Elder Law Attorneys


Exploring this Job

You can explore this profession by finding out more about being a lawyer and by gaining experience working with the elderly. To learn more about the legal profession in general, sit in on some trials at your local or state courthouse. Watch the lawyers and take note of what they do. Write down questions you have and terms or actions you don't understand so you can research them later. Work with your school counselor to set up an information interview with a lawyer willing to answer questions about the career. You may also be able to "job shadow" this person for part of a workday or more. By doing this, you can see some of the typical daily work of a lawyer. You may even be able to help with some tasks, such as filing. 

The Internet is also a good source of information. Visit law-related sites to learn more about legal terminology, current court cases, and the field of law in general. Some sites that would be particularly beneficial to visit include those of the American Bar Association, National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, and National Elder Law Foundation. You can also try to get part-time or summer work in a lawyer's office. You may only be answering phones, filing office papers, or typing letters, but this work will give you excellent exposure to the profession.

Read the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys Journal (http://www.naela.org) and other resources published by professional associations to learn about industry trends and practice issues. Additionally, If you’re already a law student, you should consider becoming a student member of the American Bar Association. Student members receive Student Lawyer, a magazine that contains useful information for aspiring lawyers. Sample articles from the magazine can be read at http://abaforlawstudents.com/stay-informed. It will also be important for you to get experience working with the elderly, either on a paid or a volunteer basis. Contact local nursing homes, senior centers, and volunteer groups providing services, such as Meals on Wheels, to find out what opportunities are available. By working with the elderly population, you will start to learn about their specific needs, concerns, and opinions.

The Job

Lawyers give legal advice and, when necessary, represent their clients' interests in court. Regardless of their area of expertise, an attorney's job is to help clients know and understand their legal rights and to help them assert those rights before a judge, jury, government agency, or other legal forum, such as an arbitration panel.

Elder law attorneys focus on the needs of their elderly clients, using a variety of legal tools and techniques to meet their goals in an efficient, fiscally responsible, and legally sound manner. Elder law attorneys deal with the whole of the legal needs of their clients. Because of this, their responsibilities are many. They may help one client with estate planning; they may counsel another client about planning for mental incapacity and compose an alternative decision-making document that will allow another family member, for example, to make decisions about that client's health care; and they may assist yet another client in planning for possible long-term care needs, including nursing home care. Locating the appropriate type of care, coordinating private and public resources to finance the cost of care, and working to ensure the client's right to quality care are all part of the elder law practice.

Elder law lawyers must know the law's position on a variety of issues, including health and long-term care planning, surrogate decision making (that is, when the client has appointed someone, most likely a relative, to make financial or other decisions when the client is unable to), obtaining public benefits (including Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security), managing diminished capacity (such as when the client can no longer think clearly), and the conservation and administration of the older person's estate (including wills, trusts, and probate). In advising about these matters, elder law attorneys must know about the tax consequences for clients when they decide on a certain action (such as putting money in a trust); attorneys must also recognize when they need to seek more sophisticated tax information from an expert and do so for the best interests of their clients. In addition, elder law attorneys must be able to recognize cases of abuse, neglect, and exploitation of an older client. An elder law attorney must also be familiar with professional and non-legal resources and services that are publicly and privately available to meet the needs of the older person. Elder law lawyers can then refer clients to these resources, which may include adult day care centers, community transportation, and food services. Elder law encompasses more than just legal planning; it deals with a larger realm of life planning.

In many cases, a crisis is what brings a new client to an elder law attorney. Common situations include middle-income families concerned about paying for a parent's long-term care and nursing home care; families with an older member whose ability to think clearly and live independently is diminishing; older people wanting to ensure their wishes are respected when their health deteriorates; families struggling with retirement and/or assisted-living decisions, contracts, and expenses; and families or seniors faced with issues of age discrimination, exploitation, or abuse.

Elder law attorneys must conduct their practices ethically. They must understand their clients, know which confidences can be shared with which family members, and know when and how to seek other professionals, whether about medical, financial, insurance, or tax issues, to best meet the needs of the clients. The attorney must also recognize situations where a client's wishes clash with those of the family and then determine the best way of handling the issues to best serve the client.