November 01, 2019

Reflections on the Origins of the Commission on Law and Aging

The Commission has an impressive record of service in continuing education, policy development, partnerships, and support.

The Commission has an impressive record of service in continuing education, policy development, partnerships, and support.

(The pdf for the issue in which this article appears is available for download: Bifocal, Vol. 41, Issue 2.)

ABA President William B. Spann determined to add the concerns of senior citizens to the association’s roster of public service priorities, the Washington office was a fertile garden for new initiatives of this kind.

The ABA’s Public Services Division had recently moved its location from Chicago to Washington and there was a real enthusiasm for exciting and diverse programs of this kind. Moreover, success with operating formats, such as specially focused bar committees and interdisciplinary “commissions,” coupled with opportunities for public and charitable funding to expand such endeavors, had opened a world of new possibilities.

Through these units, the ABA was increasingly able to study a variety of issues, marry formidable volunteer leadership to talented staff specialists, and then formulate responses ranging from policy positions to study reports, clearinghouse functions, demonstration projects, working conferences, and collaborative advocacy.

President Spann proceeded by designating a special task force to examine the status of the legal problems and needs confronting our elderly population, to determine whether, indeed, the ABA could play a constructive role, and to suggest what structure and broad priorities for an association program seemed most promising. With the nation’s elderly citizens steadily moving toward 15 percent of the total population and increasingly severe strains on their economic and social status being imposed by inflation, bureaucracy, resource scarcity, and benefit program squeezes, this appeared to be a pressing area for public service attention.

The task force reported out in mid-1978, affirming the value of an ABA initiative and suggesting that this might be best implemented through an interdisciplinary commission. It identified four priority areas that seemed worthy of attention—provision of legal services to the elderly, discrimination against the elderly, simplification and coordination of administrative procedure and regulation, and rights of persons subject to institutionalization or subsidized care.

The task force also reviewed prior work relating to older persons within other units of the ABA, urging that this be continued, that duplication be avoided, and cooperation fostered. Where feasible, the Commission was to mobilize and stimulate the talents and contributions of other ABA entities undertaking work in the field rather than replace them.

The task force report was favorably received and at the ABA’s 1978 annual meeting, the establishment of a new interdisciplinary Commission on Legal Problems of the Elderly was authorized by the ABA governing bodies. Appointments to the Commission were made in late 1978 and its first meeting was held in February 1979. This initiative brought together an outstanding group of practicing attorneys, legal educators, specialists in aging, and nonlawyer experts on problems of the elderly, including key federal officials, national organization leaders, and two former secretaries of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

What was so unique about the Commission’s launching? That’s hard to say but, in retrospect, it seems, first, that the time was terribly right; and second, whether by design or good fortune, the Commission’s founding fathers did virtually all the right things.

Daniel L. Skoler

The new Commission established a committee structure based on its four major priority areas. By midyear 1979, it was intensively engaged in problem analysis and program development efforts. A grant award from the American Bar Endowment made possible the retention of a small full-time staff to support the Commission’s effort in its first year of activity, which grew steadily over the next few years to reach a plateau of roughly 8 to 10 well-chosen members as its funded project portfolio grew.

From these beginnings emerged a truly significant and extraordinary effort that, contrary to expectations of its founders, went on to produce thirty years of steady leadership, service, hard work, and contributions to the cause and interests of our older citizens—and continues, from all indications, to be moving forward at full strength today.

How could this have happened and what was so unique about the Commission’s launching? That’s hard to say but, in retrospect, it seems, first, that the time was terribly right; and second, whether by design or good fortune, the Commission’s founding fathers did virtually all the right things. First, the use of a talented and well-chosen task force to carefully study the design and wisdom of a focused public service effort addressing legal problems of the elderly was not only “good form,” but yielded a sound product design.

Second, the choice of an interdisciplinary Commission, rather than an all-lawyer committee, and the filling of that Commission’s roster with a stunning and diverse selection of appointees—both “top of the mountain” figures (such as Arthur Flemming, Wilbur Cohen, and Robert Butler) and up-and-coming ABA legal stars (such as George Alexander, Esther Lardent, Paul Nathanson, Fernando Torres-Gil, and Erica Wood)—assured creative depth.

Third, the hiring and launching of the right staff director resulted in the era of Nancy Coleman, whose performance and destiny, as it turned out, encompassed “heads up” leadership for a full 25 years.

Fourth, the selection of wise and meaningful program priorities for initial concentration and the initial selection of veteran chairs assured stability. The first two chairs, Lyman Tondel, followed by John Pickering, provided more than 15 years of stable and dynamic stewardship for the Commission, followed, happily, by a succession of equally dedicated “normal term” chairpersons.

From this base, the Commission would go on to compile an impressive record of service in continuing education, policy development, rights advocacy, state and local bar partnerships, “hard issue” analysis and confrontation, legal services field support for programs funded by the federal Administration on Aging, national aging and law conferences, and expansion of the original 1979 program priorities to encompass such vital aging areas as guardianship, elder abuse, housing needs, planning for incapacity, federal benefit program participation, and health care decision-making—all adding up to a hard-to-measure but clearly enormous impact beyond its modest size and numbers.

The writer is well aware that these reflections on Commission beginnings by a former ABA staffer, who was there at the time and had the responsibility (as Public Service Activities Division Chief) of helping with the start-up of the Commission may have taken on the look of a eulogy. This is hardly an intended result. Yet, a close reflection on and study of its 30-year record cannot help but justify a respectful salute and warm pat on the back for the kind of excellence and accomplishment that honors the ABA and assures a well-earned place among the ABA’s corpus of public service achievements touching so many facets of law and society.

Daniel L. Skoler

Former director of the ABA Public Services Division (1971-1980) and member of the Commission (1980-1986).

Reprint Requests

All ABA content is copyrighted and may be reprinted and/or reproduced by permission only. In some cases, a fee may be charged. To protect the integrity of our authors’ work, we require that articles be reprinted unedited in their entirety. To request permission to reprint or reproduce any ABA content, go to the online reprint/reproduction request form.