By Harry S. Margolis
When I graduated from law school in 1984, I did not have a clear idea of an area of law practice in which I wanted to specialize. At about that time, the American Bar Association Commission on Legal Problems for the Elderly held a panel discussion to which they invited five pioneers in the brand new field of elder law to discuss their practices. They then published a brochure entitled “Doing Well By Doing Good” which quoted the main points made by the panel participants.
The brochure also explained what elder law was (and is) as the field of law defined by the legal issues older clients typically face. The core of any elder law practice is figuring out how to finance the cost of long-term care, and in most cases this means helping clients navigate our arcane Medicaid system. Elder law also encompasses more standard estate planning for older clients, guardianship work for seniors who have become incompetent, and wrestling with insurance companies about health care coverage.
My law firm at the time staffed one position at Greater Boston Elderly Legal Services, rotating young lawyers in and out every four months. I took my turn, mostly defending tenants against eviction. But I became aware of the new field of elder law. The ABA brochure seemed to answer my own internal conflict about how to make a decent living while still making a contribution to society. So rather than returning to my law firm, I hung up a shingle to practice elder law.
That was 15 years ago. At the time, I knew little about elder law, but I also had no clients. While my first few clients did not benefit from years of experience, they did benefit from my ample time available to study up on their problems and find solutions. This was not an efficient way to practice, but my experience grew along with my clientele, permitting me to provide more rapid and economical service.
That’s why I began practicing elder law. But why do I still practice elder law? The reality is that over the years elder law has gone from about 90 percent of my practice to about half. The other half is filled with more traditional estate planning, estate administration, planning for parents who have children with special needs, and working with personal injury attorneys on structuring settlements for clients with disabilities.
But why do I and my firm still devote half our practice to elder law? First, the field has permitted me to make a valuable contribution to the lives of hundreds of clients and their families each year who are attempting to navigate our unduly complicated legal system, especially in the area of long-term care financing. Second, the field keeps changing enough to keep us challenged. After 15 years, I’m still learning more every day.