It would be easy to make the assumption that low-income clients with very few assets would have little need for a will. On the contrary, as Laura Kelly says, “That just makes the assets they do have even more important to them.”
Laura is a Partner at McCarter & English. She has concentrated her practice in trusts and estates matters since 1994, and has volunteered with VLJ for the past several years both by taking pro bono estate cases for full representation and by speaking at VLJ’s clinics to train volunteer attorneys.
Laura obtained her undergraduate degree from Wellesley College and her law degree from the University of Virginia School of Law. She then worked at Palmer & Dodge in Boston doing estate planning and administration work in their private client department. After eight years, she returned home to New Jersey and began working at McCarter & English.
Laura began volunteering with VLJ after becoming inspired at VLJ’s Arts & Eats for Justice dinner in which a client, who had survived domestic violence, spoke about how her volunteer attorneys had given her a lifeline when she had nowhere else to turn. Laura soon began providing pro bono assistance on estate cases. When a McCarter attorney wants to represent a VLJ client in drafting a will, power of attorney, or health care proxy, Laura will supervise the case and serve as a mentor. In one particularly meaningful case, Laura was part of a McCarter team that assisted two young teenage girls in administering the estate of their mother, who had recently passed away.
Last year, VLJ partnered with Eisai, a pharmaceutical company, to organize a free legal clinic for low-income clients seeking wills. Laura presented a substantive training in the morning to prepare volunteers. Teams of attorneys from Eisai then met with clients, most of whom were either cancer survivors or undergoing treatment for cancer, to conduct client interviews and draft documents. Laura provided support to the volunteer attorneys by sitting in on meetings and answering questions.
The clinic was so successful that it was held again in 2017. All of the clients in attendance were incredibly grateful for the help they received; one wrote: “I am well aware that the guidance and will I received was an amazing gift in my life that certainly is equivalent to a large amount of money. It was something I am so grateful for and could not have done on my own without the team of everyone who assisted me. I have put this off for a long while and have always felt great anxiety at the thought of achieving this. The attorneys simplified it all for me.”
Laura believes that attorneys have a responsibility, in addition to their regular line of work, to help those who don’t have the luxury of easily accessing legal services. In addition, she says, “I think if you’re fortunate enough to be an attorney, you already have a head start. To me, doing pro bono work is important both to do good in the community but also to remind you of how lucky you are. It’s a bit of a reality check.”
In addition to her legal pro bono work, Laura also serves as a committee chair and former president of the Junior League of Bergen County, whose mission is to promote voluntarism, develop the potential of women, and improve the community through the effective action and leadership of trained volunteers. Laura is also a member on the Board of Directors of the Forum School in Waldwick, NJ, a private, non-profit school which serves children with disabilities, as well as Vice Chair of the Board of Directors of the Girl Scouts of Northern New Jersey.
“Laura is one of the most compassionate, dedicated, and thoughtful attorneys I know,” says VLJ Executive Director Cathy Keenan. “It doesn’t matter whether she is assisting a high net-worth client in her regular practice or a low-income VLJ client with almost no assets – she treats them all professionally and makes them feel comfortable.”
Laura confirms this mindset: “Everybody has the same concerns at heart, whether you have millions or nothing at all,” she says. “You want to leave what’s important to you to the people who are important to you, in a way that is going to be for their benefit and not their detriment.”