Spotlight on Grant Recipient, The Commons Law Center

Oct 27, 2020 | News

The Commons Law Center, a nonprofit law firm offering sliding scale legal services to income-qualified people in Portland, Oregon, is also known for its practical training of new lawyers and free community legal education.

In August 2020, the Commons was the recipient of a $23,000 grant from The American College of Trust and Estate Counsel (ACTEC) Foundation for the purpose of leveraging estate planning for Oregon’s communities of color, specifically helping to advance racial justice in Portland. The grant is targeted to help expand The Commons’ Homeownership Asset Preservation Program and will fund a position for a recent law school graduate to work on a half-time basis as a legal resident.

The program provides estate planning services to longtime, low-income homeowners in the North and Northeast quadrant of Portland as a way to help preserve homeownership assets of African American and low-income communities experiencing displacement. Commons attorney and Executive Director Amanda Caffall sees the program as a tool to help dismantle systemic oppression and mitigate decades of policies that gentrified the region, from redlining to annexation. “The racial homeownership gap is wide, yet some Black and Brown Americans managed to buy homes despite all those discriminatory policies,” said Caffall. “Our work on the preservation program helps prevent African Americans from potentially losing what they worked so hard to attain.”

The project was instituted as a partnership with Portland’s African American Alliance for Homeownership (AAAH), a HUD-certified nonprofit aimed at increasing homeownership and economic stability for African Americans and other underserved individuals by improving access to home-buyer resources and education. Caffall understood the importance of AAAH’s knowledge and background in community engagement and the value of its partnerships with many of Portland’s community-based organizations as a significant asset to implementing the preservation program. The Commons considers AAAH’s ability to provide the cultural competency necessary to work with members of the community crucial to their progress and asserts that AAAH’s partnership with the Commons helped them direct the legal services they were providing to where they would have the most impact.

In addition to Caffall, the Commons’ asset preservation team includes the legal resident funded by ACTEC’s grant, an attorney, two law clerks and several volunteer pro bono partners. It is the intention that the program become self-sustaining and permanent.

“We know there’s an extraordinary opportunity, using simple tools, to conduct outreach and education that will help people preserve the wealth they’ve managed to create despite all possible obstacles,” said Caffall. “The role of our new legal resident is helping us fulfill that goal.”

The program will enable Portland’s African American communities, many of which live at or below 400 percent of the federal poverty level, to obtain culturally specific, affordable or no-cost estate planning services. In 2019, 60 percent of The Commons’ clients qualified for legal aid, meaning they lived at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty level.

The legal resident selected for the program was chosen to assist with outreach in African American communities, expand on educational efforts already underway and provide direct estate planning services for clients. Priority was given to recruiting a graduate who either resided within the North/Northeast Portland region or had strong ties to the community.

The secondary goal for maximizing The ACTEC Foundation’s funding for the program is to solidify the new legal resident’s desire to pursue the trusts and estates field with the aim of potential consideration as an ACTEC Fellow. ACTEC Fellow and University of Oregon Professor Susan Gary was a cosponsor of the grant and instrumental in connecting the program legal resident with the Commons Law Center. As an advisory board member, she continues to play an active role in the program.

The Commons’ strategic plan for the project includes active participation by local lawyers in mentoring, including ACTEC Fellow volunteers, and the encouragement of future legal residents to engage with the Oregon State Bar’s Estate Planning and Administration Section and the ABA’s Real Property Trust and Estate Section (RPTE), with the ultimate goal of creating a pipeline of multiple lawyers who will serve the African American community and the Oregon Bar as practicing estate planning attorneys. Caffall promotes clerkships to students of color, stressing it is imperative for Commons to have such paid clerkships for students to ensure diversity in the emerging “pipeline” and plans to further expand Commons’ funding for that purpose.

The Homeownership Asset Preservation Program currently onboards an average of three clients per month and closes approximately two estate plans per month. Caffall says the benefit created via the Commons’ legal resident after eight months is the anticipated tripling of these numbers and an increase in the number of monthly clients onboarded to nine and the number of estate plans closed per month to six. Additionally, the outreach work conducted by the legal resident will vastly increase awareness of the program, enabling clients to easily seek help and increase the amount of time the Commons can devote to the direct provision of legal services.

Despite obstacles precipitated by the pandemic, three lawyer Fellows and law clerks are being trained and integrated into the project team while sustaining programmatic objectives. Video conferences have allowed for document review meetings with clients and pro bono partners to review draft documents and strategize program pivots with partner organizations. Education and outreach efforts are being pursued remotely. In place of community events, outreach is being conducted by phone, video conference, personals emails and letters.

Fundamental to the project, Caffall has demonstrated the Commons’ expertise in driving down the cost of legal services to meet the needs of low-income residents unable to afford market rate legal services via its use of technological tools, systems processes and a focus on direct access. It is this wide-ranging expertise that will sustain the project through Caffall’s careful management and strategic development.

“The project will educate people about the necessity for estate planning to protect their asset for their families,” said Caffall. “Our educational programming will continue to build on the Commons’ existing blogs, explainer videos, webinars and workshops for the Preservation Program and explore new ways to reach people during the pandemic.”

Fundamental to the Commons’ strategic plan is a focus on how investment now can create the necessary foundation for long-term programmatic success, including a supplemental investment from Portland leveraged via the project by building a supply of culturally specific lawyers with the knowledge to serve the African American community.

The Commons considers what is being accomplished through the grant to be a model for other similar urban areas of the country challenged with gentrification, where lawyers of color are eager to assist their communities. Because low income estate planning is an unmet need in cities across the country, building an alliance of attorneys who can meet that need would provide an added essential channel for advancing racial justice.

The ACTEC Foundation’s support of professional development and education in trust and estate law through its grants continues to assist lawyers in their practice, law students and scholars with an interest in the trust and estate field so they may provide better service to the public. Further information about ACTEC Foundation grants can be found here.

To read The Commons Law Center’s press release about the grant, visit thecommonslawcenter.org/press-release-grant-award-from-actec-foundation.

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