Students get hands-on experience in burgeoning elder law field
Elder law used to mean writing a will and choosing a power of attorney should one become disabled. These days, lawyers who pursue the specialty find themselves helping a new generation of seniors navigate territory their parents never faced – one that often requires lawyers to play the role of social worker, psychologist and advocate, said Kate Mewhinney, a clinical professor at the Wake Forest University School of Law who oversees the Elder Law Clinic.
Elder law provides one of the few growth areas in a job market that has been limited in recent years, though most law schools have been slow to catch up with the demand. Wake Forest Law’s Elder Law Clinic, which opened in 1991, was one of a handful across the country that was mentioned in a recent New York Times article that highlighted an elder law clinic in California.
“If you have a heart for families and for the elderly, elder law can be a rewarding experience,” said Jonathan Williams (’11), who spent a semester at the Elder Law Clinic and now practices with Booth Harrington & Johns of NC PLLC, North Carolina’s first elder law firm, according to the firm’s web site. “I wanted to do something that would impact families and individuals in a meaningful way when I came to law school.”
For the past few months, the clinic operated on a limited scale at Senior Services, where two students saw clients. They drafted wills and advised seniors on how to protect their income and assets in the face of job loss or unexpected medical bills.
Before moving to temporary quarters at Senior Services, the clinic operated from the Sticht Center at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. Holly Marion, the vice president of development for Senior Services, said that the clinic has filled a void for people who need legal help, but don’t have the money to hire a lawyer or don’t know where to turn. The clinic allows older people to access legal services in a setting where they have already built trust.
“The students are very professional,” she said. “They go right to work. The clients feel very comfortable in our environment. The students who are drawn to the Elder Law Clinic are old beyond their years, in a sense. There seems to be a sensitivity and compassion there.”
Mewhinney added that the Elder Law Clinic’s relationship with Senior Services will continue even after the clinic moves to the newly-renovated WFU School of Law building next fall.
“We’ve always had a strong referral relationship with Senior Services and I’m sure we will continue to,” she said.
Tiffany Tyler (’13), who has spent part of this semester at the clinic, had lived with her grandmother, who was blind, when she was in middle school. She remembered how rewarding it had been for her family to ease her grandmother’s last years. When her stepfather was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2009, she worked to help him achieve a sense of peace by helping him get his affairs in order.
“They appreciate little things you do for them –drafting a will, solving their problems,” she said of people who approach the end of life.
After graduation, Tyler will be working in elder law at St. John-Ritzen & Applefield Law, PLLC in Asheville.
For Michelle Bleda (’13), who worked with Tyler in the clinic, elder law plays to her strengths in communicating ideas and working with people.
“I wanted to get back to the roots of why I went to law school to begin with,” she said. “In elder law, I can see how simple it is to change people’s lives for the better.”