Why I do what I do

Why am I an estate planning and elder law attorney?

I guess it starts with why I’m a lawyer. The simple answer to that is: I knew I would be good at it. I knew it would be an important job, one where I could make a difference in people’s lives. And I knew it would be intellectually challenging. I decided to become a lawyer when I was just a high school senior, and it was a fairly easy decision. It just made sense.

The more intriguing question is why I chose to practice estate planning and elder law. I only came to it some years after law school. In my first years as a lawyer I did some appellate law, legal research, juvenile law, and criminal law. Then I had a 6-month stint as an attorney editor, editing legal books for the State Bar of Wisconsin. It was the closest thing I’d found to a true fit. I loved working on books. I loved the minutiae of editing and the big thinking of developing products. But before long I was driven back to private practice. I needed the earning potential to pay back mortgage-level student loans and support a family on a single income, and I found the corporate environment stifling.

That’s when an elder law attorney in my town sought me out and offered me a job as his first associate. I took the opportunity. I had always sensed that estate planning and elder law would suit me as a practice area. It doesn’t require much going to court or arguing with other lawyers—just good advice and drafting legal documents. I don’t have a problem with litigation, but I think my temperament is more suited to the role of counselor and advisor than that of advocate. And I knew this practice area had earning potential and would directly help families.

Looking back, I always had the idea that I’d be the kind of lawyer that works with families. My own family was deeply affected by the work of good lawyers, and that sort of impact on people’s lives was a big part of what attracted me to the profession. In law school, I took classes on family law, estate planning, guardian ad litem practice, and elder law. My final semester of classes looked tailor-made for a future elder law attorney. But it wasn’t a foregone conclusion—I also immensely enjoyed appellate research and writing, and for a while after I graduated I pursued that. Then I got the chance to learn elder law, and I saw that it could combine my passion for editing and writing with my desire to do meaningful work for families. I took the opportunity and stepped onto my present path.

That’s how I got started. Then, after a year and a half, I decided to leave that elder law firm and start my own practice. Why?

I will always be grateful to the firm that gave me my start in elder law, and I enjoyed working with the people there. But I came to be bothered by the business model and the quality of legal work. The business model depended, like many elder law firms, on selling very expensive estate plans with asset protection trusts and helping clients use Medicaid to pay for their long-term care. This was complicated legal work. Yet we spent little time customizing plans for each client; they all turned out nearly identical. I thought the legal documents themselves, though functional, could be vastly improved. Medicaid proved a tricky beast to rely on. And clients never seemed to understand what they were getting into.

When I started meeting with potential clients on my own, I would carefully explain the pros and cons of asset protection planning and whether it made sense with the potential client’s goals. It rarely did. “Asset protection” sounds great, but it turned out that few people were willing to give up the control and ownership of their hard-earned property that is required for it. I began to see that my approach with clients was not compatible with the “protect your stuff from the nursing home” business model.

I wasn’t sure the legal work was worth the fee, and I wasn’t sure it was really making people’s lives better in the end. I wanted to do good, simple work for the same sort of family I came from: hard-working, caring, and of modest means. To do that, I would have to strike out on my own. And while I was at it, I thought nearly everything about traditional estate planning and elder law could be improved.

Nearly two years later, here I am doing good, simple, affordable work that makes a difference for families just like mine. Why do I do what I do? It’s because, through my journey as a lawyer, I’ve come to believe a number of things:

  • I believe I can make a difference in people’s lives by practicing good, simple estate planning and elder law. My work saves families from bureaucracy in times of crisis and grief.
  • I believe that’s what estate planning and elder law should be all about—avoiding bureaucracy and making things simple and easy.
  • I believe traditional estate planning and elder law are too complicated and too expensive.
  • I believe good health care and good relationships are more important than money.
  • I believe asset protection is not for everyone.

Because I believe these things, I started my own estate planning and elder law practice. I started it to help families like mine. I started it to make estate planning simpler, easier, and less expensive. I started it to do things differently and to make a difference in people’s lives.

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