Golden years: Law professor goes to bat for seniors

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By Sheila Pursglove

Legal News

Susan Cancelosi, assistant professor at Wayne State University Law School, almost chose a very different career.

Editor of the campus newspaper at Southern Methodist University, where she earned bachelor's degrees in history and business (marketing), both cum laude, Cancelosi originally set her sights on becoming a journalist.

"After a year of part-time reporting for The Dallas Morning News, I concluded that covering the news in the real world was much too depressing for me," she says. "Law school seemed a good fit for my writing and analytical skills.

"In retrospect, I probably should have investigated alternative careers a bit more carefully, but I was lucky that I liked law!"

She graduated from Cornell Law School, cum laude, serving as symposium editor for the Cornell International Law Journal, and also holds an LL.M. in health law from the University of Houston Law Center.

Her particular passion is elder law and employee benefits, as well as wills and trusts. Her research focuses on retiree health benefits, both employment-based and Medicare.

Her passion is the result of personal experience. She and her husband were both 29 when her mother-in-law died of early-onset Alzheimer's disease after more than 15 years of steady physical and mental deterioration. About a year later, Cancelosi's father suffered a massive stroke that left him in a near-vegetative state in a nursing home for the last 20 months of his life.

In the middle of this period of personal turmoil, she called the United Way volunteer line in Dallas in search of a way to focus her energy in a positive direction.

"When the person on the other end of the call found out I was a lawyer, she asked if I'd be willing to work with the elderly. That one conversation started me down the path I'm on today," she says. "I find incredible joy and hope when I spend time with older individuals. We tend to see aging as a negative in our society, but I think that's only because many people haven't spent much time around their elders."

She spent years volunteering with The Senior Source, a United Way agency based in Dallas. She offered pro bono advice at clinics for the elderly, spoke to senior citizens' groups, and served for several years as a volunteer guardian for a senior citizen in a nursing home near Dallas.

Cancelosi began her legal career as an employee benefits attorney with Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue, later joining the benefits practice at Taft, Stettinius & Hollister in Cincinnati. She served for several years in the 1990s as assistant general counsel for The Associates, a large publicly traded finance company based in Dallas. Her private practice work covered the full range of employee benefits issues, from traditional retirement plan benefits to all types of welfare benefits and executive compensation.

She also worked as a manager with Deloitte & Touche in its employee benefits consulting practice, then as a director in Tax & Legal Consulting Services for Buck Consultants, a national human resources consulting firm.

Before joining the WSU faculty, Cancelosi was a research professor with the Health Law & Policy Institute at the University of Houston Law Center, where she focused primarily on research into various health care finance issues and taught employee benefits and elder law.

A frequent speaker on retiree health benefits around the country, she is scheduled to be a presenter in June at the Institute for Continuing Legal Education's biennial conference in Plymouth on the "Basics of Advising Elderly Clients & Those with Disabilities," discussing government benefits for the elderly and disabled.

"The world's population is rapidly aging, and almost every country is struggling to provide for the needs of the elderly," she says. "In the United States, we have a labyrinth of government programs available to help qualifying older individuals in addition to employment-based benefits that apply to many retirees. Private organizations, both non-profit and for-profit, are also popping up to meet seniors' needs.

"Navigating this universe of options and piecing together resources requires a staggering range of knowledge, much of it involving complex legal systems like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. Elder law attorneys can provide vital assistance in the endeavor to maintain the best possible quality of life for aging persons."

Cancelosi, who balances with her career and a home life with her husband, 9-year-old daughter, and 10-month-old Airedale Terrier puppy, enjoys teaching at Wayne.

"I think almost every law professor at Wayne, myself included, will say that our students are the best thing about teaching here," she says. "They are smart, hard-working, and really just wonderful!

"Many of them juggle school with jobs and families, yet they come to class prepared and engaged. I'm in awe of how much volunteer work many of them do and how committed they are to improving our communities."

Published: Wed, Mar 2, 2011

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