Why do we call this new specialty Elder Law? Not all of our clients are elders. Many of our older clients avoid the term, or are put off by it. Can't we come up with a better term?
"Elder law" was chosen by a group of about 35 lawyers who met several times in the mid-1980s. At first it was an informal group, coalescing around American Bar Association meetings once or twice a year. Eventually it became the core of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys when one of those leaders -- Tim Nay of Portland, Oregon -- told the others "I'm tired of talking about starting a club. I've incorporated and I'll be the first President." (I wasn't there, and I'm paraphrasing what I've been told.)
But that gets ahead of the story. How did they settle on "elder law?"
The early NAELA founders discussed a number of other options. "Senior law" seemed to have the same problems as "elder law." "Public benefits law" was thought too limiting, since members then (and now) practiced guardianship, estate planning, probate and trust administration, and even age discrimination and litigation.
As I have heard the story, no one liked "elder law," but no one could come up with a better term. And so the specialty got its name, and now we are largely stuck with it.
(The name of this blog -- "GeriLaw" -- is a bit of an inside joke and a play on "elder law." At a meeting several years ago one of elder law's leading figures, Tom Begley, Jr., of Morristown, New Jersey, blurted out "maybe one day we'll all be practicing gerilaw." I have always had a combined reverence and fondness for Tom's pronouncements, and so I promptly secured most of the versions of GeriLaw domain names and started up this blog. Now if only I could get the term to catch on. But enough about me.)
Over the years we (elder law practitioners) have become both more focused and more generalized. Many lawyers who call themselves "elder law" practitioners now focus heavily, even exclusively, on younger persons with disabilities and the special needs planning necessary to secure government services for them in the face of family wealth or even personal injury lawsuit settlements. Changes in state and federal Medicaid rules have made the practice of public benefits law less attractive to many, even as sharply higher estate tax limits have caused many traditional estate planning attorneys to refocus themselves in "elder law" practices. The previous emphasis on Medicaid planning has diminished somewhat, with increased attention paid to not only special needs but also trust and estate administration.
What do all of those practice areas have to do with "elders"? Not necessarily very much. It is true that more seniors than youngsters are troubled by Medicaid eligibility problems (and confusion). It is also true that seniors are more likely than their juniors to be subjected to guardianship and conservatorship proceedings, and of course probate proceedings (and estate planning to avoid probate or tax complications) are more the province of elders.
But for most of us, our client population is actually getting younger -- or at least younger compared to both the national median age and the median age of elder law practitioners. We are not yet at the level that most of our clients "get" internet in-jokes, but clients are not exclusively -- and often not even predominantly -- "elders."
So what should we call this type of law practice? You tell us. If the public decides "gerilaw" (modeled, of course, on "geriatrics" in medicine) is a good alternative, then I'm personally set. Otherwise, please let me know quickly enough so that I can lock down all the relevant domains.
Robert B. Fleming
Fleming & Curti, PLC