Another key practice area is helping families who must care for children with special needs or severely injured adults.
When Sharon Pope launched her own elder law practice in Hartford about six years ago, she was already thinking about a succession plan for her firm and her two associates. After all, she had started the practice midcareer, having previously taught paralegals at the University of Hartford for 30 years.
Plus, planning for something that will happen years down the line is second nature to an elder law attorney, who, of course, focuses on helping clients with retirement planning and end-of-life arrangements.
“I knew, probably more than most attorneys, that I needed a succession plan almost as soon as I got into my own practice,” Pope said.
Now she’s putting her plan into practice. As of Jan. 1, Pope, her two associates and five paralegals have joined forces with the larger Berlin firm of CzepigaDaly. The newly christened CzepigaDalyPope will have eight attorneys and 22 support staff members who will focus on elder law matters, including estate planning and geriatric care. Another key practice area is helping families who must care for severely injured adults and children with special needs.
“This is huge,” said Paul Czepiga, who helped tailor the merger. He initiated discussions between the firms over a year ago, mindful that while his firm’s strength was in the financial planning arena, Pope’s was in the home-care and special-needs realm.
“I think Sharon has always had a great reputation as an ethical and moral practitioner, and we were doing cross-referrals with each other,” Czepiga said. “We decided, for both, merging would allow us to better serve the needs of our clients.”
Pope, 55, just finished a term as chair of the Elder Law Section of the Connecticut Bar Association. In merging with the Czepiga firm, she was interested in providing a future for her associates and paralegals, who are all former students of hers. “That was very important for me,” she said.
Even before the merger was finalized, the two firms spent months in discussions about how to integrate their staffs.
“We came up with a list of best practices, to provide continuity for our clients,” Pope said.
An important consideration for their clients, Czepiga said, “is making sure they are safe.” One way to do that, he added, is helping them continue to live in their homes and providing the care that allows them to do so.
Toward that end, the firm is helping individuals navigate the complex relationship between personal assets and public benefits. For instance, the firm will help seniors and families of special-needs children determine whether they are eligible to receive Medicaid and Social Security benefits. The firm will then create plans to protect the personal assets of their clients while also maintaining eligibility for public benefits.
“With this merger, CzepigaDalyPope will have the resources to plan for and protect the settlement awards of seriously injured and permanently disabled individuals,” Czepiga said.
One area where the firm expects to grow, he said, is the field of post-settlement legal services for special-needs clients, including those who suffer head injuries.
“The firm’s special needs settlement planning services will help to preserve our clients’ awards in a way that will provide for the future of their health-care needs,” he said.
Czepiga and Pope said market conditions, including a rapidly aging population and skyrocketing cost of long-term care, made the time right for the firm to combine the expertise of both enterprises.
“More than ever, people want to be cared for at home or in the community,” Pope said. “But people worry about exhausting their life savings. Our goal is to look for every possible benefit to help people stretch their dollars and keep them as independent as possible.”
The firm distinguishes itself from others in the elder law field, Czepiga said, by employing a registered nurse, certified public accountant and licensed geriatric-care manager among its support staffers. When discussions of the merger were ironed out, “it was very important that everyone kept their jobs,” Czepiga said. “We didn’t want to harm anyone through this.”
What the Pope firm gains by having access to broader financial services and estate-planning services, the Czepiga firm gains in disability and special-needs client services.
“Sharon has a reputation for being one of the most sought after disability and special-needs lawyers in the state,” Czepiga said.
Czepiga anticipates further growth for his firm on the horizon. He and his partners plan to open a Simsbury office in coming months and will be looking into future acquisitions of smaller firms.
“In this field of estate planning and elder law, there are a lot of onesie-twosie firms,” he said. “I think that as we grow, we will be reaching out to onesie and twosie firms, and we will be the natural firm to acquire them. We’ve got the financial ability and the reputation.”•