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Elder Law Clinic partners with Senior Services, Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center to help area seniors

Elder law used to mean writing a will and choosing a power of attorney should one become disabled. These days lawyers who pursue the specialty find themselves helping a new generation of seniors navigate territory their parents never faced – one that often requires lawyers to play the role of social worker, psychologist and advocate, said Kate Mewhinney, a clinical professor at the Wake Forest University School of Law who oversees the Elder Law Clinic.

Elder law provides one of the few growth areas in a job market that has been limited in recent years, though most law schools have been slow to catch up with the demand. Wake Forest Law’s Elder Law Clinic, which opened in 1991, was one of a handful across the country that was mentioned in a recent New York Times article that highlighted an elder law clinic in California.

“If you have a heart for families and for the elderly, elder law can be a rewarding experience,” said Jonathan Williams (’11), who spent a semester at the Elder Law Clinic and now practices with Booth Harrington & Johns of NC PLLC, North Carolina’s first elder law firm, according to the firm’s website. “I wanted to do something that would impact families and individuals in a meaningful way when I came to law school.”

For the past few months, the clinic operated on a limited scale at Senior Services, where two students saw clients. They drafted wills and advised seniors on how to protect their income and assets in the face of job loss or unexpected medical bills. In one case, they served as a court-appointed counsel for a woman who was alleged to need a guardian. They determined that the woman was mentally impaired and didn’t have enough of a support system to handle her own decisions.

Before moving to temporary quarters at Senior Services, the clinic operated from the Sticht Center at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. “Even though we will be located at the law school, we will continue to collaborate with our medical partners,” Mewhinney said. “For example, we are co-sponsoring a program on May 23 at which Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Ellen Goodman will talk about how to have meaningful conversations with your family about your end-of-life wishes.”

Holly Marion, the vice president of development for Senior Services, said that the clinic has filled a void for people who need legal help, but don’t have the money to hire a lawyer or don’t know where to turn. The clinic allows older people to access legal services in a setting where they have already built trust.

“The students are very professional,” she said. “They go right to work. The clients feel very comfortable in our environment. The students who are drawn to the Elder Law Clinic are old beyond their years, in a sense. There seems to be a sensitivity and compassion there.”

Mewhinney added that the Elder Law Clinic’s relationship with Senior Services will continue even after the clinic’s move to campus. “We’ve always had a strong referral relationship with Senior Services and I’m sure we will continue to,” she said.

Tiffany Tyler (’13), who has spent part of this semester at the clinic, had lived with her grandmother, who was blind, when she was in middle school. She remembered how rewarding it had been for her family to ease her grandmother’s last years. When her stepfather was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2009, she worked to help him achieve a sense of peace by helping him get his affairs in order.

“They appreciate little things you do for them–drafting a will, solving their problems,” she said, of people who approach the end of life.

After graduation Tyler will be working in elder law at St. John-Ritzen & Applefield Law, PLLC in Asheville.

Next fall the clinic will move to the newly renovated School of Law building. There is now a waiting list of students who are anxious to fill the eight slots. Students meet weekly for a two-hour class as a group and then serve eight hours a week in the clinic.

“There are a lot of levels in elder law,” Mewhinney said. “It’s not all about money. It’s about people’s lives and their parents and grandparents.”

People need help understanding health care laws and complex contracts for different types of housing, from independent living to assisted living to nursing homes. Often lawyers find themselves arbitrating family disputes or offering an objective point of view to the courts about whether the elderly person is competent to handle their own affairs.

For Michelle Bleda (’13), who worked with Tyler in the clinic, elder law plays to her strengths in communicating ideas and working with people.

“I wanted to get back to the roots of why I went to law school to begin with,” she said. “In elder law, I can see how simple it is to change people’s lives for the better.”