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Where There's a Will

Andrea Johnson finds a way to help the needy

Published in 2011 New York Metro Super Lawyers magazine

Spring Break: Rural Wisconsin, 2011!” 

It didn’t quite have the same ring to it as Cancun, Andrea Johnson knew. But it was a novel idea. And, if she was successful in convincing her fellow Columbia law students to spend their holiday on Wisconsin’s tribal lands assisting the underserved population with legal issues, it’d be one to remember. The experience, she wagered, would have a profound impact on both the American Indians in need and the East Coast, big-city law students. 

“I’d researched it, and realized how underserved the population is by the legal community,” says Johnson, who graduated in May. “I wanted to get those students to work with a population that probably didn’t cross their radar, even if they are committed to civil rights and human rights.” After graduating from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., Johnson had worked for Congresswoman Betty McCollum researching women’s and American Indian rights issues and became inspired to do more. A proud Midwest native, she sought out pro bono opportunities in the region.

“I started the Midwest Society at Columbia and was determined to do pro bono care that would get people working in the Midwest,” she says. She eventually got in touch with Wisconsin Judicare, which assists the state’s Indian tribes and needed help drafting wills.

“There’s a lot of land fractionation on reservations throughout the U.S., but in Wisconsin in particular,” Johnson says. “Property is being divided up into smithereens, basically, because people are not drafting wills.”

With Judicare, she organized an Indian Wills Care-A-Van to shuttle 11 Columbia Law students to five northern Wisconsin tribes. To drum up interest in the trip at school, she partnered with the Native American Law Student Association. “And there was actually a big energy that developed pretty quickly,” she says.

Once on the reservations, the students, led by Judicare’s David Armstrong, set up shop in community centers and invited tribe members in to talk wills.

“The first time was in a firehouse,” says Johnson. “My little office was a folding table set up by a fire truck. We had a set of questions based on a template that we asked each client: What is the property that you own? Who do you want your house to go to?” As students, they could inform their clients, but only Armstrong could legally advise.

It often took persuading to get some clients to participate. “They have a cultural aversion to planning for death,” she says. “I think the idea was: If you plan for death, then death is more likely to come quickly. … We had many clients who would start working with us, then 15 minutes in, stop and say, ‘I can’t do this.’ We would talk them through it and explain the benefits and the negative consequences that had resulted to their communities economically and socially because wills had not been drafted for so many years. Usually, they’d come around.” 

Johnson says a highlight of the trip was a potluck that Judicare hosted one night, complete with fresh venison and green bean casserole. “It was a very Midwestern potluck,” she says. “It was this sort of wonderful cultural collision with people from many different tribes and many different regions of the U.S.” 

The Indian Wills Care-A-Van prepared 75 wills in four days—more than Wisconsin Judicare can do in a year and a half, says Johnson. The school is offering the trip for spring break again this year. 

“It was incredibly satisfying to be able to go into a community, spend a few days and work with people directly—and it wasn’t just the legal issues,” Johnson says, “it was discussing the problems that were going on with the family and just being there to listen.” 

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