“In the four-cornered landscape of the Colorado River plateau we all revere, our lessons are for and with each other.”
—Hon. Gregory Hobbs, Justice of the Colorado Supreme Court,
from his “Reflections On Navajo Teachers.”
Children may be members of different tribes than their parents or grandparents.
Individual interests in tribal lands may be the size of typing paper, or expressed in hundredths of a percent, with thousands of co-owners for a single parcel.
And talk of death is taboo.
Three times a year, DU Professor Lucy Marsh leads a team of law students on week-long pro bono will-drafting pilgrimages to the Four Corners Navajo and Ute Reservations.
Marsh’s Tribal Wills Project arose in response to a letter from John Roach, Fiduciary Trust Officer for the Southwest Region of the U. S. Department of the Interior, seeking help from regional law schools to implement the American Indian Probate Reform Act, referred to as AIPRA.
AIPRA, enacted by Congress in 2004, establishes a type of primogeniture for most trust lands, giving all the trust lands only to the one oldest descendant, unless the tribal member writes a will.
It does not say how low-income Native Americans in the Four Corners area with little access to legal services should prepare the wills, which must comply with a complex set of legal standards.
Enter Marsh, a forty-year veteran of DU and former professor of the year. For the past 25 years, Marsh has run D.U.’s Will Lab, in which law students draft estate planning documents for low-income clients throughout the Denver area. Marsh recently won the Denver Bar’s Pro Bono Award and was a 2010 Excellence in Teaching Award Law Star.
Marsh was the only person who responded to Roach’s plea. Her Tribal Wills Project was created in 2013 with the help and support of Colorado powerhouses such as Supreme Court Justice Greg Hobbs, a long-time supporter of Native American interests and pro bono endeavors, and Executive Secretary of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs, Ernest House, Jr., himself a member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. It is one of a few such programs of its type—some of the others are in Washington, Oklahoma, and Arizona.
Despite the draw of Mexico beaches, at a time when surveys show the American public holds lawyers in lower esteem than any other major profession and commentators portray money as the industry’s primary motivation (Pew and Quigley), Marsh somehow persuades DU law degree candidates to suffer 8-hour car rides and 12-hour work days in lieu of vacations three weeks a year to travel to such off-the-beaten-path (if starkly beautiful) Four Corners locales as Towaoc and Ignacio, Colorado, Ramah and Crownpoint, New Mexico, or White Mesa, Utah just to wrestle with the intricacies of land descriptions, intertribal prejudices and federal allotment provisions.
There, in a process participant Neillie Fields likens to “synchronized chaos,” among “a patchwork of colorful occurrences,” they overcome cultural differences and natural distrust of outsiders to prepare as many as 17 pro bono wills a day.
The tribes often house the students and supervising attorneys in their casino hotels, but it is also catch as can, and sometimes Marsh herself reserves rooms in, say, roadside motels in Blanding, Utah.
According to three-time veteran Joshua Nowak, on site “schedules change every day.” He describes one day last January when the onslaught of new clients kept the project team members up “drafting wills back at the hotel until 1 a.m. Everyone was running up and down the halls to have other students read complicated provisions and then printing drafts in another person’s room.” Intake interviews typically take an hour or more, because, as Marsh notes, tribal clients “have no idea who we are,” and “understandably” have a strong distrust for non-Indian interlopers.
“It is by no means part of their culture for someone to start out asking about their assets,” as Marsh observes. “That comes very gradually, after the client gains some trust in the student and the process.”
Before they even depart, students are expected to undergo hours of training not only on AIPRA and estate planning but on cultural expectations and accommodating meeting local mores.
Yet rising demand has forced Marsh to institute a fairly formal application process back home in Denver—turning away many of the students who apply. During the most recent trip in March, sheer numbers of clients forced the project team to reschedule several prospective clients for their next visit in May. Due to lack of local legal expertise, Marsh recently found time to study for and take the examination for admission into practice in Utah on top of everything else she does. “It was a long time since I had taken a multiple choice test,” she remarks wryly.
Nowak calls the Tribal Wills Project “one of the best ways to get hands-on experience working with clients who really need it.”
Fields says: “It was such a great experience and I learned more than I would have ever imagined—both legally and culturally.” Nowak also adds, “Tribal Wills isn’t just about experiential learning, it’s about seeing the bigger picture and figuring out how to fix relationships between communities. For many of us Tribal Wills is an important reminder of why some of us came to law school in the first place.”
As for Marsh, Nowak sums up the general consensus: “Professor Marsh really is a pioneer at DU Law who cares a great deal about her students and the Native American communities we work with.”
Marsh is grateful to volunteer attorneys, such as Beth Bryant, Molly Barnett, Alan Blakley, Diane Burkhardt, Elis Ard and Leia Ursery, who have committed to staying the whole week—and to other attorneys, such as Paul Padilla, Kate Puckett and Padraic McCoy who have donated many days of their time to supervision on the reservations. Despite the support it has received and favorable press in publications such as The Denver Post, The Docket, The Colorado Lawyer, the Durango Herald and the Weenemuche Smoke Signals (a Ute publication), the project also needs donations to defray costs of everything from travel to supplies.
By Norman B. Beecher, a sole practitioner based in Aurora and Northern California, with a limited practice emphasizing real property management, family law and estate planning. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.