April 23, 2024
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April 23, 2024
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Lessons From a Lawyer on Losing a Loved One

No amount of legal training can affect how we feel when we lose someone.

Trusts and estates is a field of law where attorneys get to see their clients at their very worst. Other practitioners may witness vicious litigation, warring litigants, or maybe even parties in severe emotional and physical pain. It is estate law, however, wherein counselors get firsthand exposure to individuals reeling from the deaths of loved ones and the painful and often disorientating aftermath.

To accompany clients through such arduous times also provides opportunities to assist with healing and resolution, if such pathways are even possible. With estate litigation in particular, the latter may be difficult, as the central character, the one who has all the answers, is the decedent, who is forever silenced. In many ways it is the attorney who, in these difficult times, steps in to try to analyze outstanding issues and address questions whose answers we may never know.

As a trusts and estates practitioner, I knew that one day I would need to use my own services. Perhaps there is no other field where this is the case. A personal injury attorney may never experience a car crash, and a matrimonial attorney may dodge divorce. An estate attorney cannot avoid death. As Christopher Bullock wrote in “The Cobbler of Preston” (1716): “‘Tis impossible to be sure of any thing but Death and Taxes.”

The death of anyone close is always shocking, whether expected or surprising. The loss of a parent strikes especially hard. So recently, upon the sudden passing of my beloved father, I felt like my clients so often do. I was shocked and frazzled, angry and sad. Immediately, I did not know what to do or how to act, whom to call or where to seek help. Call the funeral director, find the grave plot, order the death certificates, locate the will. I tried to take a breath and organize myself, but I was being suffocated by loss and sadness. Where was my help? Where was my adviser? Where was my counsel?

At that moment I understood why surgeons do not operate on themselves. For all of my planning, for all of my preaching, I felt overwhelmed. The passing of my father reminded me that as lawyers, we too are human. We are so used to being fixers, but sometimes we need fixing, or at least a little assistance. We are not without bad days and bad experiences. I, too, felt the pain and disorientation that plagues one in grief and that so often colors my calls with families upon the demise of their loved ones.

As attorneys, especially those in the personal sphere, we try to be strong, and encourage our clients to put aside emotion in favor of the facts or the execution of a plan. In reality, my father’s passing was a reminder of how hard it is for my clients (and me!) to do that. Court proceedings, filings and litigation come with inescapable emotions. Ministerial tasks, regardless of how necessary, are accompanied by exasperation, exhaustion, mourning, and even denial or avoidance.

My father taught me a lot throughout my life. He liked to call himself my best client. That was debatable, for there were times when he did not take my advice—something familiar to many lawyers and especially frustrating when you love and adore the client as much as I did my father. Trusts and estates and elder law attorneys are privy not just to death, but to witnessing clients make strides, recover from disability, survive gruesome situations, or maybe live out their days in the best of circumstances. This may mean avoiding court or remaining at home, despite medical and physical issues.

My father, who had his share of challenges in his final decade, showed me that despite the inevitable, including aging, failing health and losing a spouse, one could live a full and meaningful life, with the proper support, advice, and faith. He was an example I often used in talking to my clients, whether it was about estate planning, paying for long-term care, managing relationships, or just persevering against all odds. To be fair, I also used him as an example of what not to do, as most clients are complicated and require some degree of refocusing when things get tough.

In this field, it is also difficult to lose a client. It is immeasurably hard to lose a father. In this case, however, I am reminded that I am more than an attorney. No amount of legal training can affect that which we all feel when we experience the death of someone close to us. If anything, such an experience reorients us and reignites the sensitivities and compassion that lead so many of us to work in this field.


Cori A. Robinson is a solo practitioner, having founded Cori A. Robinson PLLC, a New York and New Jersey law firm, in 2017. For more than a decade Cori has focused her law practice on trusts and estates and elder law, including estate and Medicaid planning, probate and administration, estate litigation and guardianships. She can be reached at [email protected].

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