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MCBA President’s Message: Demographics and our aging lawyers

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Jill M. Cicero

My presidential duties over the past several weeks have included delivering the keynote address at the 2017 Monroe County Elder Law Fair, welcoming the new dean of the University of Buffalo Law School, Aviva Abramovsky, at a reception co-hosted by MCBA and UB Law School’s Rochester alumni group, and giving some brief remarks at the annual memorial service for attorneys who passed away during the past year. As varied as these events were, each of them reminded me how much our legal community, and the community at large, is impacted by our country’s changing demographics. I’m referring, of course, to what has been called “the graying of America” — shorthand for people living longer — coupled with a sustained low birthrate that results in smaller high school classes and smaller applicant pools for colleges and law schools.

The Monroe County Elder Law Fair was co-sponsored by MCBA, AARP, Empire Justice Center, Lifespan, Legal Assistance of Western New York, Inc. and Monroe County Office for the Aging. It featured a full day of programming for seniors and their families on topics such as estate planning and administration, long term care issues, Medicare, adult guardianships, consumer issues, Social Security and Medicaid. Many of our members were among the volunteers who presented sessions regarding these topics. More than 150 people were registered for the event, and by all accounts, it was a huge success — informative, well-attended and thought-provoking.

The need for such a fair and the consistently high attendance numbers over the past several years reflect the need for information about issues of concern to our growing elderly population. Attorneys who have expertise in elder law and estate planning are in high demand, even as fewer people have concerns about estate taxes due to the large federal and New York estate tax exemptions (currently $5,490,000 and $5,250,000 per person, respectively). Even if our clients have no estate tax issues, they want to be sure that their assets are distributed as they wish or that their assets are protected, if possible, from the cost of long-term care, and they are willing to spend time and money to be sure their estate plans accurately reflect their wishes.

Ironically, this increased demand for legal services related to aging clients coincides with the reality of smaller law school graduating classes and fewer new lawyers in all practice areas. In my private conversation with Dean Abramovsky, she noted that the law school’s Class of 2020 consists of 144 students, while the entering class four years ago exceeded 200. The number of law school applicants dropped precipitously after the market crash of 2008, when 2008 and 2009 law school graduates saw promised jobs disappear, and it took years for some graduates to find jobs in the legal field. The number of applicants has rebounded slightly, but some law schools have been forced to lay off faculty and shrink class sizes to maintain high standards for academic achievement in their first-year classes.

The competition for scarce students with sterling credentials means that law schools find themselves in a bidding war for savvy students who negotiate to maximize competing scholarship offers. But the result is still fewer young lawyers entering the profession and fewer new lawyers joining bar associations and eventually becoming bar leaders. This means fewer young lawyers are involved in our initiatives that thrive with the commitment and energy of young attorneys with fresh ideas. It means bar associations need to devote more resources to initiatives that serve aging attorneys, like our succession registry for solo practitioners and our Senior Attorneys Committee, and it forces us to reduce our fiscal reliance on dues as membership in bar associations shrinks.

At the memorial service last Friday in the Hall of Justice, Courtroom 404 was at capacity with judges, family, friends and colleagues of the attorneys being honored. Judge Doran presided over the ceremony honoring 28 attorneys who have made lasting contributions to our profession and this community. Some tragically died far too young, but many lived long full lives into their late 80s and 90s, practicing law right up until their deaths. It was inspiring to hear about their accomplishments in and outside of the law, and I was amazed at how many of them had served in the military in World War II. The ceremony was long, as a tribute to each individual was read, but I know it meant a great deal to those in attendance for their loved ones to be recognized and honored by their professional colleagues in this setting.\

At the time, I could not help but think that the numbers of attorneys to be honored will continue to increase over the next several years as the members of our profession age and pass away. Although the ceremony may become longer, we will continue to honor these individuals and provide a fitting recognition of their contributions to our legal community and the world at large. If you have never attended the annual memorial service, I encourage you to do so next year. You will leave with an appreciation for all that our colleagues have accomplished, and perhaps find yourself motivated to help fill the void left in our community by their passing.

Jill M. Cicero is President to the Monroe County Bar Association and is the managing partner of The Cicero Law Firm LLP. She can be reached at jcicero@thecicerolawfirm.com.

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