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Elder law, for lawyers less concerned by the tick of the clock

29 March 2018 - By Nick Butcher

One of the perks of practising elder law can be found in the little traditions such as a plate of home baking offered at a meeting.

That’s right, scones and slices are not myths nor folklore and can often moderate the tone of a serious conversation.

Bill Herbison holding his pet dog
Bill Herbison and assistant
Jock the West Highland Terrier

After all, elder law is about planning for after life by putting the necessary legal foundations in place to take care of those left behind.

Bill Herbison and Fleur McDonald from Pier Law have eaten more than their share of treats during their many years of dealing with older clients.

“There have been quite a few times when I’ve met clients at their homes to be offered cups of tea and freshly-baked scones,” says Ms McDonald, a senior associate with the firm.

The discussions are often longer than the textbook lawyers’ clock would allow. They’re personal and can often stray off the subject, but building trust with their clients through face-to-face contact is what they believe makes a successful elder law practice.

Mr Herbison, who is the Christchurch firm’s managing director, has been practising law for 40 years. He loves the classics, has filled the family home with his own hand-built furniture and owns more than a few restored automobiles.

“I love dealing with older people. They’re more settled, appreciative. They don’t necessarily quiver about the bill. I share a little of myself with them which they appreciate, and often they’ll say to me later – how did that bit of furniture go that you were making?”

The vagaries of elder law

Pier Law has many other specialty areas including residential, family and relationship, employment, business and insurance law. Mr Herbison has a team of seven solicitors and legal executives who do most of the transactional and conveyancing work for the firm, but dealing with older people does require a more seasoned skill set.

“It’s very face-to-face and personal. I have three branches with the main one in New Brighton where I started. I make sure that on Tuesdays I’m always there for our elder law clients,” he says.

Fleur McDonald
Fleur McDonald

Largely each hour of those Tuesdays is filled up by older people wanting to make changes to their wills, create powers of attorney, and generally put structures in place to protect their assets.

The firm’s other offices are at Styx Mill and Kaiapoi.

Fleur McDonald joined Pier Law late last year after spending 13 years with another law firm and establishing herself as an elder law specialist.

“I like the one-on-one contact with clients. That attracted me to this area. As Bill said, you do get to share a part of yourself with them. It gives clients a sense of being an equal part of what you’re doing in relation to their will and estate plans,” she says.

Ms McDonald says practising elder law leaves you with a unique feeling of satisfaction.

“It’s hugely rewarding when you can see that your clients are feeling comfortable about what they’re doing. I’ve had clients tell me that they didn’t understand what a previous lawyer was talking about. For me it is incredibly important that they are then able to fully understand and tell their children or loved ones what their plans are.”

Establishing trust is vital to any long-term relationship.

“When you’re dealing with older clients, they expect to be dealing with you, not someone who has been brought in at the last minute because you’re suddenly not available. If you’re the person they’ve been building trust and rapport with over the years, they need to know that they can keep coming back to you,” she says.

House visits with a dog in tow

While many of their clients visit the Pier Law offices, it is not uncommon for both Bill and Fleur to make visits to houses or retirement homes.

“Sometimes a person isn’t physically able to easily come and see us and I’ve always said, ‘if that’s the case, we’ll come and see you, it’s not a problem’,” Mr Herbison says.

Often when Bill Herbison heads out to see clients his four-legged personal assistant, Jock the West Highland Terrier, comes too. He’s been known to break the ice by providing a calming influence on many clients.

“They love him. He’s usually in my office too and gets a lot of attention. We’ve all got our techniques. It can be stressful for people when they’re visited by a lawyer or arrive at their office. As lawyers, we don’t appreciate that stress the same because we are living it all the time.”

The keys to success

Plenty of empathy and an ability to be able to build relationships is a key part of the skill set needed for lawyers considering elder law as a practice area.

Bill Herbison
Bill Herbison

“You’ve got to be able to adapt to each situation. Dealing with Mr Smith will be completely different to dealing with Mrs Jones. You need to be able to read people well,” Ms McDonald says.

“You need to be able to give them time and possess a great deal of patience. It’s not a quick process. What might take half an hour with a conveyancing client could take twice as long with an elder law client,” Mr Herbison says.

Ms McDonald says rushing an older client just leaves them flustered and it’s counterproductive.

When Bill Herbison started practising as a lawyer the Enduring Power of Attorney forms contained two pages, but that’s changed.

“We’re investigating putting out a tailor-made form, which might simplify it.”

Technology and the future

Fleur McDonald expects big changes ahead because the generation who are currently in their forties will be more technologically friendly by the time they reach 70 or 80. But she doesn’t think artificial intelligence will replace lawyers in this practice area.

“But in saying that, whether it’s the current generation or the next, as you slow down, everything slows down. The patience needed for a senior citizen client isn’t going to change. The way we might deal with it such as a Skype meeting rather than a face-to-face might change, but the formula we use in explaining the whole process will not.”

She says there might be opportunities to use artificial intelligence for behind the scenes work but elder law will always need that personal touch.

In May, Fleur McDonald will feature as a presenter at elder law conferences being held by NZLS CLE Ltd in Wellington and Auckland.

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Last updated on the 29th March 2018