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Elder law attorney started as paralegal for ILS

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Today it's a growing practice area, but three decades ago, only a handful of attorneys practiced what is now known as elder law and not many more were aware of what it was.

Even so, the legal practice area that addresses the specific needs of older adults had started to come of age in legal communities around the country. In Indiana, since the early 1980s a handful of attorneys have continued to write and revise a booklet for individuals most likely to have those needs or know someone who does.

The most recent edition of "Indiana Laws of Aging," which is supported by and available from the Indiana State Bar Association and Indiana Bar Foundation, was released in November.

The book covers a wide array of issues, including Social Security and veterans' benefits, long-term health care needs, housing issues, estate planning and wills, elder abuse, age discrimination, consumer protection, grandparents' rights, and programs available to support older adults and their caregivers.

The 120-page booklet is distributed through various community organizations that work with elderly adults at no charge to the organizations or those who receive it.

An attorney who has worked on the booklet since its first edition, published in April 1982, is Claire Lewis, who has given countless hours to the project and has grown professionally in that time as well.

When asked to talk about her work with the booklet, she was quick to thank everyone who helped - attorneys from around the state, as well as paralegals and staff of the bar association who keep the contact information updated for the organizations listed in the booklet.

First edition


Lewis was a law school student at Indiana University School of Law - Indianapolis and a paralegal for Indiana Legal Services' newly formed Senior Law Project in the early 1980s when she helped the late professor Mary Harter Mitchell on the first edition.

During Lewis' final year at the law school, Mitchell was teaching the school's first elder law course and asked Lewis for her help, knowing of Lewis' involvement with the ILS program in that area.

Mitchell admitted to the class early on that she didn't know much about the practice area, Lewis said, but she was eager to learn more about it and would sometimes ask Lewis for her help.

Looking back, Lewis said she felt lucky that she had the opportunity to meet Mitchell and work with her for so many years. Mitchell died unexpectedly in late 2009; Lewis said it was a great loss to the legal community and that she also lost a very good friend.

But maybe it wasn't all luck that she got involved with elder law - Lewis said she always had a passion for helping older adults, which is how she landed the job at ILS working closely with Indianapolis attorney Dennis Frick. Frick has also continuously worked on editions of the booklet, including the latest one, and is the current director of the ILS Senior Law Project.

Lewis said the job opportunity to be a paralegal came at a time when she already knew she wanted to go to law school and already had experience working for not-for-profit organizations.

She applied for the position partly because of her fond memories of growing up with her grandmother in her house, and a desire to help people.

"We had so much fun," she said of her grandmother. "I could listen to her stories for hours."

"I was just so comfortable with that generation and thought they were such a special generation," she added.

While she said she understands not all individuals have the experience of growing up so close to their grandparents, she felt the experience was invaluable. For her children, now in their 20s, when they were younger she would bring them along when she would meet with her elderly clients so they too would appreciate older adults.

Because of her feelings about older adults, and her experience as a paralegal for ILS, she said she knew all through law school she wanted to stay on with ILS as an attorney if they would have her.

They did, and she stayed with ILS' Senior Law Project for about 20 years before starting a solo practice in Indianapolis about 10 years ago working mostly with elder law issues, but also estate planning and other legal needs of clients of all ages.

Balancing act


As far as balancing her practice, her family, and her work on the booklet, which she has headed since the mid 1990s when Mitchell handed her the reins, Lewis said it's not always easy, but she puts her family first and everything else ultimately gets done on time.

"If you're passionate about something, it makes it a lot easier," she said. "I'm truly committed to the work I do with older adults. ... I have clients in their 80s and 90s. They're my heroes. My clients have run the beaches in Normandy and were in Okinawa in World War II. I found out one of my clients was part of the rescue force that rescued the prisoners in the Philippines, including my parents."

Lewis' parents and two older brothers were prisoners of war in the Philippines in WWII. During a conversation with a client, she realized their connection and told him that he might have met her parents during his mission many decades ago.

