General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionMagazine

American Bar Association
General Practice, Solo, and Small Firm Division
The Compleat Lawyer
Spring 1998
© American Bar Association. All rights reserved.

From the Editor


jennifer j. rose, editor-in-chief of The Compleat Lawyer, spent 28 years growing old in Iowa before moving to Morelia, Michoacan, Mexico. She can be reached at

Old people used to look and act their age. You could identify one at ten paces: gray hair, bifocals, halting gait, brooches, and a taste for aspic. And their legal problems seemed to be primarily what to do with those worldly goods when they passed over to the great beyond.

Advances in medical science prolonging life, coupled with a baby-making frenzy of those who came of age in the forties and fifties and the wild and crazy attitudes of the sixties and seventies, make old people a hefty segment of the population, demanding legal solutions to problems our great-grandparents never envisioned.

No longer a neatly defined category, the entry level for "old" keeps changing. Always several decades beyond your own age, the mark hovers around your parents' age, until you realize that you're now the eldest of the clan. Having passed the quarter-century mark in practice, many 50-year-old lawyers are "old lawyers," basking in their prime, bored, contemplating practice changes, or wistfully dreaming of doing something else. And there are significant numbers of age cohorts, late starters, for whom lawyering is a second career.

So What Is Elder Law?

Today's older client bears little resemblance to our ancestors, whom we charitably called "Senior Citizens." Casting off old labels, scorning "mature" for "Third Age," they're getting married and divorced and sometimes even siring children, raising grandchildren, working, idling, possessing wealth, flat broke, flying off to outer space, hale and hearty, in chronic vegetative states. The older client has become a distinct client base whose needs demand attention and who hold the purse strings to a disproportionate share of America's net worth. The savvy lawyer can't afford to ignore them.

Elder law is more than probate and tweaking finances to finance nursing home care through Medicaid. Health care decision-making, elder abuse, welfare reform and public benefit programs, financial planning, and age discrimination changed the face of practicing law for older clients. And as lawyers age, so too do their clientele. Those clients who built your practice while they were starting families, buying first homes, and growing careers now seek out advice about stretching wealth into old age, caring for elderly parents, and Social Security. Because we never know when we are going to be considered "elderly" or near the end of our lives, many aspects of elder law impact those of any age. Perhaps it is time to characterize elder law as Extreme Law.

"That New-Fangled Socratic Method"

Just as young lawyers plotted careers in civil rights and liberties, juvenile law, prison reform, and glamorous arenas, older lawyers laid claim to probate law. A lawyer's age, personal life experience, and length of practice shapes attitudes toward certain areas of practice. The cases and clients that were once so captivating no longer seem as compelling, as youthful zeal for causes yields to the reality of mortgage and tuition payments. Some lawyers breathe a resurgent second wind of fiery-spirit idealism and intellectual challenge at the midpoint of their careers, either as a test of mettle or an antidote to staleness and boredom.

Defending Lady Chatterly's Lover initiated Boston lawyer Ed Hamada's 35-year-old legal career, and the Tet Offensive shifted his focus to the Selective Service System. As the war wound down, his practice focused upon errant lawyers and families. Anticipating yet another shift before he becomes a burden upon his children, he remarked, "While we make conscious and responsible choices as we develop a sense of who each of us really is in the world of law, we should not ignore the serendipitous lift into new fields, new ideas, and new clients."

It's easy to leave the older clients to older lawyers, until you realize that you're closer to qualifying for membership in the Senior Lawyers Division than the Young Lawyers Division. (For most ABA members, it's a 19-year gap.) Your long-standing clients have aged, your parents became old, and an AARP card has replaced your own Jaycee membership. You're the age that the old, established lawyers, who might have been all of 45, were when you were a brand-new lawyer. And the new lawyers are young enough to be your children.

Muttering "What's the matter with kids today," you go to the Internet to jog your memory that those lyrics came from "Bye, Bye Birdie." You find yourself trying cases before a judge who wasn't even born when Kennedy was shot, who's never heard of Rosemary Woods, Maggie Kuhn, or Billy Sol Estes, and who wonders if that new-fangled Socratic Method was part of your legal education. You realize that you have left the ranks of the insouciant youth and joined the sagely wizened. The shibboleths of age have crumbled.

Sooner or later, we all get old—or at least to the end of our rope. Whether you look upon law and the older client as a new specialty, an expansion of your current practice, or simply as a means of staying in tune with the times, it's inescapable. (Except, perhaps for Stan Cohn, who ably steered this issue as issue editor and did not appear to age one bit in the process.)

Out with the old, in with the new—that's the story of federal laws, which change faster than the gossip in the Beltway. You'd think the lawmakers would have something better to do, but legislating seems to give them a sense of purpose. Not the usual beach time fiction special, the Summer 1998 issue of The Compleat Lawyer will tell you everything you wanted to know about major federal laws.

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