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For lawyers who demand the limelight, toiling behind the scenes to keep an elderly woman from losing her home to the crushing costs of her sick husband’s long-term care may not seem as glorious as arguing a high-profile case before a jury or putting a multi-million-dollar deal to bed. But elder law attorneys take pride in calling themselves the “social workers” of the legal profession. Making house calls isn’t something that’s beneath them; often it’s just part of the job. After all, how many practice areas can depend on a client base that will continue to explode, at least for the next 30 years or so, as baby boomers hit retirement age and then live well past today’s life expectancy rates? “I’m not lacking for business,” said Whitney M. Lewendon, of New Haven, Conn.’s Coan, Lewendon, Royston & Gulliver, echoing reports from elder law attorneys across the state. Lewendon averages about 10 new elder law clients a month, he said. With 39 million Americans on Medicare, more and more lawyers “are finding that this is the lion’s share of their practice,” said Judith A. Stein, founder and executive director of the Center for Medicare Advocacy in Willimantic. On May 4, Stein was elected president of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys — an organization whose membership is expected to swell above 5,000 lawyers by the end of next year, she said. The latest headcount of the Connecticut Bar Association’s elder law section lists its membership at 540 attorneys — a far cry from the handful who were present the first time John F. Kearns III, of West Hartford Conn.’s Kearns & Kearns, attended a meeting of what was then known as the “committee on legal problems of the elderly” in the mid-1980s. BREAKING INTO THE PRACTICE Kearns spent the first three years of his legal career as a litigator. But a series of personal tragedies turned him on to the emerging field of law, he said. In 1982, a brain aneurysm left his mother comatose for six years before she died. Because she never got the chance to designate a power of attorney, Kearns, who cared for her at home, petitioned the probate court to appoint a conservator to act on her behalf. Three years later, proposed right-to-die legislation being debated by state lawmakers hit home again when doctors diagnosed his father with terminal pancreatic cancer. At the time, Kearns also shouldered the task of placing his grandmother in a nursing home. In seeking answers to his family’s legal questions, Kearns said there was no one place he could turn. Some lawyers specialized in probate work. Some knew the ins and outs of Medicare. But few, if any, tackled all the issues facing the elderly under one roof, he said. When Kearns took over his father’s law practice, he made elder law the firm’s focus. “I figured the [legal] problems my parents had were not unique to them,” Kearns recalled. He also read a newspaper article about West Hartford having one of the nation’s highest per-capita populations of residents who were 65 or older, he said. Barring a family crisis, the advancing age of their existing clients is usually what triggers a lawyer’s entry into the field. But that’s not always the case. Among Quinnipiac College School of Law’s Class of 1993, Linda L. Eliovson was somewhat of a trailblazer. Of all of her classmates, Eliovson knew of no one else intent on going directly into elder law upon graduation, she said. At the time, it was widely believed that to get into the field an attorney either had to go into legal services or build a trust-and-estates practice first, she noted. But Eliovson said she bucked tradition again when she opened a solo practice in Fairfield concentrating on elder law from the start. GUARDIAN ANGELS It’s a line of work, after all, that seemingly can only get busier, especially in Connecticut. By 2020, the state’s 65-and-over population is estimated to jump from 477,000 to 630,000 residents, according to Andrew Wright, an analyst at the state Department of Social Services’ elderly services division. The number of state residents living in nursing homes, meanwhile, is expected to grow from 30,000 to 45,000, Wright said. For Lea Nordlicht Shedd, of Hamden, Conn.’s Shedd & Hoberman, an increasing part of her practice, she said, is nursing home advocacy. In recent years, there has been a striking decline in the quality of care that nursing homes provide, Shedd maintained. Many nursing homes are now part of chain organizations, and the industry, in Shedd’s view, has gone largely unchecked. It’s not uncommon, according to Shedd, for nursing home residents to suffer from dehydration or bedsores. And she is frequently called in by residents’ families to conduct “care conferences” with nursing home administrators. During one recent week, Shedd said she had at least one such conference each day. Elder law attorneys say they also are likely to see an influx of clients as the state begins to move toward assisted-living facilities as an alternative to nursing homes. Eliovson, meanwhile, said people are coming to her at a younger age to prepare for the likelihood of long-term care. Roughly 20 percent of her clients are under the age of 65, she said. Often, they have parents or have known couples whose assets were devoured when one spouse got ill and needed to be placed in a nursing home, she said. Moreover, people are viewing Medicaid-based estate planning as a practical necessity, elder law attorneys agree. IMPOSTORS ON THE MOVE? Still, if elder law specialists have a common gripe, it’s that the rest of the bar has a habit of characterizing them as just Medicaid planners. “It’s not just a form of estate planning,” said Keith Bradoc Gallant, of Cummings & Lockwood’s New Haven, Conn. office. “A lot of people see it as a relatively easy area [to practice in]. And, it isn’t,” he insisted. Beyond probate law and Medicaid regulations, elder law can encompass age-discrimination claims, real estate transfers and negotiating hospital discharges, to name a few of the issues for elderly clients. “Holistic” is the term elder law attorneys most often use to describe the practice. “I don’t think you can dabble in this stuff,” said Linnea J. Levine, of the Law Office of Linnea J. Levine in Stamford, Conn.. Yet Gallant isn’t alone in his concerns about what he views as a growing number of attorneys who hold themselves out as specializing in elder law, but aren’t sufficiently educated in the practice to deal with the multitude of problems that the elderly face. “Lawyers,” he said, “look for business, and this is a field where they can find it.” The consequences of mistakes, however, are perhaps more severe than in other practice areas, Gallant maintained, because elder law attorneys are working with clients who are extremely vulnerable and often have just one shot of getting their affairs in order. NONMONETARY REWARDS Though work may be plentiful, elder law remains primarily dominated by small firms and solos. “You have to have a pretty high volume [of cases] to make a lot of money,” insisted Mark W. Dost, of Waterbury, Conn.’s Tinley, Nastri, Renehan & Dost. And, with few exceptions, large firms generally have avoided the practice. “They don’t want to be seen as poverty lawyers,” Dost asserted. Elder law, however, is not just for poor people, urged Cummings & Lockwood’s Gallant. “Any field of law done well can be lucrative. And this is no exception,” he said. Dost, for one, said his elder law clients usually have between $100,000 and $500,000 in investments. Still, contended Kearns, the West Hartford, Conn. elder law attorney: “If you think this is an area you’re going to get rich in, you’re wrong. To be in this practice, your heart’s got to be in it.”

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