Saturday, July 10, 2010

Oregon Guide to the Players: Elder Law Lawyers

It has come to that. Your elderly parent is giving all her money away to a televangelist, or leaving the stove burners on for days at a time, or wandering in the street in her nightgown. You have tried to talk to her. She refuses to change her behaviors and adamantly refuses to enter a care center. You have talked to your brothers and sisters and to her bank. Everyone agrees that someone has to be appointed by the courts to protect her from herself. You need a guardianship or a conservatorship.

You are entering a world in which several professions and several arms of government uneasily interact. You may think it is simply a matter of hiring a lawyer and letting the lawyer take care of things. Guardianships and conservatorships are seldom that easy. This series of posts is intended to identify the players in the drama and give you a glimpse of how they interact with each other. The first post in the series is about lawyers.

Elder law lawyers come from a variety of places. There are elder law firms, sole practitioners, lawyers from full-service firms who practice elder law, lawyers who do elder law and other things, and lawyers who will do anything that comes in the door. It is worthwhile to take a look at each type.

Elder Law Firms

In Oregon, Multnomah County is the only county that has firms of lawyers that do only elder law. Because the demand for elder law is not great, elder law firms are small compared to firms in other areas of law. Multnomah County has three of them: Fitzwater & Meyer, Nay & Friedenberg, and Davis, Pagnano. Fitzater & Meyer is the largest of them, and as of this writing, the firm web page lists ten lawyers.

The elder law firms offer the full gamut of elder law and estate planning services. They employ paralegals and generally use technology to provide quality service at a fairly reasonable price.  The lawyers at these firms tend to charge an hourly rate higher than the sole practitioners, but when the cases are over their bills are not necessarily higher. Some clients like the security the firms offer, while other prefer the intimacy of working with a sole practitioner.

The Sole Practitioners

I am one of these. I practice out of a small office in Fairview, Oregon with the help of a legal assistant. There are a quite a few sole practitioners doing elder law. Many of them limit their practice to a certain aspect of elder law. One local attorney takes only contested guardianships and conservatorships. Another refuses to do contested cases, handing only cases that do not require hearings. Sole practitioners tend to charge a lower hourly rate than firm lawyers, but they sometimes lack the technological tools and support staff that streamline legal services. I like to think that my bills come out lower than those from the firms, but there are other sole practitioners in which that is clearly not the case.

Lawyers from Full Service Firms That Do Elder Law

Some large full-service firms, the kind that represent businesses and professional sports figures, have a lawyer or two on hand to handle elder law issues. These lawyers tend to concentrate on probate and the conflicts that arise when rich clients die and pass on their money. Those cases are close enough to elder law to enable the full-service firm lawyer to tackle an elder law case now and then. The big firm lawyers are always intelligent and well trained. Sometimes, however, they lack intimate knowledge of the court staff and procedures. This means they spend more time on simple things and charge a very high hourly rate for doing so.

Lawyers who do elder law and other things.

Some communities simply cannot support a lawyer who wants to do elder law full time. Thus, if a lawyer wants to make a living, he or she does other kinds of law as well. Some excellent elder law lawyers in small towns also do divorce law. Some times a lawyer is transitioning from one kind of practice to another and during the transition period does both. The lawyers I have seen who fall into these categories tend to do a fine job at a reasonable price.

Lawyers who do anything that comes in the door.

Some lawyers offer to do whatever you need done. They will get you out of jail, get you divorced, get a personal injury settlement after your slip-and-fall at the grocery store, and establish a conservatorship for your demented parent. The smaller your community, the more likely it is that you will find lawyers like this. If this is the only kind of lawyer available to you, then you have no choice. If you live in a more urban area, find someone who practices elder law on a regular basis.


People generally overestimate the impact their choice of lawyer will have on a case. The law is the law. The facts of your case are what they are and you are not supposed to make up new facts in order to win. The lawyers job is to know what the law is and present the facts to the court in the most positive light. It ain’t rocket science.

If you need and elder law lawyer, first find a lawyer who actually practices elder law. Your business lawyer or that great guy who helped you beat the drunk driving charge may not be the right person to help you with a guardianship or conservatorship. Next, pick a lawyer you like. There are a lot of us out there. You should not have to put up with someone you do not get along with. And finally, choose someone you can afford. When you and your lawyer are both comfortable with how the fees are going to be paid, the relationship has a lot better chance of going well. It is very often true that as the relationship goes, so goes the case.

Next Installment Fiduciaries (Then government agencies)

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