I am a Chicago girl living in a New York world…and a California lawyer who married a Marine from the Southern Tier. We relocated here when he retired from active duty after his 20 years of service. I am very happy to be back in the Roth Elder Law family after nearly a decade away! Back in 2006 when our doors first opened, Patrick invited me to come work with him to help get the office up and running here on Chemung Street. We spent those early months doing everything from picking out colors for the firm logo, ordering office supplies, and conditioning all the groovy wood paneling (yes, that was mostly me…) in the new building, to attending advanced estate planning conferences and training, and meeting with fellow attorneys, financial advisors, insurance agents, and agency administrators to explain what this firm would do that no one else in our area was doing: providing high-level, sophisticated estate planning, elder care, estate administration, and related services to our clients, to the exclusion of other practice areas. In other words, Patrick started an estate planning “boutique firm” – the only one of its kind in our local area.
Patrick quickly earned accolades for his superior knowledge and commitment to excellence in crafting estate plans, administering estates and helping clients through the probate process, helping businesses evolve and grow by forming LLC’s, establishing multi-million dollar charitable foundations for families seeking to leave their legacy by enhancing services, endowing scholarships, and creating opportunities in their hometowns, all the while building strong relationships within our community, and most importantly, with our clients. Not bad for an “upstart start-up” law firm of two – a full time owner, and a part-time contract attorney (yours truly) who spent her “spare time” juggling a newborn, two grade-schoolers, after-school activities, teaching paralegal and business law classes in the evenings, and being a military wife. We had a lot of fun networking, giving presentations, and laying the foundation for the firm during those first few years. The hard work Patrick did to establish a reputation for excellence in Estate Planning showed, as word spread and the firm grew.
In early 2009, my life and professional career changed profoundly when my youngest son was diagnosed with autism, shortly before his second birthday. I began what would become a transformational journey down entirely different legal path as I waded into the world of special education, and the never-ending fight to find and secure all of the help, resources, and services my son would need to help him achieve his full potential in academics and in life. I had to leave our firm in order to become a full-time mom again, and spent next several years taking my son to specialists, spending nearly 30 hours per week in my living room as his therapists provided in-home services until he reached school age.
Once school started, so did a whole new set of challenges, this time doing legal battle with my son’s school district to ensure that he received appropriate special education services in the right classroom setting. The problem I faced was not knowing where to start, or how to go about “forcing” the school district to not violate his rights, and to follow even the most basic State and Federal education laws that apply to all children with disabilities. Believe it or not, there are times when lawyers — who are so used to solving other people’s problems that it’s hard for them to admit being stumped about their own — need to seek advice from other lawyers when questions arise outside their own practice area, especially when a deeply personal matter like protecting your own child is involved. While I felt confident about my own lawyering and courtroom skills, I knew that I lacked expertise in special education law, and I also knew that I would struggle to keep my “Mamma Bear” emotions out of the mix. I needed a specialist. So I asked around. I called some colleagues. I searched the internet. I soon discovered that there were no special education lawyers within 60 miles of my home. I kept looking anyway. Eventually, I spoke to a very kind, experienced and nationally renowned special education lawyer in Buffalo. While he did not travel as far as the Southern Tier, he generously provided guidance, mentoring, practice pointers, and a list of resources and books to read over the course of a few long phone calls, so that I could navigate a special education hearing and represent my own son if it became necessary.
Several New York State Education Department hearings (and victories) later, I discovered that I was on the local special education community “radar,” courtesy of the therapists and even school employees who had watched me do battle for my son. I started to receive phone calls from fellow autism parents in my local school district seeking my help to obtain appropriate special education services for their children. Like me, these parents were unable to find local legal counsel, and found that the cost of hiring a lawyer from out of the area was beyond what most mere mortals could afford. Unlike me, these parents were not experienced big-city civil rights trial attorneys who knew how to take on school administrators and their defense lawyers — and win. Families and children needed help, and I found that could not sit idly by and watch their rights being violated, and vital opportunities for educational growth and success being denied for petty and unlawful reasons. While still fully engaged in raising and assisting my own son as a stay at home mom, I offered my knowledge and experience to families by taking on the role of Parent Advocate on a pro bono (volunteer) basis. I spent several more years attending school and special education committee meetings to negotiate with school staff and administrators, riling up school boards, and staring down superintendents and school attorneys who tried to intimidate families who simply sought the help their children needed (and are entitled to by law), to be more successful in school.
