Claire Lewis has been an elder law attorney since before there was such a thing. She can recall a time when people would have asked what she was talking about if she described that as her profession.
Lewis shared this observation with students and recent graduates of Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law who plan to be elder law attorneys.
“You all face a lot of challenges because of the job market,” Lewis told them, suggesting the graying of baby boomers could have a silver lining for young lawyers.
“We are a cranky and particular bunch,” she said, which could mean business for lawyers who want to help ensure boomers’ senior years will meet their expectations. “Baby boomers, I think, will offer a little bit of job security.”
Lori Craig thinks so, too. She graduated from IU McKinney and sat for the bar exam in February. Because she has a grandparent who is dealing with long-term health care issues, she understands firsthand the importance of planning that elder law attorneys can provide.
“It’s just a burgeoning field,” said Craig, who plans to practice elder law.
Attorneys of a certain age recall when elder law was a somewhat nebulous concept taking form in the late 1980s and early 1990s. A story in an early edition of the Indiana Lawyer noted that the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys began with 35 members in the late 1980s and had surpassed 1,000 by 1990.
“Things have gotten more complicated, if anything,” said Keith P. Huffman, a Bluffton attorney who said elder law comprises about 80 percent of his firm’s practice. “The advice we give to people today is drastically different than what we did.”
The Indiana State Bar Association’s Elder Law Section in May will organize seminars on advance directives with local area councils on aging around the state. He said that’s representative of attorneys these days being more proactive in advocating and planning for their clients, whereas years earlier, much of the work was in response to crisis.
The last few decades brought changes in Medicare, Medicaid and health care laws as well as evolving trust and estate codes. Elder care attorneys also have assumed greater roles in advocating for disabled clients, managing power of attorney and guardianship issues, and helping people take charge of their health care and end-of-life decision-making through advance directives and, more recently, physician orders for scope of treatment.
But something that hasn’t changed is the personal fulfillment lawyers receive.
“It’s something that really kind of grabbed me by the heart,” said South Bend lawyer Douglas D. Germann Sr. He’s been practicing since 1973, but in the past 10 years he’s seen a marked shift toward elder law, which now accounts for about 90 percent of his firm’s work. “As I got older, I was surprised to find that my clients were getting older,” he joked.
“I remember going to my first elder law CLE and realizing that these people were genuine, and they were trying to help the other practitioners,” he said.
Germann believes in the “40-70 rule” – that parents and their children should discuss end-of-life desires when children turn 40 or their parents turn 70. “There’s my main hot button,” he said. “I want people to have the conversation about how they want to live their last hours, days and months, and I find that people do not have that conversation very often.”
Dennis K. Frick heads the Senior Law Project at Indiana Legal Services Inc. and has been working on elder law issues for ILS since being admitted to the bar in 1979. Lewis also is a veteran of the program. ILS provides annual training events for elder law attorneys, including one later this month, that typically draw about 150 to 200 attendees, Frick said.
“It is satisfying to work with people to basically solve problems,” Frick said. “Some attorneys have gotten into it because they see it more as working with individuals and families. … It’s not adversarial and litigation work.”
Jane Langdon Null, chair of the ISBA Elder Law Section, said that since she graduated from law school in 1993, she knew her future would be in elder law. Null recalled that in her first years as an attorney, a handful of lawyers identified as elder law practitioners. Now, the ISBA’s Elder Law Section has more than 500 members.
“Initially, I always liked older adults and working with them, and (as a law student), I didn’t know all that elder law entailed,” she said. “It was more my desire to work with older adults and families and have more of a personal touch with the families.”
Lewis told IU McKinney students that a career in elder law sometimes requires more of a lawyer than other practice areas. Social work skills may come into play, and patience and kindness are musts. “It is a practice where you want to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’” she said. Lawyers also sometimes have to deal with delicate generational issues and make calls regarding a client’s competency.
The work, while often challenging and sometimes emotional, provides fulfilling rewards. Lewis recounted being called upon by Indianapolis police to take part in a sting that resulted in the red-handed arrest of a man who had been scamming seniors out of thousands of dollars.
Lewis also recalled a senior citizen she counseled who came to her office with family members. After a while, the World War II soldier began to talk about his experience storming the beach at Normandy, Lewis said.
Afterward, she was stunned when family members told her the veteran had never before spoken about his experience.
“I love the work,” she said. “I think most of us who are in this field are passionate about what we do.”•