This client was only in her mid-sixties. Her husband had advanced early-onset dementia. She was burned out but unwilling to acknowledge it. A friend had dragged her to the office to get advice about long term care. I looked at her questionnaire. No problem here getting qualified for Medicaid benefits. The issue was whether she was ready to put her spouse of decades in institutional care (his condition was beyond community based, PACE or Waiver, options). I called her out. Pleasantly but directly. It was one of those conversations.
As regular readers of this blog know, my youngest child became a lawyer several months ago and joined our firm. She has started where I started, Medicaid applications, long term care. She regularly sits in with me on initial meetings, and, when appropriate, I hand the case off to her after we’ve come up with a plan.
In this time with Susie I’ve developed a new understanding of the maturation process of an elder law/estate planning attorney. It hinges on the distinction between a lawyer who knows their stuff (the “technician”) and a lawyer who can explain the law but also guide the client to the solutions that fit (the “counselor”). To be good – really good – you have to be both.
Susie is rapidly becoming a competent technician – smart kid. But I think we both realize now that the counseling part is a ways off. For one thing, it is hard to be taken seriously when you are 20-something by clients who are at a more advanced stage in life. But more importantly I think, compassion grows out of empathy and empathy comes from life’s experiences, the mistakes, challenges, wins, losses and regrets. The roads taken and the roads not taken. To genuinely feel someone’s pain, and to be able to speak directly to them, comes from the heart – and any attempt to fake it will come off as condescension – the last thing you need in delicate situations like this.
So I think now about our young lawyers in this way – Help them become technicians through traditional education processes. That’s the first step. Help them become counselors by putting them in the room with the senior attorneys in the firm as they counsel clients, but recognize that, to a larger extent, that process must occur outside the confines of the law office environment.