New Fellowship Aims To Boost Diversity In Estate-Planning

Exterior of Stetson College of Law

With help from a key community partner, Stetson Law is now offering an opportunity for students from underrepresented populations to gain critical experience in elder law and estate planning.

Jeffrey Southerland

With its first two recipients set to start the program in the fall of 2023, the Estate Planning Council Diversity Fellowship and Award is a combination of learning, mentorship, and real-world experience earned while helping underserved community members access critical legal services. The program offers each fellow a $1,500 award per semester. The two Stetson Law students to participate in the program’s inaugural year are Chriseanna Mitchell and Jeffrey Southerland.

Chriseanna Mitchell

Mitchell said she looks forward to helping underrepresented communities access critical legal services to help families financially prepare for loss of a loved one so that money challenges don’t overwhelm them during the grieving process.

“I want to help families prepare so that bridge will not be as stressful when it’s time to cross it,” Mitchell said. “Communities of color are often discouraged by the price tag attached to legal services so I’m excited about the pro bono aspects. The program itself will be an opportunity to explain different hypothetical situations to clients and find solutions to problems they did not even know where there. My hope is that this experience will further emphasize the importance of estate-planning within the community.”

A community collaboration

Created from a contribution from Gassman, Crotty & Denicolo, P.A., and the efforts of the Suncoast and Pinellas County Estate Planning Councils, the program’s purpose is two-fold. It aims to introduce estate planning and elder law as a viable career opportunity for students of color, who have historically been underrepresented in these areas. In turn, the fellowship will directly serve communities of color, which have been underserved in the areas of elder law and estate planning.

Alan Gassman, JD

Clearwater attorney and Stetson Law Adjunct Professor Alan Gassmansaid he hopes the program will be a win-win for the fellows as well as those they serve. 

“I have had a deep-seated desire to do something for diversity that can impact both the lives of the minority participant and the lives of those who offer to help,” Gassman said. “In thinking this through, I came across the idea of helping law students acclimate to being professionals and networking by participation in an actual estate planning council.”

How it works

As members of one of the local Estate Planning Councils, fellows will attend their respective group’s monthly breakfast or lunch meetings. They will be assigned two mentors active in the estate planning community, who will help them create an educational presentation on estate planning and end-of-life documents to be presented in community centers and churches within communities of color.

The fellows will meet, shadow, and work with lawyer members of Estate Planning Councils to improve their communication skills, network with the community, and learn about estate planning and elder law as a career.

“This will provide them with mentorship, a network of friends in a community, job opportunities, education, and the opportunity to show leadership and develop confidence and presentation skills and experience,” Gassman said.

The program also aims to connect the fellows with employment opportunities and the opportunity to take part in paid clerking positions with Council members.

“The monetary fellowship award, clerking opportunities and the ability to apply time spent towards pro bono hours are icing on the cake,” Gassman said. “The reaction that we have had from students, law professors, and members of estate planning counsels has been very gratifying.” 

Southerland said he hopes this work will have a direct impact on local families and help make the field of estate-planning more equitable – and he’s thankful to Gassman for the opportunity to do so.

“I am so grateful to have been selected for the Estate Planning Council Diversity Fellowship,” Southerland said. “Over the next year, I hope to grow as an advocate for my community and help increase representation in this area of practice.”

-Media contact: Kate Bradshaw
[email protected] | 727-430-1580