It's not all sunshine and blue skies, but these NAELA members think a rural practice is the best of all worlds.
Rural Attorney, John Clardy of Crystal River, Florida
Interviewed by April Hill, CELA, CAP
At an editorial board meeting in early 2020, the NAELA News editors were kicking around ideas for upcoming articles (in those seemingly carefree, prepandemic days) and the discussion of attorneys who practice in rural areas generated a lively conversation.
How do attorneys whose clients might live many miles from their office stay in touch with their clients? How do they find clients? And what are the unique challenges of practicing in a rural area?
Here's a look at three NAELA members who live and practice in rural areas:
• John S. Clardy III, Clardy Law Firm, PA, Crystal River, Florida
• Donna Jackson, Esq., Donna J. Jackson & Associates PLLC, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; and
• Lynn Morelli, Esq., The Law Office of Lynn Morelli, Pittsfield, Massachusetts
If you practice in a rural area and have ideas for topics that your fellow rural attorneys might like to read about, please let us know! You can contact Nancy Sween, NAELA Sr. Director of Communications and Publications by email.
John Clardy has been a NAELA member since 2005 and certified in elder law by the Florida Bar since 2006. The population of his small town of Crystal River is a little over 3,200, and the population density for his county is 238 people per square mile. In contrast, Florida’s most densely populated county, Pinellas (where Stetson University College of Law is located), has more than 3,300 people per square mile.
Not only is his community rural, it is also a snowbird (or transplant) population, with many residents having retired and/or relocated from New Hampshire and the surrounding area. Due to a major accident about 10 years ago, Crystal River’s primary employer, a nuclear power plant, was decommissioned. As a result, many of the younger residents and those who hold a higher level of education moved away, and most chain stores and other businesses moved out of town as well. Since that time, Clardy’s community has become mostly a population of retirees, and it is rare when his elderly clients have family members living nearby.
After becoming licensed as an attorney in 1997, Clardy had the opportunity to move to Crystal River and work with John Crider, Esq. Crider and Clardy became law partners, and Clardy eventually purchased the practice, which is now the Clardy Law Firm. John now has an associate who he hopes will follow in his footsteps. Though there are several estate planning attorneys in the area, Clardy’s firm is set apart as the only elder law firm in town.
Word of Mouth Is the Best Advertising
Clardy says he does not advertise. His clients come by word of mouth. He says, “Folks come in and say, ‘My neighbor has a trust, I want a trust.’” Most of Clardy’s clients are considered members of the middle class and do not typically require advanced estate planning. The Clardy Firm is relatively conservative with new clients, choosing not to completely redo out-of-state documents like trusts or wills merely because someone moved from another state. However, with long-term care issues at hand, Clardy finds that updates to health care directives and power of attorneys are more urgent for his clients who have relocated to Florida.
More Than Legal Advice
With only one geriatric care manager in town, the Clardy Law Firm helps long-distance families on many levels. In essence, Clardy’s firm becomes the coordinator so that when the family flies in on Thursday evening to help their elderly loved one over a long weekend, they are prepared to provide all the necessary services for that client.
Since there are only nine skilled nursing facilities in his county, Clardy can stay well informed about the quality of care provided by each facility. When a good or bad administrator changes location, Clardy knows it right away. Therefore, if a move into a skilled facility is necessary, the firm is well situated to make the appropriate recommendations.
Transportation and Social Isolation
As with most rural areas, transportation is a significant challenge for people in Crystal River. Clardy believes the public transportation infrastructure in Crystal River is limited, which makes the decision for his clients to relinquish their driving privileges much more difficult and less likely. The problem is multifaceted. As the client’s driving skills decline, many drive only to and from the grocery store, which can result in social isolation.
To combat social isolation, a few senior programs have been instituted that offer driving services. Most often, other senior-citizen volunteer drivers help out, but there are never enough volunteers. However, Uber and Lyft are available in town and making headway as people become willing to use those services.
No Traffic Headaches
Clardy says one of the most positive things about being a rural attorney is that he spends very little time in traffic — during rush hour, he can expect to get through a left turn signal within one light change. Another advantage of his rural location is that he does not have much competition, especially because he chose to specialize. He’s the big (elder law) fish in a small pond.
But IT Can Be a Small Price to Pay
The firm’s major struggle is the lack of skilled technical help to deal with its IT issues. If there were more law firms in the area, the IT technicians would have more experiences to draw from. Instead, in a rural town, everything seems to be trial and error. Yet, this is a small price to pay. Though physically remote, Clardy never feels isolated in his rural town, and he has been active and is well respected in both the Florida Bar Elder Law Section and AFELA (NAELA’s Florida Chapter) through the years.
April Hill, CELA, CAP, St. Petersburg, Florida, is a member of the NAELA News Editorial Board.
Donna Jackson: 32 Years Dedicated to Serving Western Oklahoma’s Aging Population
Interviewed by Lynn Morelli, Esq.
Donna Jackson’s elder law and special needs planning practice is located in Oklahoma City, but she’s still a country attorney at heart, having spent the past 32 years servicing the elder law needs of the people of rural Western Oklahoma.
