success story

My chat with Caitlin Johnston, co-founder of the CANLAW Clinic on what drives her, positivity hurdles, and turning her passion into a reality

By Kaitlyn Eberhardt, Legal Access Division

Caitlin Johnston is an attorney with The Haney Law Firm, specializing in fiduciary litigation. She assists clients with estate planning decisions and probate matters. In June 2016, Caitlin cofounded the Cancer Law Clinic (CANLAW), which provides comprehensive pro bono estate planning services to cancer patients and their caretakers.

You are the co-founder of the Cancer Law Clinic (CANLAW). What moved you to create this clinic?

The Cancer Law Clinic or CANLAW is co-founded by myself and another young adult cancer survivor, Randy Cubriel. When I was 27, I was hospitalized and ended up losing my entire large intestine. I found out I had a very rare, very aggressive form of appendix cancer called goblet cell carcinoid the day after my 28th birthday. I eventually recovered, but I had a very long journey with a lot of complications. During a surgery the doctors nicked my femoral nerve so I wasn’t able to walk for about eight weeks, and slowly learned how to use a walker and cane. Eventually I got better. The cancer I had was very, very rare – only about one in 4.5 million people get it. So when I went to MD Anderson and they finally gave me the all clear, it was a very strange experience for me. Most people do not make it once diagnosed with this cancer. I just had this crazy strong need to pay back the universe for my good fortune.

How did your desire to “pay back the universe” morph into the idea for the CANLAW Clinic?

The following summer I was notified I’d be a speaker at CancerCon, which is the largest annual gathering of young adult cancer survivors in the country. In order to get prepared for this speech I started talking to groups around town to figure out how I should address cancer survivors, specifically regarding estate planning. In the process, I spoke to an incredible woman who had stage 4 breast cancer, and she had young kids and would very likely not see them graduate from high school. She had all these good questions and very valid concerns of what life would look like for her family when she moved on. After seeing this issue, I started a personal partnership with different cancer groups in town, but I quickly realized the relaxed arrangement I had at the time would not get the job done. 

That’s when another lawyer in town put me in contact with Randy. One day over lunch at Ranch 616, Randy and I dreamt up this concept of the Cancer Law Clinic. But we left that lunch without any firm commitments. One day a few weeks later I emailed him and said, “Let’s do this.”

Tell me more about the CANLAW Clinic.

We are a one-stop-shop clinic. Our goal is to remove all the barriers from estate planning that exist for cancer patients. Everyone knows about the obvious one: financial. But there are a lot of other barriers too, like time. When you’re in active cancer treatment, you’re going to the doctor three, four, five times per week and your spouse is taking off a lot of work too. You’re already asking for a lot of favors, so you don’t feel like you should add onto that. That’s why we have a one meeting requirement.

Additionally, once you get a diagnosis, everyone wants to “stay positive.” That was actually the largest hurdle for us originally – no one wanted to talk about it. I would meet someone trying on clothes in a dressing room somewhere and they would mention they had cancer so I’d give them a CANLAW Clinic card and explain what services we provide. And they’d say, “Oh no no, we’re trying to stay positive.” So we try to take away the stigma of it all by offering it on a Saturday as kind of a group activity, with individual meetings with your lawyers. That way it’s not a scary experience. We’ve changed the narrative from just planning for wills to planning for treatment.

CANLAW Clinic Volunteers

How does one become a client?

If someone wants to be our client, they will go to our website, There’s a really simple one-page questionnaire that asks them for demographic information and qualifiers for the clinic. We do not have any income qualifications, but we do have certain assets we cannot assist clients with like property outside of the state of Texas, special needs planning for a child, pre- or post-nuptial agreements, etc. For the most part those are pretty rare, though. I review the questionnaire and we get you set up for one of our clinics. When you show up on the day of the clinic, Randy and I have already shared your information with the lawyers you will meet with. During your meeting, your volunteer attorneys will draft your documents. Those will get passed off to a different set of volunteers to check for consistency in spelling, dates, and general proofreading. Then you’ll go sign everything in a room with the notaries and witnesses. Our goal is that you’ll leave in two hours with all your documents fully executed, ready to go, and there’s nothing else you need.

