34, Staff Attorney at The Commons Law Center
2023 Prize Winner
One of the most difficult conversations you are going to have in your life concerns what is going to happen after you die. What is going to happen to your assets and personal property? How are loved ones going to deal with any debt you may have? And who is going to be responsible for all of the above when you’re gone?
Ekua Hackman, a staff attorney at The Commons Law Center who specializes in estate planning and probate law, will tell you that, challenging as it may be, it’s a conversation you need to have with family as you get older.
“Going through it on a personal level,” she says, “experiencing a few deaths in the family, and seeing the kind of chaos that results when one person doesn't have an estate plan set up, I was like, ‘I never want to see this happen again.’”
Hackman says that was one building block that led her to concentrate on estate law at Willamette University. But she also points to the huge disparity in generational wealth when it comes to income levels and race. According to recent figures from the Federal Reserve, Black and Latino families in America own about 20% of the net wealth that white families do.
“I wanted to know how I could combine an interest with estate planning with wanting to help Black families build intergenerational wealth,” Hackman says. Luckily for her, she happened to meet Amanda Caffall, The Commons Law Center’s deputy director who, at the time, was actively looking for an estate planning lawyer to work with Black families. With that, a new career was born.
What Hackman quickly realized was how challenging it was to get Black Portlanders to take the idea of planning for the unexpected seriously.
“There’s a lack of knowledge about estate planning,” she says. “A bias that says why would a person need it if they don’t make millions of dollars? There’s already a suspicion and distrust between Black Portlanders that have been out here for generations and the government. And lawyers don’t have the best reputation for being forthright and honest.”
Hackman has already eased the minds of dozens of families in Portland since being hired by The Commons Law Center. It helps, she says, for some clients to be able to work with a lawyer who looks like them. And, as anyone who has worked with her will attest, Hackman has an incredible bedside manner when broaching such a potentially challenging subject as one’s mortality.
“It took some growing pains,” she admits. “They don’t teach you how to talk to people in law school. They teach you how to do the work. So you really have to learn how to appeal to their humanity and their good sense. From my first client to now, there are miles and miles of improvement in terms of getting people to trust me and understand that I don’t benefit from this personally.”
Hackman’s work doesn’t end there. Since earning her degree in 2015, she’s become a vital mentor for other law students and recent graduates. It’s something that she benefited greatly from in school and wants to pay forward for a new crop of estate lawyers.
“I was much, much shyer in school,” Hackman says, “so I didn’t always feel comfortable reaching out. So having people reach out and be like, ‘Hey, I’m here. Please talk to me,’ is helpful. If I see a shy person, I make sure I kind of get in their face a little bit and tell them, ‘Hey, I know you don’t necessarily want to talk right now, but I’m here for you." - Robert Ham
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