GPSolo Magazine - March 2004
Building An Elder Law Practice
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.
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. Elder law practitioners must know about the habits, likes, dislikes, desires, and needs of seniors. At the same time, 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. You must be knowledgeable in the various areas of law in which older people 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 must also bring knowledge of the elderly that allows them and their staff to ignore myths about aging and the competence of the elderly. They must also 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. Understand 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.
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 alterness can quickly turn into grogginess or confusion. 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. Pay special attention to the accessibility and décor 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. Avoid making appointments with older clients who rely on public transportation during peak traffic times. Inquire whether the client can drive herself or himself to your office. Let them know where there is adequate parking close to your office. Make clients aware that you do house calls and are willing to visit nursing homes, hostels, and hospitals as well.
Building the right communication skills. First impressions are critical, particularly with a nervous elderly client. Show your respect. 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. If it’s your first meeting, tell the client a bit about yourself. It helps them understand that, despite the fact you’re a lawyer, you’re not that different from them.
Some older people are reluctant to deal with lawyers in general. Others are reluctant to share personal or private concerns. You must attempt to establish their confidence in your legal skills, as well as prove the information they reveal to you is confidential. 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.
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.
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. Hearing and vision losses are common impairments of many seniors. Be alert to how these impairments might affect interactions during legal consultations.
Some lawyers 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. Specifically: (1) empathize with any concern the client raises, but do not indulge it; (2) use specific questions to focus the client’s attention; and (3) politely discuss with the client how you can help him or her “stick to the topic.”
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 boiler-plate legal terms that clients do not want to read. Is there a way to better present the information?
Tending to more than the case at hand. 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.
Milton W. Zwicker is managing partner of Zwicker Evans & Lewis in Orillia, Ontario.
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