July/August 2003  Volume 29, Issue 5
July/August 2003 Issue
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Building an Elder Law Practice
by Milton W. Zwicker
Elder law is a tremendous market niche. But to realize all the opportunities, you must learn all you can about how to run a client-centered, age-aware practice.
 

We all know that an historic age wave has begun. And as the baby boomer generation begins to turn the corner into its retirement years, the wave will move toward exponential heights over the next decades. Elder law, consequently, represents an enormous growth market for practitioners.

Contrary to what many lawyers believe, though, elder law isn't simply about writing wills and planning estates. It's about understanding and catering to the wants and needs of a special client group. It requires that you be "age aware" and develop an elder-friendly office, one that can help older clients with a range of legal and quasi-legal matters. Building an elder law practice is a genuine opportunity to offer legal services in a creative and client-centered way.

Knowing Your Market: Social Dynamics
The primary step toward success in elder law is to adapt your thinking, and your marketing, to your unique client group. That can be a tricky business. Here's the first pitfall: Most people don't like to be labeled, and no one wants to be called old. In fact, research indicates that most people perceive themselves as 15 years younger than they really are. In addition, research shows that members of this consumer group generally share the following buying habits:

  • They are more interested in purchasing experiences than objects.
  • They prefer to be shown in an attractive and positive fashion.
  • They have a strong psychological need to be comfortable.
  • They consider security and safety key psychological buying factors.
  • They consider convenience and access as important as the service itself.

These characteristics are heavily dependent on considerations of social dynamics -- such as communications skills, interpersonal behavior, motivation theory and other psychological factors. Therefore, if they want to flourish, elder law practitioners must know about the habits, likes, dislikes, desires and needs of seniors.

At the same time, you must always keep in mind that older people are not a homogeneous, one-size-fits-all group. Like other major market categories, this one has subsegments -- each with its own individual characteristics.

Giving the Right Advice: Understanding the Aging Process
To serve older clients well, you must be knowledgeable in the various areas of law in which they are likely to seek your advice. You should have substantive legal skills and knowledge in the following areas: wills, powers of attorney, estate planning, guardianship and administration, retirement village contracts and disputes, nursing home care, pension entitlements, reverse mortgages, elder abuse and age discrimination.

However, lawyers who work with the elderly must bring more to their practices than an expertise in the appropriate areas of law. They must bring a knowledge of the elderly that allows them and their staff to ignore myths about aging and the competence of the elderly. They must understand the afflictions of the elderly to figure out the difference between the physical versus the mental disabilities of clients. Older clients who are physically frail may be mentally robust and perfectly able to participate in decisions affecting their legal affairs.

You need an awareness that aging is associated with vision and hearing impairment; that retirement matters mean reduced income and changes in lifestyles; and that the death of a spouse may result in a decreased capacity to cope with problems. Heredity, health, finances, personal and social relationships affect the aging process along with many other factors.

The more you learn about aging, the more you'll learn about how to develop elder-friendly procedures to help your clients. The following offers essential information and key pointers to help you build a client-centered elder law practice.

Setting Up Consultations: Your Work Begins with You
It is important to have a sensitivity to clients' unique aging histories, to help ensure effective communication and correct assessment of each one's legal needs. When scheduling client meetings, be aware of the individual's physical health and mental well-being.

Many seniors have a routine medication regimen around which you should plan. Sometimes, for example, a client may be mentally alert for a short period after taking a medication. The alertness can quickly turn into grogginess or confusion. If the client has severe physical problems or signs of early dementia, you should also know the person's medication schedule. That knowledge will enable you to better help the client -- and possibly help you combat a will contest or malpractice suit later. Make relevant information about the client's medical condition part of your client database --don't rely on your memory for the little things.

Being Easily Available: Accessibility and Transportation Issues
To serve your unique market, you must pay special attention to the accessibility and decor of your office. Make sure the hallways and doorways are wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs and walkers. Avoid the use of throw rugs, plush sofas and overstuffed chairs. Use chairs with straight backs and hard cushions, but with arms that are strong enough to support a person leaning on them.

Take the time to find out how clients handle their travel arrangements to your office. Statistics show that travel can be a dangerous task for many seniors.

For example, for those with mobility impairments, particularly those who use walkers, canes or wheelchairs, crossing intersections safely can be difficult. This problem is worse when the pedestrian walk signals are too short or when the weather is bad. Be conscious of such factors when setting up client meetings. In addition, data suggests that you avoid making appointments with older clients who rely on public transportation during peak traffic times.

