Law professor’s anti-racism efforts brings new initiative to Portland

Susan Gary

Susan Gary, professor emerita at the law school, recently created and helped obtain a grant that supports an estate planning program for the African American community in Portland. Through the nonprofit The Commons Law Center, the program will also serve as a pipeline to increase the number of African American estate planning lawyers in Oregon. 

With recent racial and social unrest across the country Gary says that she wanted to do more about systemic inequalities in the law. 

“I knew that many white lawyers have wanted to support the Black Lives Matter movement but haven’t been able to figure out how to do so,” said Gary who teaches trusts and estates, estate planning, nonprofit organizations.   

The opportunity came when she was contacted by a recent graduate of Lewis and Clark who was interested in doing estate planning work through Oregon Law’s Wills for the Underserved Program. 

Gary, who manages the Program, couldn’t think of a way for him to be involved. However, when the student mentioned that he wanted to provide estate planning services in his African American community in Portland, she started making the connections. 

“His interest related to a project the Oregon Law Commission is working on – a bill to provide protection for people who inherit a family house and end up losing it to developers at a below-market price,” said Gary who is a member of the working committee based out of the Knight Law Center. “It’s been a problem in North and Northeast Portland and in other parts of the country, so I’ve been involved with the Commission to get a bill passed in Oregon, based on the Uniform Law Commission Act.  

Gary had another connection: The Commons Law Center. The Commons is a nonprofit law firm that offers sliding-scale and unbundled legal services, practical training for new lawyers, and community legal education.  

Gary sits on the advisory board of The Commons and knew that the organization had received funding from the City of Portland Housing Bureau for a Homeownership Asset Preservation Program. That program operates in partnership with the African American Alliance for Homeownership in Portland.  

From there, Gary got to work on her last connection. 

“The ACTEC Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel (ACTEC), has supported Wills for the Underserved,” said Gary who is an ACTEC Academic Fellow and sits on several committees. “A core mission is to increase the availability of estate planning services to underserved communities and increase interest in estate planning work among law students and lawyers,” Gary said.

Gary worked with Amanda Claffall, executive director at The Commons, to put together a grant proposal on an expedited basis and submit it to the ACTEC Foundation. She then encouraged the grant committee chair to call an emergency meeting to consider the proposal outside the usual timeframe.

"I didn’t vote on the grant’s approval and after I answered questions, I left the committee meeting so they could discuss the grant without me there,” Gary said. 

The grant committee unanimously approved the proposal and the Foundation’s executive committee approved it on an expedited basis.

The grant provides enough money to hire a recent graduate on a part-time basis for eight months. The plan is to get the “legal resident” started right away. The recent graduate who reached out to Gary will work this fall, take a break to study for the Bar, and then resume work for another four months.

As legal resident, he will engage in outreach activities in North and Northeast Portland and will hold educational events to help members of the community understand why they need estate planning to protect their families.

He will also provide estate planning services to clients, supervised by lawyers at The Commons, and by pro bono mentors.

Gary notes that if additional fundraising is successful, The Commons may be able to create a fulltime position for the legal resident as well as expand their externship program to include more law students.  

She plans on reaching out to estate planning lawyers that she knows to encourage them to participate in the program as mentors. 

“With all the discouraging news these days, this project has made me feel good,” said Gary. “It’s been a way to take action and help make something happen. If the externship program takes off, we can introduce as many African American students as possible to estate planning.” 

By Rayna Jackson, School of Law Communications