According to Jackson, of the 30 attorneys in Western Oklahoma, not one practices elder law. For this reason, her ongoing commitment to the aging population in these remote communities is so vital.
Referrals From Family Members and Friends
Jackson’s deep-seated connection to these communities stems from having grown up in the nearby town of Stillwater. Since graduating from law school in 1988, she has been using her expertise to help the people in these rural areas, often ranching and farming families, to protect their assets and plan for their future. Word of mouth spreads fast in small communities, and as a result, Jackson gets most of her clients from referrals, including families that refer their children and even their grandchildren to her. Jackson treats her clients like family, so when an issue arises, such as potential conflicts of interest, she says that she “talks things through” with everyone, rather than pulling out “written forms.”
Jackson’s clients appreciate working with someone who has a connection to them and who understands their unique planning needs. She does a lot of LLCs for clients who own farms, as well as a lot of crisis planning.
Going the Extra Mile for Clients
Her clients also appreciate someone who will literally go out of her way to reach them. With her Chihuahua, Rico, by her side, Jackson travels across Western Oklahoma in a 26-foot motor home outfitted as a mobile law office, sometimes driving more than two hours to areas such as Elk City, Clinton, and Cheyenne, to meet with clients in their homes and at their businesses. It may be challenging at times to incorporate these trips into her busy schedule, but for some, it may be their only opportunity to meet with an elder law and special needs planning attorney.
Jackson also finds locating witnesses for document signings challenging. She overcomes this problem by bringing a staff member with her or asking clients to invite a couple of friends over.
NAELA Helps Keep Her Connected
Practicing elder law and special needs planning as a solo attorney in an area with few other elder law attorneys could feel isolating, but that has not been the case for Jackson. Since becoming a NAELA member in 1991, she has been a dedicated participant. In 2016, she started the Oklahoma Chapter of NAELA, which has since grown to 40 members. Because most of those members are in Tulsa or Oklahoma City, she routinely reaches out to attorneys in Western Oklahoma to get them interested in elder law and special needs planning and to enlist them as members of both her state chapter and national NAELA.
Donna Jackson is a country attorney in every sense of the word if that designation equates to a deep-seated connection to clients, treating people like family, and being committed to bringing legal services to people in rural areas to which they would otherwise have no access.
Lynn Morelli, Esq., is a member of the NAELA News Editorial Board.
Green Acres is the Place to Be: Practicing Elder Law in The Berkshires (The Berkshire Hills, that is)
By Lynn Morelli, Esq.
For the handful of elder law attorneys who practice in mountainous Berkshire County in the rural westernmost part of Massachusetts, community involvement is not only the key to finding people who need elder law services but the reason that we choose to practice here in the first place. Eating lunch with seniors at one of the local seniors centers, calling bingo at an assisted living community, participating in local charity events, and donating our time to question-and-answer sessions at the local “Councils On Aging” are some of the most rewarding parts of the job, as well as being some of the best ways to reach people who might never call a law office on their own.
Gaining Trust and Familiarity
Some of us also reach people through an initial free consultation. Many of the residents in this community hail from families who have lived here for generations. For them, trust and familiarity go hand-in-hand. This is especially true for residents who may need the services of an elder law attorney, as it may be the first time in their lives that they need legal services. Taking the down-home approach of chatting with people off the clock fosters a friendly neighborly sentiment, which leads to trust and confidence in legal representation.
The typical clients in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, tend to have assets consisting of their home, a modest 401k or IRA, and a monthly income from a pension or Social Security. They are mostly concerned with protecting these assets for their spouse and children, as well as making the process of transferring their assets at death as easy as possible for their loved ones. To that end, elder law and special needs planning attorneys do a lot of basic estate plans here — wills, powers of attorney, and health care proxies — as well as revocable living trusts, conveyances of the home with a retained life estate, and Medicaid trusts.
There are some challenges unique to practicing elder law and special needs planning in such a rural and sparsely populated community. Sometimes we travel across long distances of countryside to reach clients who are not able to travel to the office themselves. A clear schedule, full tank of gas, and a charged cell phone are tantamount to success in these cases.
Sometimes conflicts of interest arise when relatives of former or current clients also want to retain our services. When this occurs, the prudent practice is to evaluate each potential conflict on a case-by-case basis to ensure that any representation of related parties conforms to the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, including written informed consent from all affected parties.
Legal research can also be challenging in a rural community as there is only one small trial court library for the entire county, as can continuing legal education seminars, which are typically presented more than 150 miles away in Boston. For the most part, these challenges have been eradicated by the availability of online research tools and the advent of live webinars, such as those available on the websites for NAELA (NAELA.org), and the Massachusetts’s NAELA Chapter, MassNAELA (MassNAELA.com).
These technologies have also eliminated the sense of isolation from the larger elder law community that attorneys here may have felt in the past. Now, we can reach out to our fellow practitioners any time we want via platforms like Zoom for real-time conferences, and applications like NAELA’s listservs.
Despite the challenges, the necessity of a strong commitment to the community and its people is what makes practicing here so fulfilling.