Plachta Murphy acquires family services advocate to help clients

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 Attorney Brian J. Plachta and Family Services Advocate Vicki Poleni at the Plachta Murphy and Associates office, lavishly decorated for the holidays.

LEGAL NEWS PHOTO BY CYNTHIA PRICE

By Cynthia Price
Legal News

When Brian Plachta considers the way the attorneys of Plachta Murphy and Associates, PLC, conduct their practice, he comes up with a word he thinks says it well.

“Holistic. I guess in summary, it’s a holistic approach to practicing law.”

The latest manifestation of that approach is hiring a Family Services Advocate, Vicki Poleni MSW. Poleni will be on hand to assist Plachta Murphy clients when, in the course of offering legal counsel, attorneys identify a need for social services management, education or planning.

She will work alongside the other members of the family advocate team, which consists of Plachta, attorney Bryan Reeder, and Government Benefit Specialist Rick Cross.

At first, the concept of a social worker at a law firm may seem to have limited applications, and there will definitely be a number of clients who have no need of her services. But once Plachta and Poleni start listing a few specific in-

stances, the innovative thinking that led to creating her position becomes clear.

Plachta focuses his personal practice on business law, real estate law, and estate planning. He is a certified elder law attorney through the National Association of Elder Law Attorneys.

He graduated from Aquinas College and received his J.D. summa cum laude from University of Detroit School of Law. He interned in the U.S. Attorney’s Office and worked for the Michigan Court of Appeals before starting in private practice. Plachta is the managing partner of Plachta Murphy.

Bryan Reeder, a 2011 Thomas M. Cooley Law School graduate who clerked for 17th Circuit Court Judge G. Patrick Hillary and interned with the Kent County Office of the Public Defender, specializes in estate planning, elder, law, guardianships and conservatorships, along with some family law.

Remaining shareholder Miles Murphy also practices in the family law area, along with business litigation and business and commercial law.

The firm also employs two other attorneys, Jeffrey M. Black and Mary A. Owens, who is Of Counsel, and other  credentialed specialists including  the previously-mentioned Rick Cross, who specializes in SSA/VA?disability appeals.

Now Vicki Poleni will be on staff, in a move that both she and Plachta think is unique in Michigan and possibly the United States. Though there has been a trend to collaborative practices in family law (often involving a psychologist), and though attorneys refer their clients to off-site social workers, neither is aware of another law firm having a social worker who is right there, ready to serve as a case manager or help navigate the “end-of-life” world.

“What we found at the firm was that in the elder care and the business practice there was a gap,” Plachta explains. “We were well able to advise clients on the legal issues but when it came down to a breakdown in communications or to a personal dispute with family, maybe business partners, fighting over personal matters, we could refer people, but there wasn’t an integration between us and what the social worker did.

“And often families were reluctant to take our referral, so this way we can offer them a one-hour consultation free so they can see if it will be helpful.”

Poleni added, “That way, Brian can track what happens, too. I?saw right away with Brian and the others that these clients are people they care about. It’s hard to send them to someone where you get no sense of continuity of care, and you don’t know what happens until they show back up at the law firm.”

In addition, Plachta pointed out, Poleni has the skills to do a much better job than he would at solving some of the clients’ problems without having to charge attorney hourly rates.

Poleni received a bachelor’s degree in both Social Work and Psychology from Eastern Michigan University, then followed up with her Masters in Social Work at University of Michigan. She worked at the Salvation Army, including in the substance abuse area, and at Community Mental Health in Ottawa County before spending about 15 years working for a hospice organization. She then spearheaded a case management project at a large physician’s office, “the same kind of idea only in primary care,” she says, to what she is doing at Plachta Murphy.

Plachta had been thinking about the issues of social work and the legal field since reading an article about it over a year ago, but it was after Poleni attended an elder care seminar held by the firm that she approached him with the idea of a more holistic approach. “In answer to the questions that came up, the attorneys really did a good job talking about resources within  the community,” she says, “but I started thinking, wouldn’t it be great to offer those services right within your office?” 

She says she was surprised at how receptive Plachta was to the idea, and they “made it official” in June 2014.

“I think what’s exciting about it is the chance to issue-spot,” says Plachta, who said even he, an experienced elder law attorney, had problems negotiating with the medical community in the case of his mother. “It’s like an onion, this allows us to peel back the layers that are legal and find all the other, hidden layers below. We can now say to the client, I think there’s another person here who can help you deal with those other layers.

“Vicki has so much experience in the community, so we can offer real help to these clients.”

The relationship has already borne genuine fruit. Plachta and Poleni tell the story of a well-educated professional in the city who was having tremendous difficulty getting the staff of a nursing home/assisted living center to give her grandmother the best care. Legal solutions seemed less appropriate, so Poleni pulled together a group of the facility’s staff people. Plachta said he was amazed at how many of those around the table knew her, mostly due to her teaching at Western Michigan and Grand Valley.

“I told them I understood how hard it is to keep a facility running, how much the resources count,” Poleni says, “but that we needed to do what’s best for this lady.” The group reached a resolution and the client’s grandmother died peacefully in hospice care while at the facility.

But there is more to the story. Last weekend, Poleni attended the woman’s memorial service and saw that many of the facility staff who had been “caught in the middle” during the previous negotiations were there on their own time, offering support for the bereaved granddaughter. Based on conversations afterwards, Poleni will now be leading sessions to help staff members deal with the grief they feel at a patient’s loss while still providing good care for the next patient. “How do you join all the pieces together that they have to, and how do you make it clear that there’s not a bad guy in this story?” she says. “Nobody has the tools to do all this, but maybe we can start to develop some.”