You obviously have a need for attorney volunteers, but do you need non-attorney volunteers also?

Actually, one of the reasons we’ve been so successful is through our strategic partnerships with non-attorneys. One of our greatest partners is the Capital Area Paralegal Association, so we always have a wonderful army of paralegals that are there to help lead signing ceremonies and proofread. They also created fillable forms for us, which increased our efficiency a ton. Sometimes attorneys bring their spouses to come and help with greeting or printing (my spouse does!) and law students also participate. There are roles for everyone at our clinics.

How many people do your clinics help and how often do they occur?

Now that we’re rocking and rolling, we help between 20 and 30 people per clinic. The clinics occur three times per year.

We oftentimes look to other states’ programs to see how those are running when we think of creating our own. Were you inspired to create CANLAW by other groups doing similar projects?

This is definitely a new thing. It’s loosely based off of “Wills for Heroes,” which is a program Randy participated in in North Carolina when he was a young attorney. But we were mostly dissatisfied with all the other cancer clinics we looked at—and we looked high and low. Our original goal was to not reinvent the wheel, but we had to. And now that we’ve done it, our goal and dream is that other bar associations will pick this idea up. We’ve had people come from all over the state of Texas—we would love it if the bars closer to these people would replicate CANLAW. The clinic won the 2018 National Conference of Bar Foundations/LexisNexis Partnership for Success Award which was awarded at the American Bar Association Annual Meeting. One of the criteria for this award is the project’s replicability. We’ve been able to keep our costs low, and we’re able to do that by partnering with organizations in the community to hold our clinics.

What is the most rewarding part of being involved in this cause?

Even though we’re open to everyone, 85% of our clients have been women and 50% of them have children under the age of 18. It is wonderful to see how relieved these women are when they leave. Cancer takes away control. You lose control to work, to make plans for the future, you lose control of your body. But this is one thing they can control. Plus, you are able to get it done in the least stressful way possible, surrounded by people who are invested in you and care about your outcome. It’s really powerful. We had one client who has two little kids and her cancer has metastasized so the prognosis is not good. They’re living on credit cards, doing the best they can. And at this time in their life, when they have to decide between sending their kids to summer camp or estate planning, they choose summer camp every time. Thanks to this CANLAW clinic, they don’t have to make those choices anymore.

What advice do you have for someone who is working full time at a firm, but may have a passion or fire in their heart to do some work outside of their career?

One of the reasons this clinic is a good match for our volunteers is that it’s a one-day commitment. So my first piece of advice: find out how much of a commitment you’d like to make. People know when you’re there and you don’t want to be. People rely on you, so please don’t commit to something and not follow through.

Next, look for an organization that’s doing what you’d like to be doing. But if you can’t find it and you have to make your own, there’s a lot of support out there. We have been so lucky that the Austin Bar Foundation has been by our side with the financial support and everything we need to accomplish our dream.

You also have to decide pretty early on what is non-negotiable for you. We got pushback initially because we didn’t have an income cap and some people were concerned about us stealing business. But that was non-negotiable for us. And because we stuck to our guns and held that close, we were able to really put in place what our overall goal was. A different person or group thought each part of our plan was radical and we were unwilling to change those things. But, you need to be willing to be flexible on the other things that are negotiable.

Do you have a mantra, exercise, or ritual that helps you through tough days?

I try and keep things in perspective, and that is the best part of the Cancer Law Clinics.

I lost my first jury trial in November and it was devastating. I was not expecting to lose. The trial ended on Friday and the next CANLAW Clinic was Saturday. Being around these people who actually had their lives on the line really helped me to stop feeling sorry for myself. I was even questioning whether or not I wanted to be a lawyer anymore when I walked into that clinic. I left that clinic knowing that I am here for a purpose.

Keep it in perspective. Keep it all in perspective.

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