Posted: October 6th, 2011 | By: John Trump
The Elder Law Clinic at Wake Forest University is special for many reasons, not the least of which is the practical experience students gain by taking part in the program.
The clinic, which is 20 years old, also has helped to build a strong network of expertise among the Wake Forest alumni who practice throughout North Carolina.
“Wake Forest has helped North Carolina’s families by training very strong elder law attorneys. I am proud that our former students are committed to their continued learning and growth as lawyers,” says Kate Mewhinney, a clinical professor for the Wake Forest School of Law who oversees the Elder Law Clinic.
The clinic provides free legal assistance to moderate-income seniors; it also serves as a resource center for lawyers and other professionals.
Components of elder law fit well with general law practices. In today’s market, Mewhinney says, lawyers must be versatile, and it’s a good strategic move to learn to handle the legal issues of baby boomers.
Natalie J. Miller (‘04) runs her own law practice in Mooresville.
“Participants of the Wake Forest Elder Clinic have a noticeable and obvious advantage over those attorneys who did not attend the Elder Clinic,” she says.
Miller was among a group of Wake Forest alums who attended a recent gathering of N.C. and S.C. members of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. The group met the weekend of Sept. 22-23 in Black Mountain. The organization has some 4,500 members in all, and about 45 from this region got together for the “UN-Program.”
Wake Forest alumni and students who joined Miller and Mewhinney for the gathering were: W. Mark Edwards (’97), of Nashville, N.C., a State Bar Certified Elder Law Specialist; Angela Kreinbrink (‘06) of High Point; Kristin Burrows (’05) of Chapel Hill; Tyrel Hooker (J.D. anticipated ’12); Aimee Smith (’02) of Winston-Salem; Sue Alcorn (‘01) of Concord; Jen Garrity (’95) of Matthews; and Kim Gossage (’98) of Matthews.
Other Wake Forest alums who focus on elder law in the state are: Katie Fulk (’08) of Winston-Salem; Jennifer Barnhart Garner (‘94) of Pinehurst; Caroline Knox (‘00) of Hendersonville, a State Bar Certified Elder Law Specialist; David McLean (‘99) of Greensboro; Darren McDonough (‘98) of Reidsville; Caleb Rogers (’05) of Waynesville; Susan Ryan (‘05) of Winston-Salem, David Inabinett (’96) of Lexington, N.C.; and Jonathan Williams (’11) of Greensboro.
Said Miller, “Rarely do I have the opportunity to brainstorm and share practical information with other professionals in a discussion format. The N.C. NAELA Chapter’s UN-Program provided this opportunity as well as networking, management and marketing techniques. It was by far the most useful program I have attended to date. The discussion format at program allowed those students who had been through the Elder Law Clinic program to shine.”
Students who take part in the Wake Forest Elder Law Clinic assist actual clients, gaining practical experience in the areas of health-care coverage, including Medicaid for long term care; guardianships and other litigation focused on mental capacity issues, such as breach of fiduciary duty; matters involving nursing home residents’ rights; handicap discrimination cases; trusts and benefits for disabled people; financial fraud and exploitation; and debtors’ rights. They also learn about the medical aspects of aging from geriatricians and psychiatrists on the medical school faculty. The students then participate in innovative programs at the medical center, such as the Memory Assessment Clinic and the Geriatric Consultation Clinic.
Students in the clinic handle cases under Mewhinney’s supervision. The students, for example, draft wills, powers of attorney and advance directives; negotiate with agencies such as the Department of Social Services; handle some litigation; analyze complex Medicaid laws and provide advice; and review with older clients the law protecting their Social Security income and their homes when the party is facing insurmountable debts.
“The Elder Law Clinic has been invaluable as I am beginning my career in the field of elder law,” Williams said. “Elder law is a holistic practice and spans a wide range of legal fields … It presents a steep learning curve to anyone who seeks to practice. It is not the kind of practice that one can “dabble” in — each client interaction must be infused with a working knowledge of the multitude of legal fields that confront aging adults. So, to have a class that introduces students to those fields is a tremendous advantage to beginning practitioners. To couple that class with the practical knowledge obtained in a clinical setting multiplies the advantages.
“To have that class and clinic led by professor Kate Mewhinney makes students of the Elder Law Clinic supremely fortunate. Professor Mewhinney is down to earth and practical, she is extremely knowledgeable and passionate about elder law issues, and she is a fierce advocate for her clients. She challenges and inspires her students to perform to her high expectations. She is recognized in North Carolina and across the nation as an authority in the field of elder law.
“Suffice to say, I enjoyed the program very much, and believe I am at a tremendous advantage as a young elder law attorney for having taken it. I also believe that the Elder Law Clinic is improving the lives of the aging across the state and nation, directly via the clients it serves, and indirectly via the attorneys it trains. I am proud to be a part of it.”
The Elder Law Clinic is in the J. Paul Sticht Center on Aging and Rehabilitation in the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. The program’s newsletter and application for services can be found on its website, along with resources about law and aging issues for both professionals and laymen.