Over the past 20 years, as issues confronting older people with disabilities have become more distinct and intricate, elder law has developed as a separate specialty area of legal practice. 

During the fall 2018 semester, the University of Richmond School of Law welcomed a new upper level course: The Elder Law Practicum, taught by visiting professor Leigh Melton, not only exposes students to the theoretical study of elder law, but also immerses them in the practice. Students apply their knowledge by advising elderly clients through a partnership with VCU Health System at Dominion Place, an independent living center for low-income seniors and disabled individuals located in Richmond. Law students work in partnership with VCU medical students, nursing students, pharmaceutical students, and social work students.

“Every week at Dominion Place, many social and legal problems are addressed in a multidisciplinary fashion to achieve effective care,” explained Melton. “Elder law involves counseling individuals and families about planning for long term healthcare and the possibility of incapacity, Medicare and Medicaid coverage and how it affects the client, health and long-term care insurance, making decisions regarding health care needs, retirement benefits, and drafting estate planning documents, particularly special needs trusts.” 

Students learn to counsel clients, draft documents, and even litigate, all under supervision. Meanwhile, residents, faculty, medical students, and other providers learn not only to diagnose, but also to refer patients to the law students who are part of the healthcare team.  

The students help residents with everything from estate planning needs to credit and guardianship issues, and on occasion visit clients at the VCU Medical Center and participate in the medical team rounds.

Rachel Weinberg-Rue, L’19, is one of the first students to take part in this course. “The class offered a truly unique opportunity to practice important communication and practical writing skills that law students cannot get elsewhere,” said Weinberg-Rue, who enrolled in the course due to her interest in estate planning – and her close relationship with her grandmother. 

Fellow student Aree Reinhardt, L’19, began working with the elderly at an early age by helping her grandmother, who owns an assisted living facility in Georgia. Through working at Dominion Place, she not only fostered her interests, but also experienced the dynamics and complexities of the attorney-client relationship in the context of elderly clients. “This course truly prepares you for client counseling and gives you the opportunity to find your specific style of counseling in a supervised, yet nurturing atmosphere,” said Reinhardt.