Knowledge and passion.    

Frank Johns examines his role as a pioneer in the field of elder law in North Carolina, and why this LL.M. specialty area continues to grow with the demographics.

Frank Johns’ passion came out of the 1960s, and was born into what he believed was a counterculture. His belief in individual rights led him to law school at Florida State University College of Law, working in the Florida legislature on areas that were part of his spiritual and faith commitments.

He later moved to North Carolina and went into private practice where he is a partner at Booth Harrington & Johns of NC PLLC, with offices in Charlotte and Greensboro, N.C. Along the way, he organized the non-profit organization, Corporation of Guardianship, for people without guardians. In the time since then, he has become a leader in elder law, guardianship, disability rights, special needs trusts and legal ethics.

“My advocacy is somewhat split between issues related to people with special needs, and people who are older,” he said.  And as the demands on legal practices change with the times, attorneys, like Johns, are finding that to be able to address current legal trends and to be successful in today’s highly specialized world, an LL.M. degree just might give them a leg up on the competition.

In 2008, Johns graduated from Stetson University College of Law with an LL.M. degree in elder law, making him the first attorney in the state of North Carolina to get specialized certification in the growing practice area.  “Elder law is a brand new specialty and has grown with the demographics,” Johns said. “Our nation’s growing population of people over 50 have specific needs that elder law attorneys work diligently to address.” Johns said the outcome of a 2002 interview with a local North Carolina magazine forced him to focus on why he was practicing elder law.  “So many of us are dealing with our parents and grandparents,” he said. “Questions like ‘What do you mean my mother can’t get that kind of prescription?’…I want to advocate these things.”  He is the former president of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, Inc., and in 1989 organized the North Carolina Elder Law section. In 1996 they had approximately 100 members compared to today’s 700 members, and approaching 5,000 members nationwide. He continues to present lectures on elder law topics across the nation.  “What drives me is probably just who I am, but that comes from my family that raised me in faith and really liked taking care of those who needed it,” he said. “That’s how I moved toward issues involving the elder.”

As for specialization in the practice area, Johns said it’s important to get immersion and interaction through clinics, internships or symposiums to really find out if it’s a fit for you.

“Certainly when I went to law school there wasn’t anything on elder law,” Johns said. “Of the programs that I have seen within the LL.M. context, none of them touch the depth and experience of the faculty that’s delivering the program at Stetson.”

Stetson offers the LL.M. in elder law as an electronic education program through its Center for Excellence in Elder Law. Students in the program have 24-hour online access to the three-semester academic course.  The Center for Excellence in Elder Law was established to meet the increasing need for legal education and research in the field of law and aging — providing legal education to law students, attorneys, and judges in the field of elder and special needs law and produces scholarly research and writing on issues impacting those who are older and/or have special needs.

“Everyone knows what’s coming,” he said. “Assisted living homes are going up even now with the economy.”  And Johns said the basic construct of elder law is that it is holistic. “God I love it,” he said. “If you don’t have a passion to help make the quality of the lives of the people serve better than your probably best served in estate planning and tax.”

 The environmental activist

James Simpson always enjoyed the outdoors. Fly fishing, hiking and his understanding of environmental protection started early on in his life.  “Since I was a young boy I wanted to protect the environment,” said Simpson, a Vermont Law School graduate. “I went to law school wanting to practice in environmental law, and after law school was practicing in commercial litigation.”  He practiced with a large New York City law firm, and was a corporate associate at a boutique firm. He was also a judicial clerk for the Vermont Trial Courts.  But he considers this route a “wise choice” because it gave him a better understanding of what law was about.  “Being out there and practicing really helped focus me in terms of what I wanted to do,” he said. “For a lawyer to be satisfied, they have to be really passionate about it. I learned that I wasn’t entirely happy doing the work that I was doing prior to getting my LL.M. degree.”

So he got back to his first love, environmental law, and enrolled in Pace University School of Law.  His internship with Riverkeeper, an New York-based organization that works to protect the Hudson River and safeguard the New York City Watershed, turned into a full-time job after graduating in 2007 with an LL.M. degree in environmental law. “It’s extremely gratifying work,” Simpson said. “I take pride in the fact that our cause is noble and find it very interesting because politics plays a large role.”

Past projects include a variety of issues ranging from the Hudson River cleanup to the threat to New York City drinking water from leaking aqueducts and the relicensing of Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant. He also puts his litigating skills to good use by ensuring that agencies are responding and complying with environmental concerns.  “I think that going to law school exposed me to concepts I wouldn’t have known,” he said. “The LL.M. did the same. It gave me a strong understanding of a broad array of concepts of environmental law.”

This guest post was authored by Michelle Weyenberg and was originally published in the October 2009 issue of The National Jurist. Click here for the digital edition or visit The National Jurist Magazine website for more great content about law school.