Elder Law: A Growing Legal Specialty The Buzz


There are many reasons people want to become lawyers. One of the most common reasons is a desire to help people. Elder law is a legal specialty that helps a rapidly growing segment of the population -- the elderly.

Elder law is a pretty new field. The American Bar Association recognized it as a distinct field in the early 1990s.

Although it's a new field, it has expanded quickly. There are now about 5,000 members of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA) in the United States.

Allan Bogutz practices elder law in Arizona. He says the recent development of elder law shouldn't be surprising.

"In 1900, the average life expectancy was 46 years," he says. "The causes of death were different. They were infection, industrial accidents and childbirth. People are living longer now.

"So when we talk about elder law being a new field, elders are kind of a new field as well. Law and aging is a new issue completely, because aging is a new issue."

Shifting roles within families and social changes are also contributing to this need.

"Prior to World War II, we could expect that elder people would, for the most part, go to live with their families," Bogutz says.

"Care responsibilities for older people fell on daughters and daughters-in-law. Now, nobody's home in two-income families, and also people retire to distant places and their family is not there. So contextually, elder law is a new field meeting a new need."

Elder law attorneys could work on issues such as age discrimination, elder abuse, long-term care planning and guardianship.

Bogutz says that within the field, some sub-specialties will likely be in high demand. These include family business succession (the logistics of passing on a family business), arrangements for disabled adult children, taxes and financial planning.

Ann Krauss is a spokesperson for the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA). She says that as the baby boomer generation ages, more people will be looking for information and legal advice on these issues.

Hugh McLellan practices elder law. He says that when he and his partner started their firm in 1992, they practiced both elder and labor law.

"After a while, we just thought, 'This is crazy. We don't need to do labor law, there's so much work in elder law,'" he says.

McLellan believe elder law will provide opportunities for at least the next 20 years. During this time period, the number of people aged 65 and up is expected to continually increase.

Like other lawyers, elder law attorneys must first attend university. Then they attend law school. Law school is three years of study. Students must then pass the bar exams for their state. After completing this education, they can practice law.

Elder law training is similar to other legal specialties, but those in the field say elder law can provide some unique opportunities.

"Elder law is different from other areas," Krauss says. She says elder law is not adversarial, in contrast to the perception many people have of law. "Individuals attracted to elder law seem to have that caring and compassionate willingness to go above and beyond for their clients."

Krauss gives examples of NAELA members holding their clients' hands in hospital emergency rooms and finding new homes for dogs after the death of clients.

Bogutz says those unique aspects of elder law require a special set of skills.

"Elder law has two components," he explains. "One involves the specific areas of law that affect older persons, which include things like retirement, pensions, planning for giving your business to your children, planning for possible disability needs, age discrimination, planning for housing as people's needs change and planning for what's going to happen at the time of your death.

"The second component of elder law is the lawyer's knowledge of the specific needs of aging clients. That involves things like dealing with special furniture for people who have difficulty getting up or down -- and special furniture might mean nothing more than chairs with arms -- making sure that buildings are accessible for people with disabilities, using larger print for documents, being available to provide home visits if necessary. Also being sensitive to the issues that are around changes of life, such as retirement or facing the end of life."

Bogutz adds that the practice of elder law can also have many benefits. "It's an extremely rewarding practice, professionally and emotionally," he says. "I think you learn more from working with older clients, and many of us don't get to be close to older people too much."

At the same time, he recognizes the potential emotional downfalls of working with aging -- and eventually dying -- clients.

"At some point you acknowledge that the end of life is a natural, normal component of life," he says.

"Helping people to address that in a professional way, and making certain that all of their wishes are carried out and end-of-life care is going to be given in the way they prefer, gives you a certain satisfaction as well.

"So it can be frustrating to lose clients, but at the same time you have a sense of accomplishment that you helped them do it their way."

Bogutz adds that elder law can also show a more positive view of growing old.

"We sometimes make assumptions about older persons that simply aren't true.A very small percentage have substantial hearing loss. A very small percentage have physical disabilities. A very small percentage go to nursing homes. Many people are healthy, active and vital until the last couple months of their lives."

Bogutz says that if students are interested in elder law, they can begin by getting involved with older people right away. He adds there are always opportunities to volunteer.

"There are retirement homes, nursing home, retirement communities that are looking for people to assist with sometimes just looking in on people, sometimes with delivering meals, sometimes simply providing socialization," he says.

Links

National Association of Area Agencies on Aging
Links to services and resources available to older people

National Elder Law Foundation
Certifies experienced elder law attorneys in the U.S.

National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys
National organization of elder law attorneys