfolding.”
Timmerman, who is a Missouri public defender, noted that the process taught him more about the pro bono need in different types of communities.
“It became clear really quickly that residents don’t make a lot of money while they’re in training; they really do need pro bono work. They have families and when you mix in coronavirus, it’s another level of stress and need. Tons of people need pro bono – we just need humans helping humans for free, no costs.”
While attorneys generally understand the importance of pro bono work, Timmerman says, the need for those who step up and do it is great.
It’s beautiful the way the world works, that when there is an outstanding emergency you do see a new spirit from volunteers."Mark Timmerman ('17)
“This is the pandemic emergency, but there are societal emergencies that have always been happening that need pro bono,” he said. “The recent murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis reminded us of this country’s bedrock societal emergencies of racism, systemic inequity and police brutality. We always need lawyers dedicating their time, paid and pro bono, to these emergencies, too.
“It’s beautiful the way the world works, that when there is an outstanding emergency you do see a new spirit from volunteers. The more people who experience and enjoy pro bono work during a novel time like coronavirus, it’s only going to help when it comes to asking lawyers to volunteer for other societal issues that are always happening and always pressing.”
In this instance, he noted the uplifting nature of the effort – everyone at every level dropped everything to deal with the coronavirus.
“We’re doing it because it’s just important; there’s no other choice. For lawyers, it’s a unique opportunity when you can do something that feels like you’re helping in an emergency situation where people’s lives are at stake. It’s nice to feel like you’re helping in some way during this worldwide crisis.”
The work has not gone unnoticed. Representatives from other bar associations in Kansas City, Missouri, and Charlotte, North Carolina, are among those who have reached out to the task force to inquire about how this service could be replicated elsewhere.
2L Simpson is just one person who’s deeply grateful for the effort.
In a follow-up email to the deans, he wrote: “I email to let you know in the slush of bad news emails you must get, there are amazing people doing amazing things, and I am honored to be part of the SLU LAW community you have cultivated. I look forward to being an active member of this alumni association next year and to returning this outpour of support I have seen.”
— By Maria Tsikalas