A group of University of Wisconsin law students are helping emergency first responders and their families set up wills, in efforts to decrease the 80 percent of first responders nationwide without them.

The students are part of a nationwide program called Wills for Heroes, where volunteer paralegals, attorneys and notaries prepare wills free of charge for first responders. In Wisconsin, the UW Law School, the program’s state chapter and the State Bar of Wisconsin are coordinating this effort.

Ann Zimmerman, director of the Pro Bono Program at the UW Law School, said the national program started after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In Wisconsin, the program started in 2009, where the three groups help coordinate volunteer events.

Zimmerman said UW law students get a hands-on experience by working with volunteer attorneys and help them draft up wills and other paperwork. She said students not only gain experience from this but also show the Wisconsin Idea by helping the community.

“It gives the students a sense of satisfaction knowing that by providing these free services, they help police officers, firefighters, and EMTs gain peace of mind of knowing that their affairs are in order, should the unthinkable occur,” Zimmerman said.

In a UW statement, students expressed how valuable their experiences have been for gaining both a good insight on the legal process and getting to do community service.

Samantha Overly, a second-year law student, described how the Wills for Heroes experience and shadowing attorneys have helped her gain insight in the processes involved in estate planning that she would not have gotten from a textbook.

Overly said the Wills for Heroes program is a good example of the law school’s philosophy that students take what they learn in class and apply it to situations that students might come up with in their careers.

“The Wills for Heroes experience contributes to the law-in-action philosophy we talk about in class,” Overly said. “This is a real-world setting, involving critical legal documents that real people need.”

Elizabeth Longo, another second-year student, agreed with Overly and added that the experience taught her about the importance of detail and necessity for the clients to understand the documents.

The statement said there are also various Wisconsin Law School alumni involved in the program, such as Wes Taylor, who graduated from the law school in 2009 and is the project’s co-coordinator.

Jeff Brown, the pro bono coordinator at the State Bar of Wisconsin, described the success on campus and in the state. Thus far, the program has helped more than 1,500 first responders and their spouses or domestic partners, he said. In the summer of 2011, there were two Wills for Heroes clinics for the UW Madison Police Department.

Although the UW law students frequently help in the Madison area, Brown said there are some that have traveled to Milwaukee to volunteer there.

Brown said that volunteers across the state have been pleased with their work in helping first responders.

“It’s been a very enjoyable way for Wisconsin lawyers, law students, paralegals and others to give back by protecting those who protect us,” Brown said.