chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
June 10, 2024

A Path Less Traveled: Law Students for Elder Law

Anne Marvin
The PDF which includes endnotes and footnotes in which this article appears can be found in Bifocal Vol. 45 Issue5.

Law school students rarely think about getting or being old, or about the possibility of focusing their legal careers on the needs of older adults. But the field of Elder Law is meaningful, multifaceted, and fundamental to a civil society. Moreover, with an increasing population over the age of 60, both nationally and globally, there is a significant and growing need for specialized attorneys in elder law.

By 2034, older Americans will outnumber children for the first time in U.S. history. By 2040, older adults in the United States are expected to comprise 21% of the population, or 80 million people.  For law students, these statistics signify the potential for a long and interesting career that intersects with a surprising number of discrete legal specialties.

Attorneys come to the field of elder law in a variety of ways. Many people in the field say that they “fell into” it from a related area. Others felt a calling to work with older adults. Some describe discovering their life’s work, even when they were initially unsure about where the law would take them. For me, both perspectives apply; I started law school largely unaware of elder law as a specialty, met an elder law attorney at my school’s Externship Fair, and became a true believer, all in just a few months. It was a whirlwind path, but I am confident I have found my place in the law.

The more I learn, the more I want to encourage my fellow law students to practice in this field. I came to law school to pursue a second career, making me a non-traditional (older) student. Perhaps that was why I was open to exploring the field of elder law when I first heard of it. But students of all ages should be interested; this specialty offers a professional path that promises intellectual stimulation, a variety of topic areas, and the opportunity to contribute to a cause that touches, or will touch, every human being sooner or later.

There is something for every future attorney in this trending field. Elder law overlaps with so many other areas that there is wide variety of subjects to attract law students. Elder law intersects with healthcare law, family law, the criminal justice system, civil matters, immigration, disability rights, voting access, wills, trusts, and estates, property, contracts, business associations, and more. For those who come to law school to pursue public service and make a difference, elder law includes advocacy for a vulnerable population that may lack access to justice. For those who want or need to realize a financial return on their investment in law school, elder law can be a lucrative option.

Elder law focuses on the client holistically, and not just on a single aspect of a client’s particular legal issue. Attorneys who specialize in working with older adults frequently collaborate with professionals in other fields, including healthcare, social services, law enforcement, and finance. Often, older adults need an integrated solution to their complex problems, particularly if the client has diminished capacity or other limitations.  Lawyers who work with older adults need empathy and patience. Serving an older client base also requires a nuanced consideration of issues related to ethics and professional responsibility. Attorneys must be zealous advocates for their clients, but must be sure their clients have the cognitive ability to participate in their own decision-making.

The field of elder law is endlessly evolving, making it one of the most exciting areas of the modern legal profession. Elder law includes retirement, financial, long-term health, and estate planning. Elder law also covers issues related to guardianship reform and efforts to find less restrictive alternatives to guardianship, securing government benefits, accessing healthcare and housing, and, importantly, assisting with family relations.

The multi-dimensional aspects of working with older adults have inspired considerable innovations in the field. There is now an emphasis on alternatives to guardianship, options for less punitive responses to elder abuse and exploitation, and special considerations and accommodations for older adults. Older people have unique needs when they experience poverty, homelessness, or a desire to age in place. Elder law attorneys contribute to developing and implementing many innovative concepts. The field needs future lawyers to offer new ideas to resolve issues affecting clients and their loved ones.

Technological advances can and will continue to impact elder law. Technology is already facilitating better access to legal and other services through virtual connections, and new accommodations for older adults with physical and cognitive disabilities are helping more seniors to get quality legal advice and assistance. In other areas, artificial intelligence is reshaping healthcare and end-of-life decisions. The field needs law students to contribute their technological skills and knowledge to benefit the future of elder law.

In addition to direct client-facing work, there is a pressing need for advances in the policy and legislation arenas, as well as necessary activism at the community, regional, and national levels to help encourage change. There is already significant international cooperation to address problems affecting older adults around the world, but more is needed. While awareness about elder issues is growing, there is a major gap between the needs of older adults and the resources, laws, and policies to address those needs. As Americans get older, policymakers, legislators, and providers of various types must respond to this growing population with innovation, increased investment in services, and an attitude of urgency.

Elder law is a vibrant, essential, and compelling field for all law school students to consider. Old age affects everyone—of every culture, race, religion, orientation, and identity, as well as individuals on the full spectrum of socioeconomic privilege. Elder justice is social justice—ensuring the dignity, autonomy, and welfare of older adults are respected and protected. We will all get old, hopefully. We each have a stake in contributing to a society where old age is a reward for a life well-lived.

    Anne Marvin

    Law Student at American University Washington College of Law