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Like clockwork, teams of young lawyers from two of Manhattan’s most prosperous firms spend a certain few days each month in a nondescript loft building on West 24th Street. There at the offices of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, they see clients of their own age, or younger — clients who have run out of money, and who are running out of time. “Sometimes they cry,” said Ilise S. Alba of her pro bono clients at GMHC, men and women who need to make wills, or assign guardianships or health care proxies or powers of attorney. “It can make us cry, too.” “It’s upsetting, but uplifting,” said Coleen A. Barry, Alba’s colleague in the personal planning department of Proskauer Rose. “They’re so grateful for our help. We leave feeling good.” They also leave with a deep sense of what human beings feel — regardless of the value society ascribes to an individual’s lifestyle or net worth — when faced with their own mortality. “It doesn’t matter whether you have $200 million or $2,000, it’s the emotion that’s important,” said Amy J. Roberts, a senior associate in the trust and estate section of Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler. “Property is a symbol of something else.” Along with the lesson in mortality comes another: the terrible randomness that is part of the worldwide AIDS epidemic. One day last week, Barry and Alba made one of their twice-monthly trips to GMHC. While waiting for a client named Ramon to appear [not his real name], they spoke of such lessons. Reflecting on two recent interviews — a housewife who contracted AIDS from her husband, a female assistant district attorney blindsided by drugs — Barry shook her head. “They were educated women, they had advantages in life,” said Barry, 36, a graduate of Pace University School of Law. “You would call them upper middle-class. “I guess what I’m saying is, there’s no consistency.” She turned to her colleague. “They looked just like us.” Besides Barry and Alba, the Proskauer volunteers attached to the GMHC project include junior associates John David Werner and Daniel M. Yarmish, and senior counsels Henry J. Leibowitz and Ivan Tabak. The team from Patterson Belknap consists of Roberts, 37, and fellow associates Jill S. Monoson, Amantha T. Holcomb and Janet L. Blakeman. The firms were enlisted to the GMHC cause by Volunteers of Legal Service. Prospective clients are screened for the pro bono teams by Debra J. Wolf, 46, a longtime solo attorney in San Francisco. Two years ago, she became the GMHC’s assistant director of legal services and advocacy. “We determine candidates on a case-by-case basis, but we do have some asset and income limitations,” said Wolf. Generally, she said, the outside range of annual income is $45,000 — not nearly enough money for persons diagnosed as HIV-positive to sustain the expense of their disease. Tangible assets, excluding a home, should be minimal. “Not every case goes to Proskauer or to Patterson Belknap, a process that takes four weeks, and which includes an extensive questionnaire,” said Wolf. “If somebody feels he can’t wait that long, we would do the will in-house. “The need for [pro bono] estate planning has not declined over the years, even with the new [AIDS] medications,” she added. “Our clients still have the feeling of their impending death. “Most of the people we assist have far less than your average person or household, but there’s still a strong need to make sure that whatever they have goes to whomever they want. “Just knowing that’s all in place gives them a sense of well-being, and readiness,” Wolf said. Philip M. Susswein, a partner in Proskauer’s personal planning department, said lawyers who gravitate to trust and estate practice are compassionate people. With reference to associates on the GMHC project, he said, “You can’t do this work unless you have certain kinds of people skills. You deal with people’s most intimate feelings. You see them at times of great emotional stress and distress. “Many of the clients know that they are dying,” Susswein added. “These are poor people. They don’t have collections of important art, they don’t have enormous stock portfolios. Nonetheless, it’s important for them to put their lives in order, to continue to have control over their lives. “It’s important for them psychologically. They want to assert that they’re still alive.” PERSONAL HISTORY To Roberts, it is likewise important for the lawyers to learn their clients’ personal history. “As a trust and estate lawyer, you get involved in a whole variety of issues in your client’s life,” said Roberts, 37, a graduate of New York University School of Law. “You’re a lawyer first, but also you sort of become that individual’s personal advisor. “Every person has a different story,” she said. “At GMHC, you have so many people involved in the arts. That makes it very interesting.” Susswein said the personal relationship with clients and the breadth of general legal knowledge required of trust and estate lawyers is what attracted him to the practice area back when he was young and looking for his first job. “I was interviewed by a lawyer who told me something I’ll never forget,” said Susswein. “He said, ‘Trust and estates is the generalist’s last bastion.’ “You need to know a little bit about a lot of things — tax law, pensions, property, a fair amount of corporate law.” The personal stories encountered by the Proskauer and Patterson Belknap attorneys can involve multiple layers of secrecy. To maintain secrets, “Often, our clients don’t have relationships with their families,” said Alba, 37, also a graduate of NYU Law. Sometimes, clients come with not only secrets but with worries that their cultural needs may not be appreciated. “You hear about Santer�a?” asked a client named Carmen [not her real identity]. To Carmen’s evident surprise and relief, Alba was indeed acquainted with Santer�a, a religion incorporating forms of West African worship rituals with Roman Catholicism, and widely observed in Caribbean nations. “I practice this 25 years,” said Carmen. “There is a ceremony before the burial. That’s the rule.” Alba made Carmen’s wishes part of her will. Then there was the other matter. “Her family,” Carmen explained about her lover, “they don’t know nothing about the relationship.” How, then, to explain a stranger’s gift of an automobile? “The will doesn’t have to say anything more than, ‘I leave this to my friend,’” Alba advised. “Nothing has to be discovered.” Again, her client was clearly relieved. “One of the essential attributes for success in this practice is respect for the feelings of our clients, for what they think is important,” said Susswein. “Nothing they feel on a personal level is ever trivial.” A main concern of Ramon’s case could never be mistaken as a trifle. Of Barry’s work on his behalf — involving an unusually substantial delineation of desirable hospital life-support technology — he said, “My wishes were to stay alive as long as I can, and so I caused this lady a lot of trouble.” An elegant, thirty-something man with the deep voice of a radio broadcaster, Ramon has been a favorite client of the two Proskauer lawyers. After Barry sat with him and finalized his will that day last week, he said of his pro bono attorneys: “To think that this could be free for someone of such limited means as me, it’s very beautiful. I want to send a big thank-you to not only the people here, but to their bosses. “I want everyone to know that this experience has been very beautiful and noble, and filled with sympathy and with dignity.” And then, with painful effort, Ramon rose from the table and limped away.

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