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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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