VOLS – Pro Bono Week Spotlight: Jenny Schiller Vaughn
Jenny Schiller Vaughn, an associate at Herrick, Feinstein LLP, has provided pro bono services to VOLS clients through the VOLS Elderly Project. For National Pro Bono Week, VOLS invited Jenny to share her story on how she got into and discovered her passion for serving senior clients as a real estate attorney.
Why were you initially interested in this type of work with helping seniors obtain their life planning documents?
I have a long relationship with VOLS, especially with the Elderly Project and it’s been something that’s been promoted within Herrick as a way to get involved in the community. Over the past couple of months, because of COVID, there’s been an increase in the need for pro bono services. Not that it hasn’t always been there, but I feel like it’s been heightened with COVID as so many people are really struggling.
I got involved because I already had a good relationship with VOLS and I knew people in the firm who had participated before and had a good experience. At Herrick, we have some volunteer pro bono opportunities that we get notifications about every few weeks. VOLS just seemed like a natural way to get involved.
I do not have much experience helping seniors in my practice, but I do have experience in the affordable housing space, though that experience is largely focused on dealing with corporations or institutional investors. As lawyers, we do not typically get to speak to any of the end-users of these services and working with VOLS gives attorneys an opportunity to make a difference on an individual level (and also get to know that individual in the process).
Next, I want to hear a bit more about your experience with volunteering for VOLS. Were there any client interactions that really stood out to you?
My first client with VOLS was an elderly woman who is in her 90s. She was so funny, so sweet, and kind, and the whole family was always around. I really started working on these matters after COVID, and so a lot of this was remote.
For this client, coordinating the execution of her documents was a whole family affair – using iPhone cameras, scanners, and other technology. I thought it was a really nice experience and I felt like I was making a real difference in her life and helping the entire family. And I just loved that the whole family was around the whole time helping her since we couldn’t go there.
How would you say your experience as an attorney has been enriched by the time you spent volunteering?
A lot of what I do in my firm practice involves talking to clients but it’s [usually] limited to the front of a transaction. For example, if a client is building, financing, or investing in a mixed-use facility where there might be housing, retail or office space. While I am able to speak with clients about their goals for a specific project and draft documents to achieve those goals, typically, after a transaction closes, I move onto the next transaction and do not get involved with the final product, especially given that I work at a national practice, which means I work on transactions all over the country. That limits my ability to see the physical results of the matters in which I am involved. Volunteering is really wonderful because it enables me to be involved throughout the whole process (all the way to the end). And hopefully, this work makes life a little easier for a real person, and that’s rewarding to me.
A lot of law firms offer various different pro bono programs that touch on many different areas, and so, I am wondering if you had a colleague who was a bit on the fence about where to volunteer. What would you say or how would you engage others to pursue a similar line of volunteer opportunities working with the elderly?
Honestly VOLS makes it easy, especially for people like me who don’t have experience working with seniors or with estate planning documents.
It could be a little overwhelming and nerve wracking for somebody who doesn’t do this type of work regularly. They’re very important documents. You are dealing with a real person and it really matters. You have to get it right. And of course, there’s all these technical things that you might not understand, all of the little things that are still really important. So, it is a little bit intimidating because as lawyers we want to be right and we want to do things that we know how to do. VOLS makes this easier by assigning a staff attorney to each matter who is always available to answer questions and are very patient and happy to review the documents before execution. It gives me a sense of confidence that I’m not going to do anything incorrectly that will have a detrimental effect on the client.
I would encourage everybody to try it out and utilize all the resources that VOLS has made available.
In light of COVID-19, why do you think this type of work is especially important today?
It is especially important today because we’re seven months into this pandemic that essentially nobody alive in the United States has experienced before. I think there’s a lot of concern even with younger people with no health problems. The reality is, it’s probably going to be out there for a long time.
So I think especially in the elderly population, they have to be more vigilant about how they’re living day to day because of the pandemic. Getting their estate documents in place is so important because it gives people a little bit of peace of mind.
The pandemic has just been so devastating around the world that people are really focused on getting their affairs in order to protect themselves and their families. So I think that there is a greater need to do this type of work or to volunteer for these types of clients right now, especially because seniors are a more vulnerable population and have limited resources. I think it’s important for us as attorneys to help in whatever capacity we can.
Jenny Schiller Vaughn is an associate in Herrick's Real Estate Department.