Many clients will, of course, be able to drive to your office. The automobile gives seniors considerable freedom and convenience. Interestingly, the risks of collision for those age 75 and over are the same as for high-risk
drivers age 16 to 24. The consequences of collisions, however, are more serious for seniors than for young people. Inquire about whether the client can drive herself or himself to your office, or whether an adult child or related party will be the driver. Either way, let them know where there is adequate parking close to your office.

These are not only simple courtesies; they are part of running an age-aware law practice. They may seem like little things to you, but they make a big difference to clients.

Another big difference: Given the preceding issues, you should make clients aware that you do house calls and are willing to visit nursing homes, hostels and hospitals as well. Indeed, if you don't have a first-floor office and there is no elevator, you may have
no choice but to meet some clients at home. When visiting a client outside your office, though, be sure to find a quiet, private space for your discussions.

Building the Right Communication Skills
The ways in which lawyers communicate with clients are always important to building the relationships. But that is especially true in an elder law practice, where you need to fine-tune a number of basic communication techniques. Here are pointers.

Show your respect. First impressions are critical, particularly with a nervous elderly client. Always greet your new clients with a smile, a look in the eye and a firm handshake. Immediately tell them how much you appreciate their coming in to see you. Show them great respect. Use the "Mr.," "Ms." or "Mrs." salutation until the client lets you know it's all right to use "John" or "Joan." Also let clients know that, if they wish, they are welcome to call you by your first name.

It's also nice to have family photographs and other personal touches in your office. They can be icebreakers for a nervous client who's searching for some common ground on which to start conversing. If it's your first meeting, tell the client a bit about yourself. I often tell new senior clients about my Nova Scotia roots, that my dad was a fisherman and my mom sold Avon products. It helps them understand that, despite the fact you're a lawyer, you're not that different from them.

Develop trust. Some older people are reluctant to deal with lawyers in general. Others are reluctant to share personal or private concerns. Thus, you must attempt to establish their confidence in your legal skills, as well as prove the information they reveal to you is confidential. You should explain why it's necessary for you to take notes and, as a courtesy, ask for their permission to do so. Assure them that you will not share information with other family members without their consent.

Paraphrase. Paraphrasing is a wise communication technique that enables you to check the correctness of information and instructions that clients give to you, while avoiding unnecessary repetition. It allows your older clients to rehear and clarify important aspects of the discussion. Moreover, it shows them that you are listening and are genuinely interested in what they have to say.

Be aware, however, that if you overuse this technique, some clients may find it patronizing, which
can inhibit the free flow of information and damage your relationship with them.

Allow sufficient time. The pace of your activities is likely faster than that of your elderly clients. Adjust your pace to theirs. Be careful not to make them feel that you are rushing them. They will respect your timetable, but you must inform them at the start of an interview how much time you have available. Treat them as you would a special guess who comes to your home.

Adjust to their physical impairments. Hearing and vision losses are common impairments of many seniors. Be alert to how these impairments influence your clients' daily living habits and how they might affect interactions during legal consultations. Hearing loss usually affects a person in two ways: an inability to distinguish words in a noisy environment and an inability to hear high-frequency sounds. Research shows that 6 percent of seniors could not follow a conversation even with a hearing aid.

In addition, older clients may have vision problems that glasses cannot correct. Also, senior women are more likely to have vision problems than senior men. These impairments present challenges to the lawyer. Follow the steps outlined in the sidebar at right to help ensure that information is communicated properly.

You should also make allowances for other physical impairments. A client with a bad back, for example, probably cannot sit in one place for too long. Have an Obus form seat and back support available. Don't put the client in a seat that is too soft or too low.

Learn to manage chitchat. Some lawyers like to complain that older clients waste time by straying from the topic or engaging in too much social chat. Accept that this is how some seniors communicate, and learn to manage the situation. You may intimidate your clients if you clock watch as a method to reduce social chat. Instead use these three strategies:

  1. Empathize with any concern the client raises, but do not indulge it.
  2. Use specific questions to focus the client's attention.
  3. Politely discuss with the client how you can help him or her "stick to the topic."

Help them decide. Another trait typical of some older clients is their desire to "just want the answer." In other words, they expect you to tell them what to do. Resist the temptation. Instead, find ways to get them to participate in the decision-making process. Explain the potential resolutions for their issues, but don't hide any conflicts you see as inevitable. A conflict can help spur clients to decide how they prefer to proceed in a legal matter. In addition, rate the consequences of the available alternatives. Offer suggestions -- and explain the reasons for your suggestions.

