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I never thought about their lives before we met, but I always remembered their handshakes when I left. Beginning in the late 1980s, I came to San Francisco’s AIDS Legal Referral Panel to give the small legal gift of preparing a will. I was participating in the ceremony of “putting one’s affairs in order” in the closing days of their mostly too-young, too-quickly ending lives. Most of the estates were very small, but I would give them advice as if they were the heirs to a great fortune. We’d often talk about symbolic gifts to friends and family members: a son’s gift to the father who shunned his “lifestyle,” a final effort to bridge a gap in a family feud rendered moot by the impending curtain fall of the younger man’s life. No matter how small or large the task, when it was finally completed, I saw something in their faces. It was the grateful look, the shaky handshake of an emaciated young man who held my hand, with no gloves, no masks and no fear: reaffirming his own dignity as a human being, despite the stigma of a disease that many thought could be transmitted merely by touching. I recall the families — moms and dads flown in from Back East. Many were confronting their child’s lifestyle for the first time — confronting, as well, the death sentence bestowed upon that child by this scourge of a disease. I’d shake their hands, too, and explain to them that I was their child’s lawyer. Often, my legal role would give these parents a kind of instant connection with me. Because I was not part of the family or their life, I became a quick therapist, an instant confessor, someone who could acknowledge their pain without making judgments as to how they may have failed in their understanding and compassion for their child. After these intense sessions at hospices and hospitals and small apartments, I’d leave feeling helpless that the situation couldn’t be changed, yet somewhat buoyed by the fact that at least the small role I played gave comfort to someone who could give nothing in return. Except, of course, I remember their handshakes — and there is no better gift than the grateful handshake of an individual who you’ve just helped in some small way. Today, 13 years after I began participating as a volunteer, I thankfully spend more time helping people deal with insurance benefits, health care plans and disability payments than I do on estate planning. My clients are surviving. We know more about this disease and more, too, about the different needs of the survivors. But people living with HIV/AIDS still need our help every day. In the hustle and bustle of our profession, it is important to remember that they are out there and that we, as a profession, can in some small way provide them with services for which the only payment is a grateful handshake — the most gratifying of all the client thanks we can receive. Timothy J. Halloran is a volunteer attorney with the AIDS Legal Referral Panel.

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