Throughout my time as a parent advocate, I often found myself shaking my head at how easily and quickly so many special education and school discipline disputes could be resolved via mediation, an alternative dispute resolution process I had engaged in extensively during my years of civil rights, business, and employment law practice in California. Last year, as I was considering my return to practice and wondering what I wanted the rest of my career to look like, I went out to lunch to catch up with my dear friend Patrick. I told him all that I’d gone through, what a waste of time and taxpayer money it had been for the district to fight battles they knew they could not win, and how frustrating it was that people in our area cannot get affordable legal help when they need it, whether it’s school, divorce, or other legal disputes that aren’t “big money” cases. Then, he asked me a simple question: What do you really want to do?
Me: I want to help as many of these kids as I can.
Patrick: Sounds like you already are. Anything else?
Me: Aside from that? I’ve always wanted to be a mediator….
….and that’s when my 10 year journey led me back here to Corning and to Roth Elder Law. During that long lunch conversation it became evident that our separate practice area interests really aren’t so different, and actually complement each other when it comes to helping people. Within a few months, I returned to the firm, then applied for and attended Harvard Law School’s renowned training for mediators, learning mediation theory, methods and techniques from legendary professors, authors, and practitioners alongside some of the best and brightest legal and professional minds — lawyers, judges, military officers, doctors and diplomats — from all around the world. It was an unforgettable, once in a lifetime experience.
Not long after that, at the recommendation of one of my Harvard classmates and a retired Federal judge, I sought additional training, this time in community mediation, at the New York Peace Institute in New York City. This practical and clinical training enabled me to become a New York State Court System -certified mediator, following an apprenticeship program that I completed back here in the Finger Lakes region via our local Community Dispute Resolution Center (CDRC). I now serve as a volunteer CDRC mediator for Chemung, Schuyler, and Tompkins Counties, and mediate Small Claims and Family Court cases that range from noise complaints, contractor, and workplace disputes to helping parties create visitation and parenting plans during and after divorce proceedings. To enhance my private mediation practice, I completed additional, specialized training in Divorce Mediation at the New York Peace Institute, as well as obtaining Special Education Mediation certification at the New York State Dispute Resolution Association (NYSDRA) in Albany for both CDRC and privately mediated special education and school discipline matters.
Friends, colleagues, and clients often ask me how all of this training and experience in mediation lends itself to working in an estate planning practice, and I go back to that long conversation I had with Patrick in the summer of 2018 to answer them. As any special needs parent can tell you, beyond researching, reading, and advocating tirelessly to ensure that our children receive every bit of the therapeutic and educational assistance they need as they grow up, our biggest concern and anxiety about the future can be summed up with one question: what will happen to my child when I’m gone? Estate planning provides answers. A good estate plan for a family like mine tackles that question and offers solutions by creating special needs trusts, carefully drafted wills that ensure the parents’ wishes are known, names preferred guardians, trustees, powers of attorney, and caretakers, and can make adult living arrangements, provide Medicaid planning, and so forth. By combining these legal advocacy and estate planning services, we can help special needs families address issues arising in the present as well as in the future. We believe our firm is unique and well qualified to understand and assist clients who, like me and my family, are living that life.
Our estate planning clients and business formation clients also come to us for assistance in organizing and protecting their assets both during their lifetime and afterwards. This is why crafting good, individually tailored estate plans requires a higher level of knowledge and sophistication than, say, completing a fill-in-the-blank form will online. Accidents, contractual disputes, workplace conflicts, lawsuits, and divorce can impact any of us, at any time. By offering private mediation services to address these issues as they arise, we can assist clients – old and new – in resolving disputes quickly, and often at far less cost, than going to court. Divorce mediation, in particular, is quickly gaining popularity among separating and divorcing couples who are not interested in a long, combative divorce process, and who simply want to hammer out terms for custody, visitation, and the division of their assets quickly and discreetly in order to make the process less stressful for themselves, and less traumatic for their children. Most importantly, the cost to mediate a divorce is usually substantially lower than the traditional model of retaining lawyers and going to court, which enables families to move forward more quickly, with less interpersonal conflict and financial stress for everyone involved.
I look forward to helping our clients plan for the future and find solutions that help families achieve peace of mind when it comes to real-life legal matters that pop up along the way.