Another good way to encourage participation is to use flip charts or other visual aids to outline the issues, conflicts and suggestions. It helps to keep the client focused and better able to follow the discussion.
Get them to talk. Some older clients are reluctant to discuss their family conflicts, mental capacity or death. To cope with this reluctance, draw on your best, sensitive side. You can also focus on the benefits of being open. You may also want to explore your client's legal position beyond the difficulty that brought him or her to your door. The individual may not be aware
that you can probably provide help with related problems.

Make your documents more understandable. It's hard for most lawyers to abandon their legal writing style. But if you want to improve your communications with any client group, including seniors, plain-English writing is essential. Keep away from the legalese and other jargon. Avoid the use of run-on sentences and the passive voice. Your writing will immediately improve, as will your clients' ability to understand your documents.

It's also important to remember that "a picture is worth a thousand words." For example, can you incorporate some visuals to portray to clients the information and data that represent a will? Many clauses in wills are boilerplate legal terms that clients do not want to read -- and probably will not appreciate. Is there a way to better present the information, to enhance the true value of your skills in the client's eyes?

Computers now make it possible for us to redesign and package our materials in more creative and compelling ways. You can use typography, color, charts, diagrams, graphs, tables and maps to enhance and explain a large array of information and data. The written word often lacks immediate capacity to communicate the complexity and essential elements of our work. Architects often construct models of their plans. We should learn a lesson from them.

Use humor. Research shows that looking at aging in a playful light can boost health and well-being. What is the relationship between humor and health? Laughter can be an antidote to stress, which can cause physical problems such as heart-rate increases, raised blood pressure, muscle tension and shallow breathing (according to David Jacobson at www.speaking.com/speakers/davidjacobson.html). So why not consider trying some lightheartedness to put your clients at ease and enhance your relationship with them?

However, if you're unsure that the client will appreciate your humor, stay away from it (or as the sport announcers say, "Folks, don't try this at home"). Or, if you think the humor would be better delivered from another source, you might refer them to www.seniorresource.com and its feature "Oh, My Aging Funny Bone." Like everyone else, your older clients may well
appreciate -- and benefit from -- a good laugh.

Tending to More than the Case at Hand
To serve the seniors' market well, you also need to tie into formal and informal systems of social workers, psychologists and other elder care professionals. They can assist you with issues related to serving older clients in your law practice.

In addition, you should be able to refer nonlegal problems to your developed network of other specialists. That means you must know when and how to make referrals, and to whom. The ability to refer effectively will increase your client's trust and relieve you of the frustration of dealing with matters that are outside your area of expertise.

Marketing Your Special Niche
By getting the service and communication aspects right, you can be confident of having something to offer that will benefit clients and help you build a sustainable practice. But how do you report this wonderful news to the older people who might need your services?

First, ask yourself what you know about this market: Where do older people go? What do they read? Where do they meet? What special issues affect them? Talk to your network of elder care professionals. Ask your financial planning and accounting contacts. Get information from older family members and friends.

Once you've identified some meeting places, such as a local chapter of the American Association of Retired Persons or seniors' clubs in the area, make contact with those organizations. See if you can present a pertinent seminar or leave written information that is useful to their members.

Learn if you can provide interesting information for publications targeted to older people, or take out a regular information spot to advertise your expertise. Most important, subscribe to and read the periodicals yourself -- this will keep you in touch with relevant issues.

Also, keep an eye on trade shows that take place in your community. Promoters gear many shows toward the 50-plus age group. They may provide opportunities for you to speak or rent space where you can meet people and talk about your expertise. And learn how to position yourself as a local seniors' legal expert, so that reporters will call you for quotes and interviews about elder law issues. The opportunities are unlimited.

Putting the Personal into Practice
Like most other areas of law practice, earning the loyalty and respect of elder law clients requires continuous relationship management. Unlike other areas, however, elder law requires you to be knowledgeable about how aging and a host of related issues affect the daily lives of your client group.

You must invest in a support infrastructure, systematic communication programs, feedback mechanisms and database analysis that allow you to give these clients the appropriate services. Most of all, you must invest in the personal touch and adapt to meet your clients' unique wants and needs.


Milton W. Zwicker ( zwicker@zwickerevanslewis.com) is Managing Partner of Zwicker Evans & Lewis in Orillia, ONT,
and the author of Successful Client Newsletters (ABA Law Practice Management Section, 1998).

ACTION

  • "1999 and Beyond: Challenges of an Aging Canadian Society."
    www.hc-sc.gc.ca/seniors-aines.
  • Understanding Elder Law: Issues in Estate Planning, Medicaid, and Long-Term Care Benefits by Michael McCauley, Patricia Day and L. Rush Hunt (ABA, 2002). Includes forms disk.
  • ABA Commission on Law and Aging.
    www.abanet.org/aging.
  • National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, Inc.
    www.naela.org.