She has also seen the benefits of the booklet firsthand.

"I had clients who were in here the other day, who are the children of older clients of mine," she said. "Their parents got a copy of this book, and they started flipping through it and got to the section on the powers of attorney. They said, 'We didn't know we needed this stuff too.' It was so nice for them, by way of their parents, to learn how important it is to do good planning for people of any age."

She has also heard from caregivers of older parents and others who work with older adults on a regular basis how the booklet has helped them with specific issues.

For other elder law attorneys in Indiana, the booklet is widely respected, said Lewis' former boss and executive director of ILS, Norman Metzger.

"The book has really become the standard, almost a legal authority on elder law itself in the state of Indiana," he said. "From the very beginning, we were involved in that and Claire was instrumental in putting it together."

He added that her initial involvement in elder law with ILS "was all being done at a time when this kind of practice was embryonic. I'm not saying our senior project was on the cutting edge; it was more like a movement around the country."

ILS has also offered CLE courses on elder law through Indiana Continuing Legal Education Forum that have been standing-room only the last few years, he said. Lewis and other attorneys who've worked with ILS have been involved with that.

"One of her strengths is her ability to teach and communicate," he said. "...it's highly acclaimed, highly anticipated by private lawyers. ... She is just outstanding at what she does."

Looking back, Lewis said she has no regrets and feels fortunate to continue to practice in an area she has always loved.

"I think it was a natural fit for me and I think I was in the right place at the right time," she said.

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  1. Indiana's seatbelt law is not punishable as a crime. It is an infraction. Apparently some of our Circuit judges have deemed settled law inapplicable if it fails to fit their litmus test of political correctness. Extrapolating to redefine terms of behavior in a violation of immigration law to the entire body of criminal law leaves a smorgasbord of opportunity for judicial mischief.

  2. I wonder if $10 diversions for failure to wear seat belts are considered moral turpitude in federal immigration law like they are under Indiana law? Anyone know?

  3. What a fine article, thank you! I can testify firsthand and by detailed legal reports (at end of this note) as to the dire consequences of rejecting this truth from the fine article above: "The inclusion and expansion of this right [to jury] in Indiana’s Constitution is a clear reflection of our state’s intention to emphasize the importance of every Hoosier’s right to make their case in front of a jury of their peers." Over $20? Every Hoosier? Well then how about when your very vocation is on the line? How about instead of a jury of peers, one faces a bevy of political appointees, mini-czars, who care less about due process of the law than the real czars did? Instead of trial by jury, trial by ideological ordeal run by Orwellian agents? Well that is built into more than a few administrative law committees of the Ind S.Ct., and it is now being weaponized, as is revealed in articles posted at this ezine, to root out post moderns heresies like refusal to stand and pledge allegiance to all things politically correct. My career was burned at the stake for not so saluting, but I think I was just one of the early logs. Due, at least in part, to the removal of the jury from bar admission and bar discipline cases, many more fires will soon be lit. Perhaps one awaits you, dear heretic? Oh, at that Ind. article 12 plank about a remedy at law for every damage done ... ah, well, the founders evidently meant only for those damages done not by the government itself, rabid statists that they were. (Yes, that was sarcasm.) My written reports available here: Denied petition for cert (this time around): http://tinyurl.com/zdmawmw Denied petition for cert (from the 2009 denial and five year banishment): http://tinyurl.com/zcypybh Related, not written by me: Amicus brief: http://tinyurl.com/hvh7qgp

  4. Justice has finally been served. So glad that Dr. Ley can finally sleep peacefully at night knowing the truth has finally come to the surface.

  5. While this right is guaranteed by our Constitution, it has in recent years been hampered by insurance companies, i.e.; the practice of the plaintiff's own insurance company intervening in an action and filing a lien against any proceeds paid to their insured. In essence, causing an additional financial hurdle for a plaintiff to overcome at trial in terms of overall award. In a very real sense an injured party in exercise of their right to trial by jury may be the only party in a cause that would end up with zero compensation.

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