The job of elder law paralegal or legal assistant encompasses much more than drafting wills and establishing trusts. "Elder law is an overview of probate law, estate planning, and long-term-care issues," said Eugenia Kofitsas, senior paralegal at Margolis and Associates, the firm that operates ElderLawAnswers.com, a nationally renowned website. "We ensure that people have the financial resources to live without running out of their assets and leave money to whomever they want to, and do so properly. Also, we ensure that they don't lose all their assets that they worked so hard for if they have to go to a nursing home, for example."
Paralegals may also be called upon to help clients obtain Social Security benefits, draft health care proxies and durable powers of attorney, aid with guardianship issues, help disabled clients, ensure that trusts remain properly funded, and correspond with courts over probate matters. "There's a lot of switching back and forth between the different aspects of elder law," stated Maana Soroken, a paralegal at Margolis and Associates in Boston.
The field presents plenty of client interaction; in fact, paralegals are often the client's primary contact. "You want to bond with the client and let them know you're there," said Ms. Kofitsas, citing the enormously personal nature of her work. "Because of the type of clientele, sometimes I find that people think a lot of things are urgent, when in reality, they're just a matter of course. I try to put them at ease with the entire process."
As such, paralegals in elder law must possess some key characteristics. "You need to be patient, understanding, and sympathetic to be in this field," Ms. Soroken said. "A lot of the times, it may be difficult working with the elderly because they don't understand why we need certain types of information from them."
Another challenge arises when clients come in with a situation that's already gone awry, such as a poorly drafted will. "People need to make sure they see a specialist in [elder] law because it's often complicated and people are often not educated," Ms. Kofitsas explained. "People think, 'Let me update my car or wardrobe,' but don't think about updating their wills." As a result, former and new clients may appear on the paralegals' doorstep or call in a sense of urgency—sometimes even years after their last consultation—and the task of digging up old files and following up on new ones may fall on the paralegal's shoulders.
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Elder law paralegals and legal assistants are not only involved in day-to-day tasks, but may also contribute to key decisions in a client's case. "We have monthly case reviews with the entire office to discuss cases and stay up to date," recounted Ms. Kofitsas, stating that paralegals' and legal assistants' input is valued and appreciated at those meetings, especially from those paralegals who have a background and education in estate planning. Even more important, "Paralegals must be organized and detail-oriented because of the amount of paperwork and deadlines involved," stated Ms. Kofitsas.
It is precisely the job's personal nature and high involvement with clients' cases that elder law paralegals cite as its greatest satisfaction. "In the end, you're doing something that really helps people," said Ms. Soroken. "The type of law we do is rewarding," Ms. Kofitsas agreed. "It entails helping people, whether it's getting benefits awarded or making sure they stay out of probate."