Older boomers means new clients: Elder law's appeal increases with an aging population

By Diana Smith

The Daily Record Newswire

COLUMBIA, SC--''Well, what did you go to law school for?''

That was the question Surfside Beach attorney Kathryn DeAngelo's mother posed to her 20 years ago.

Stuck in bed with a broken ankle, the retired school teacher recruited her lawyer-daughter to decipher the confusing pile of forms she'd received about her Medicare benefits.

She couldn't make heads or tails of them and neither could DeAngelo, despite her legal background.

''I started calling around to get an answer for her, and I found that it was like the Holy Grail. You couldn't find one,'' said DeAngelo, who became an elder lawyer based on that experience and is now chair of the South Carolina Bar's Elder Law Committee.

Forecasters say that questions surrounding the legal aspects of aging are going to become more typical as baby boomers situated on the cusp of retirement age enter the senior citizen pool. The first batch will turn 65 next year.

Business-wise, that creates a wealth of new opportunities for attorneys entering the practice of law or seeking to change focus.

But whether there will be enough elder law practitioners to accommodate the growth in South Carolina is more difficult to predict.

U.S. Census data show that 13.3 percent of the state's population was age 65 and older in 2008. Projections indicate that number could reach 22 percent by 2030, which would rank the Palmetto State as 15th in the nation for the highest number of senior residents.

Rock Hill elder lawyer Mitchell Payne said that he thinks South Carolina has an average number of elder law attorneys for its population.

''I certainly think there's room in the practice for more people, but I don't think we have a shortage or a surplus,'' he said.

But Franchelle Millender, an elder lawyer in Columbia, said that the state needs more.

There are 41 lawyers from South Carolina listed as members in the online directory of the National Academy of Elder Attorneys, the country's leading group focusing on legal issues facing seniors.

''But even of those you see on the membership, not all of them do this full time,'' said Millender. ''Some do nothing but, others have a variety of practices, and this is just one piece.

''There are some geographic areas that have almost no one who can advise them on these issues,'' she added. ''I see clients from all over the state because there aren't enough good, capable people spread around.''

Yet the uptick in aging clientele has already begun and has led some attorneys to adapt before the boomer bubble bursts.

Myrtle Beach lawyer Juliet Casper shifted her focus from real estate to elder law five years ago when she noticed that buyers on the Grand Strand were fitting an older demographic.

''I go to a Catholic church, and virtually the entire congregation is retirees. My priest says we have three funerals a week,'' Casper told Lawyers Weekly.

The allure of warm weather and coastal breezes is encouraging more seniors to consider South Carolina as a retirement destination.

That's why the growth potential for elder law as a practice area can be so significant, the lawyers said.

Umbrella definition

Elder law encompasses a vast number of legal areas such as (but not limited to) Medicare/Medicaid, nursing home care, long-term care planning, Social Security and disability.

Add to the mix traditional practice areas associated with seniors wills, estates, probate and the like and growing areas, such as fraud, neglect, employment discrimination and litigation, and there's a field that's ripe with legal issues for the picking.

''Frankly, it's a difficult area of law to define,'' Payne said.

Also, elder lawyers must craft a broad understanding how all of those legal topics can intersect and affect the client, according to Millender.

''I used to do real estate,'' she said. ''People would frequently come in and say, 'I want to deed my house to my daughter.' Now, a real estate lawyer would say 'OK, give me the information about the house and I'll prepare the deed.' And they'd prepare the deed, and it would be recorded and be done.''

By contrast, ''The elder law attorney would ask the person, 'Why are you doing this?' and might find out that they've heard if they don't do it, the nursing home will take away their home. [That's] misinformation, but it does have some validity in fact but if I just prepare the deed, I'm not in a position to advise them on whether it's a good idea, bad idea or what the consequences are,'' Millender explained.

That's not to mention the ever-growing number of changes to state and federal regulations affecting the elderly. According to Payne, it takes a heroic effort just to keep current.

''I do think elder law is a field you can't practice part time,'' he said. ''The changes are constant and you have to mesh your knowledge of issues that are greatly in flux. It's not possible to be effective doing that on a part-time basis.''

Although the S.C. Bar does not have an elder law specialty, NAELA offers a certification exam that allows lawyers to use the ''certified elder law attorney'' designation. The Bar allows lawyers to market themselves with that credential, DeAngelo said.

Five attorneys in South Carolina are certified through NAELA, including two of the four lawyers interviewed for this article. DeAngelo and Millender are also members of NAELA's Council of Advanced Practitioners, an invitation-only group of elder lawyers.

Getting the word out

Generating attorneys' awareness of elder law is one of the challenges that current practitioners face.

Although it's growing in recognition, many law schools still do not teach elder law. The University of South Carolina School of Law does not offer a course on the topic, but associate dean of academic affairs Rob Wilcox said ''it's on the short list of directions in which we want to go.''

In an e-mail, Charleston School of Law Dean Andy Abrams said the school offered an elder law class a couple of years ago, but one is not scheduled for the fall. It may be offered in the spring or summer sessions, according to Margaret Lawton, CSOL's academic dean.

''As a member of the graying set, I think elder law is most definitely an important and emergent field,'' Abrams wrote.

But issues facing older people aren't typically on the radar for the majority of young law grads just entering practice, according to DeAngelo.

With an elder client, ''What was important to you when you were 30 is not prominent,'' she said. ''You're worried more about your health care, remaining independent, maintaining your cognitive skills, economics and finances to give you dignity. That doesn't sound important to a 20- or 30-year-old because their lives are just beginning.''

Added Millender, ''It's not a glamorous area of the law like doing personal injury litigation or criminal work where you feel like Perry Mason. For most of us, it is not a way to make huge amounts of money. It can be very emotionally rewarding, it can certainly be financially rewarding, but that is not typically the focus.''

With many lawyers coming out of school with staggering loan debt, that financial aspect may be a deterrent for new attorneys, Millender said.

Published: Mon, Jul 19, 2010