ATJ Pro Bono Champion
The ATJ Pro Bono Champion is a quarterly feature highlighting the work of an attorney chosen by the Texas Access to Justice Commission. To learn more about pro bono work in Texas or to get involved, go to probonotexas.org.
Caitlin Haney Johnston
An Austin attorney focuses her pro bono work on meeting the needs of the cancer community through direct legal services, as well as training volunteers, screening clients, and overseeing the operation of the CANLAW legal clinics. Photo by Korey Howell Photography.
What pro bono services do you provide through CANLAW?
We provide a will, medical power of attorney, statutory durable power of attorney, HIPAA release, and advanced directive through CANLAW.
Where did the motivation for CANLAW originate?
In December 2014, I had emergency surgery to treat Crohn’s disease. After seeing extensive damage throughout my digestive tract, they ended up performing a subtotal colectomy, which included removing my appendix. When the routine pathology came back, it turned out I also had a very rare, very aggressive type of appendix cancer called goblet cell carcinoid. I was told I had cancer on the day after my 28th birthday.
Luckily, by sheer dumb luck, we caught the cancer before it had a chance to spread. But, like many cancer survivors, I was left wondering, What next? I knew that I had to give back to the cancer community in some way. I started giving talks to local cancer support groups about estate planning and ended up speaking at CancerCon in Denver, Colorado. At all of these presentations, I met people who were worried about what would happen to their family when they were gone—and many of these people knew that, statistically speaking, they would not see their children graduate from high school. So, with the buy-in from my mother, Susan Haney (who is also my boss), we started providing estate-planning services to these people at reduced or no cost.
Shortly after I got back from CancerCon, I was introduced to Randy Cubriel, another young adult cancer survivor who was also an attorney. Over lunch one day we talked about our shared desire to give back to the cancer community in a way that only lawyers can. He suggested that we start an estate-planning clinic loosely based off a program called Wills for Heroes. Since then, Randy and I have coordinated eight clinics that have assisted over 150 cancer survivors and their spouses. We have been tremendously lucky to have over 100 terrific attorney and non-attorney volunteers, including my sister, Amber Haney (a paralegal), and the support of the Austin Bar Foundation.
Do you have a case that sticks out?
In December of last year, I was contacted by the parents of a 35-year-old woman whose breast cancer had not only come back, but also had metastasized to just about every part of her body. She was about to start chemotherapy, but because of how far the disease had advanced, it was too risky to wait until the February clinic to get her documents in order. Finances were stretched—as they often are in the middle of fighting for your life—but she had a life insurance policy through her employer. It was really important to her to have that money split up among her family, friends, favorite charity, and former stepchildren. Because the cancer had spread to her bones, it was very difficult for her to travel so I went to her parents’ home with my husband, Drew, and my sister-in-law to execute the documents.
When we met in person, I was immediately blown away by her wit and humor, especially considering her current circumstances. She had no delusions about the amount of time she had left on Earth and was so worried for family. She died recently and now I am helping the family probate her estate. Even though I cried when I found out she was gone, I am glad that she had the peace of mind that her family would be OK.
What can you say about the highs and lows of the kind of pro bono work you do?
There is nothing like having a client look you in the eye and tell you what a difference the work that was provided has made for his or her mental well-being. I love knowing that, when everything is said and done, I have made a difference not only in the lives of my clients, but also in the lives of their loved ones.
In your own practice at the Haney Law Firm, you focus on estate planning and all things probate. How do you determine which cases you’ll take on pro bono versus what you’ll take on in your normal workload?
It depends on how the clients come to us. If they come through CANLAW, then we assist them in the clinic. If they do not qualify for the clinic, then we refer those people out to our attorney volunteers unless it is an urgent situation—then I usually just handle it on my own. If clients come to me through my work at the Haney Law Firm, then we fold them into our normal practice.
What’s in your work-life balance?
Living your entire adult life with chronic illness and getting a cancer diagnosis in your 20s teaches you that life is fleeting, so do what you love. Luckily, I am in a work environment that supports that. We work hard for our clients—both in our private practice and in our pro bono efforts—but I take time for myself. I love to travel and take more vacation than the average attorney, but it helps me keep perspective. When things start spiraling, all I have to do is think about how privileged I am to be healthy enough to have this job and obtain the education I received. There are plenty of people who never get that chance. Every opportunity is a gift.TBJ