The law clinics at William & Mary Law School aim to give students opportunities to learn the nuances of certain areas of law through practical experiences in the field. This past semester, I had the chance to work with one of the Law School’s newer clinics: the Elder Law Clinic.
Elder law is a broad field that encompasses the issues affecting America’s growing population of older people. I was initially attracted to the clinic because I’m interested in trusts and estates (T&E) law, particularly estate litigation, but I soon realized that elder law is so much more than T&E. In the clinic, just like an elder law practice, we handled everything from guardianship and conservatorship proceedings to simple estate planning, from elder abuse situations to veterans’ benefits applications and Medicaid planning.
As you can imagine, elder law is rarely limited to a detached legal analysis. The “counselor” part of “attorney and counselor at law” plays a large role with elder clients, as they frequently bring issues and needs that the law alone is insufficient to meet. In this sense, elder law is much like family law. The attorney’s—or in our case, student attorney’s—judgment is as important as her background in the law itself because you never know what will walk in the door.
For instance, one of the cases I handled last semester involved a property law and potential fraud issue, neither of which were covered in the lecture part of the course designed to prepare us for the common elder law issues. Despite a lack of training, I was able to pull deeds from the courthouse, draft a new deed, and counsel my client in the best options for her property even though none of these tasks are considered usual elder law concerns. Under the tutelage of our excellent supervising attorney, Helena Mock, however, I and the other clinic students were able to handle almost any issues presented by clients in need.
That’s not to say it’s always an easy job. You can read a more complete account on our blog, but another of my clients last semester demonstrated why elder law attorneys need to understand the full context of their clients. On the surface, it seemed to be a simple estate planning case—drafting a will, power of attorney, and advance medical directive. But my client was completely bedridden, only spoke Spanish, and was currently under hospice care. My clinic partner and I read between the lines to infer that her family had contacted the clinic because both time and the family’s options were running out. We placed this client above our other responsibilities, including making night visits to the client’s home and the clinic office, and completed the estate planning documents in record time. One week later, our client passed away. Had the documents not been executed in time, the family would have been in a very difficult situation.
That case really illustrates why I wouldn’t trade my time with the Elder Law Clinic for anything. I learned more about what it means to be a lawyer working with my ELC clients than I have in ordinary lecture classes. If you want to expand your knowledge of a certain area of law while helping actual clients, one of William & Mary Law School’s clinics is far and away the best option for you.
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