Wills for Heroes program provides vital service for first responders
On May 14, 2023, firefighters from the Montgomery Fire Department in Montgomery, Alabama, responded to a house fire. It seemed like a routine call. But while fighting the blaze, five firefighters were injured, three seriously and two critically. Two of the home’s residents perished in the fire. Thankfully, all of the injured firefighters survived and are on the road to recovery. But the frightening incident is a reminder that first responders put their lives in danger every day in service of others.
The Volunteer Lawyers Program recognizes the sacrifices these brave individuals face and helps them prepare for the worst. Wills for Heroes provides free legal services for firefighters, police officers, veterans, and other people who provide emergency services, helping them to obtain wills, advance health care directives, and durable power of attorney documents.
The Alabama Law Foundation (ALF) is the only charitable, tax-exempt organization affiliated with the Alabama State Bar. ALF enriches the legal profession and the lives of Alabamians by providing opportunities for lawyers to provide various legal services to members of the community through grants that support projects to improve the administration of justice, scholarships for law-related education, free legal aid to the poor in civil cases, and annual grants to the Volunteer Lawyer Programs. All these endeavors support the mission of ALF.
“It is important to us to support the Volunteer Lawyer Programs because they are key in helping people get the legal services they need,” said Dawn Hathcock, Executive Director of the Alabama Law Foundation. “These lawyers do a great service to their community by giving their time, in a way they are uniquely qualified to do. Volunteer lawyers are vital to providing access to justice.”
Linda Lund is Director of the Volunteer Lawyers Program (VLP) for the Alabama State Bar (ASB), which has hosted a Wills for Heroes clinic nearly every month since the program was started in 2007. It was created to provide the legal community with a way to show its appreciation for the efforts and sacrifices of these brave men and women. She estimates the lawyers in the ASB VLP have served more than 2,000 first responders and service personnel and prepared more than 5,000 documents in that time.
The ASB VLP serves 60 counties in Alabama. Additionally, there are five volunteer lawyer programs operated by local bar associations serving the counties in which they are located. They are Volunteer Lawyers Birmingham, Madison County Volunteer Lawyers Program, Montgomery Volunteer Lawyers Program, and the South Alabama Volunteer Lawyers Program. The programs work closely with each other to coordinate services and resources.
“The May 14 fire where several firefighters were seriously injured helped people understand the critical nature of the Wills for Heroes program,” said Chief Ronnie Bozeman of the Montgomery Fire Department, who coordinates the program for the department. “Thankfully, the firefighters are recovering. But this is a reminder point to everyone – this is a dangerous job, anything can happen, and you may need this at any point – whether you’re 18 or 54 like I am now.”
Chief Bozeman is coordinating with the Montgomery Volunteer Lawyers Program (MVLP) Executive Director Peyton Faulk to hold Wills for Heroes clinics. There are about 400 firefighters on the MFD. Bozeman and Faulk want to reach every one of them. They are developing a program that will allow Faulk to speak to classes at the Fire Academy, providing the opportunity to talk to large groups who are about to embark on a firefighting career.
“The first event we had was the week before that deadly fire where the five firefighters were injured,” Faulk said. “The week after it was when I went in and talked to the new firefighters. It was really eye-opening for everyone. A will is something that nobody wants to think about, but everyone is going to need. I just think it’s so important for them to be taken care of. Everybody needs a will.”
A similar model – bringing Wills for Heroes to new classes of first responders – is in place at the Alabama Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission (APOSTC) Law Enforcement Academy in Tuscaloosa, which trains police officers throughout the state. Jaime Conger, a lawyer with Smith & Staggs, LLP, in Tuscaloosa has coordinated the program there since 2014 and also teaches at the academy.
“I was on the Tuscaloosa County Bar Executive Committee in 2014, and it was the first time I attended a Wills for Heroes clinic,” she said. “That same year, I began teaching at the police academy in Tuscaloosa. I thought, why are we not bringing Wills for Heroes to each academy class? The academy provides support for much more than Tuscaloosa County. It hosts cadets from all over the state, from Baldwin to Madison counties, to rural towns that aren’t going to have a large bar association of their own to host a clinic.”
Class sizes range from as few as 15-20 to as many as 45, and span all ages, from young people to those pursuing police work as a second career.
“When you’re young you think you’re invincible,” Conger said. “But these documents aren’t only for you, they’re for your family, so if something unfortunate happens you’ve laid out your wishes for your family so that’s not another difficult process they have to go through.”
The Volunteer Lawyer Program hosting a Wills for Heroes clinic works with a fire or police department or academy to schedule a date and time and ask those interested to sign up for a time slot so they can be paired with a volunteer lawyer. Clinics can host 20-40 people per day, with five to eight lawyers working at a time. Larger clinics usually have two shifts of lawyers working throughout the day. Each participant works one-on-one with a lawyer for about an hour to create and execute all the documents.
“There are a lot of reasons I feel lawyers should get involved in the VLP,” Lund said. “One, they have an ethical duty to provide access to the justice system for those who can’t afford it. Lawyers have Rules of Professional Conduct that state they should assist low-income individuals. But the real reason most people do it and continue to do it, is they get a lot of satisfaction out of helping someone in their community that wouldn’t be able to get this help anywhere else. Most of us who went to law school say it’s because we want to help people, and I’ve found that to be true with our volunteers.”
In addition, lawyers who participate in the Volunteer Lawyers Program may receive one hour of continuing legal education (CLE) credit for every six hours of pro bono work they do, up to 18 hours a year, for a possible total of three hours of CLE credit. Lawyers usually commit to handling up to two cases a year or 20 hours. The program is flexible, and a lawyer can turn down a case if they are too busy or feel it’s a conflict of interest with another case they’re working on. Each Wills for Heroes clinic is a commitment of between two to four hours.
Wills for Heroes participants are provided with a questionnaire at the time they sign up for the clinic, which must be completed before arriving to meet with the lawyer. They also receive instructions about any paperwork or other information they will need to bring with them to the clinic. The participant leaves with a finalized will, durable power of attorney, and advanced health care directive.
“It’s an added security for a dangerous occupation,” said Chief Bozeman. “A way to make sure that your affairs are in order in case the unexpected does happen. It provides peace of mind.”
First responders who are interested in participating in a Wills For Heroes clinic should talk to their supervisor, who can reach out to the Alabama State Bar VLP program to coordinate scheduling cooperatively with the five state VLPs. More information about Wills for Heroes is available on the State Bar website.
Lawyers interested in joining the Volunteer Lawyers program can find an enrollment for the State Bar VLP online or contact Linda Lund at 334-269-1515 or firstname.lastname@example.org and she can answer any questions or help connect lawyers with regional VLP programs.