For Rebecca Rushton, volunteering for the North Carolina Bar Foundation’s Wills for Heroes pro bono program was not just about reporting pro bono hours; it completely changed the path of her career as a lawyer. A marine science undergrad who went to law school in Oregon, she began her Wills for Heroes pro bono experience as a law student in 2013. After moving back to North Carolina to work in construction litigation, she continued her involvement with the Wills for Heroes Committee, eventually serving as the committee chair in 2016.
She recalls an event that year at N.C. Central University Law School when her brother, who was a police officer in Durham at the time, attended the event with his wife, and they were able to complete their estate planning documents. Another memorable Wills for Heroes event was held for a fire department when the entire crew happened to be on call. The volunteers were able to work with the chief to have firefighters come in for single appointments in case a call came in.
Rebecca recognizes that the importance of estate planning is often overlooked, most often because of the cost. Even a simple estate plan can cost $1,500 to $2,000, a price that first responders are hesitant to pay with their modest public servant salaries. The Wills for Heroes project began in 2007 as a North Carolina Bar Association Young Lawyers Division project that became funded and administered by the North Carolina Bar Foundation in 2018.
During Wills for Heroes clinics, volunteer attorneys and law students prepare basic estate planning documents for first responders, including wills, general powers of attorney, and health care powers of attorney and living wills. Prior to the pandemic, these events were held in person, and the estate documents could be signed and finalized on site in the presence of volunteer notaries public. Rebecca says of the first responders, “[they] are nothing but grateful for the opportunity to get their estate planning documents done … It helps settle their worries, and they feel more prepared for the future and that their family members will be prepared to handle an estate.”
In 2018, Rebecca made a change from construction litigation. “When I went to law school, my biggest goal was to find a job where I was able to help people and feel like I was making a difference. Pro bono activities have been a constant source of work that provided the knowledge that I was using my education to make a positive impact on someone’s life.” She enjoyed estate planning so much in her volunteer work that she accepted a position as an estate planning and estate administration attorney at Jones Branz & Whitaker LLP in Raleigh where she still practices four years later. She reflects on this shift thoughtfully.
“You get a sense of thankfulness from people when they have an estate plan in hand. You don’t generally get that kind of immediate gratification for your clients in litigation.”
Rebecca has been a member of the Pro Bono Honor Society since 2016. In addition to her Wills for Heroes volunteerism, she has also participated in 4All Service Day, another NCBF project, on three occasions. She really enjoyed the way that event was set up in 2020 when attorneys were able to field questions based on their practice area. Examples of the questions she was able to answer included the validity of handwritten wills, what should be in an estate plan, estate administration, and trouble locating a will.
These collective experiences have led Rebecca to a fulfilling career; however, though she now practices in the legal field she loves, she continues to offer those services on a pro bono basis to those in need. She says, “Participating in Wills for Heroes has been one of the most rewarding experiences. I’ve met so many attorney and law student volunteers from across the state, as well as first responders, through this work who have made a positive impact on my own life. I’m very fortunate to have been able to turn my early pro bono experience into full-time work to be able to continue helping people in North Carolina complete their estate plans.”