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May 01, 2014

A Call to Expand Elder Law Education

(Note: The pdf for the issue in which this article appears is available for download: BIFOCAL Vol. 35, Issue 5.)

As the field of elder law grows, so does the need of elder law-related education and training for law students and attorneys. But just how much of a need is there? And what type of training would be most valuable? To answer these questions, we conducted a national survey of elder law attorneys. The 270 practicing elder law attorneys who responded to our survey between December 2010 and October 2011 provided a valuable portrait of elder law practice in the United States.

This article briefly summarizes our key findings, which were reported in full in an article published in the Elder Law Journal this spring (Nina A. Kohn & Edward D. Spurgeon, A Call to Action on Elder Law Education: An Assessment & Recommendations Based on National Survey, 21 Elder Law Journal 345 (2014),, and then suggests how readers might further our call for expanded elder law-related education and training.

Five key findings emerged from our survey of elder law attorneys.

A growth field
First, elder law continues to be a growth field. Almost all (93%) of the attorneys responding to our survey reported that elder law is a growing field; of the remaining respondents, 5% were unsure and only 2% believed that elder law is not a growth field. Moreover, over two-thirds (68%) reported that there are ample job opportunities in the field, and only 8% disagreed with the proposition that there are ample opportunities. The job opportunities for elder law attorneys appear to reflect client demand: nearly three-quarters (72%) of attorneys responding to our survey opined that there is a need for more elder law attorneys, whereas only 8% reported that there is no such need.

A coherent field

Second, elder law—although a new field—is a coherent one. Attorneys reported that their practices span a wide range of legal concerns related to older adults’ health, financial security, independence, and dignity. Despite the breadth of substantive issues covered by those practicing in the field, however, there was a high level of consistency as to the areas in which elder law attorneys focus their practices.

The vast majority of attorneys reported that their practices include work in end-of-life issues, Medicaid planning and coverage, advance directives, guardianship and its alternatives, and estate planning. There were some differences, however, by sector. Those in private practice were more likely to frequently deal with estate and Medicaid planning issues than were attorneys working in the public sector. Similarly, attorneys practicing in nonprofit settings were more likely to frequently deal with Social Security, Medicare coverage issues, and nursing home residents’ rights and litigation than attorneys in private practice.

A need for expanded elder law education
Third, there is a significant need for expanded elder law education within law schools. The vast majority of attorney respondents who had received elder law education in law school reported that it was helpful in practice, and over 90% of attorney respondents thought that law schools should offer such instruction.

Moreover, attorneys indicated that there are particular skills that elder law attorneys especially need where law schools could focus training. Attorneys reported that the most important skills for an elder law attorney are client interviewing and counseling skills, although substantive knowledge about the law and knowledge about resources for older adults are also critically important. Additionally, the vast majority reported that elder law practice requires practice management skills, the ability to work with professionals from other disciplines, and skills in alternative dispute resolution, problem-solving, and legal research.

A need for continuing elder law training
Fourth, the need for expanded elder law education is not limited to education within law schools. Although two-thirds of attorneys were satisfied with existing CLE opportunities, one-quarter felt there are currently insufficient CLE offerings related to elder law. In addition, although the majority of attorneys reported that the quality of the elder law bar is good or very good, nearly a third reported that it is merely satisfactory or poor. In their open-ended comments, attorneys suggested particular need for advanced elder law training in part because of continual changes in laws and regulations. They also saw a need for more offerings related to representing middle- and low-income clients, ethical issues, and elder abuse.

A satisfying practice
Finally, the survey suggests that elder law is a satisfying area of law in which to practice, especially for individuals who value a high level of interpersonal interaction. Across practice sectors, attorneys reported that the ability to help people was the most satisfying aspect of elder law. A majority also listed “the level of client interaction” as one of the three most satisfying aspects of elder law practice, while just under half listed “the opportunity to engage in multi-disciplinary practice” as one of the three most satisfying aspects of elder law practice.

Together, these findings led us to make the following recommendations, explored at length in our article in the Elder Law Journal:

  • Law schools should:
    • offer elder law courses to J.D. students;
    • offer both doctrinal and clinical elder law education,
    • integrate aging issues into their general curriculum, and
    • consider offering students a concentration in elder law;
  • Continuing legal education opportunities related to elder law should be expanded; and
  • Elder law education at all levels should include a focus on client interaction skills and ethics, and should strive to be responsive to the evolving needs of elder law practice and the legal profession more broadly.

We encourage attorneys who share this vision to reach out to their alma maters and law schools in their region to encourage investment in elder law education, and to offer to serve as a mentor or resource for students considering elder law practice. ■