Rebecca Berg is a certified elder law attorney. She assumes the role of chairperson of the Elder Law Section of The Florida Bar in June.
WHAT IS HER SPECIALTY ABOUT?
Strictly practicing elder law since 1991, Berg’s work includes tax and estate planning, advanced directives, reviewing contracts and policies for continuing care, long-term care planning, probate and guardianship for the elderly and younger disabled persons. “The rules pertaining to the elderly apply to the disabled. We also work with people on public benefits issues, primarily Medicaid, and look into housing options. We don’t do litigation. I handle some contested matters but mostly we hire people that are really great at litigation to handle that piece.”
WHY FOCUS ON ELDER LAW?
“I feel like it’s a lot of social work because we do a lot of hand-holding of clients through the process. When I did purely estate and tax planning and worked with individuals with lots of money or corporations on qualified retirement plans, I loved my clients but they didn’t tug at my heart. They [her current clients] are certain they will be destitute because of the care a spouse needs. For them to know they won’t be impoverished is very rewarding. I really, really like to see the positive changes we can make in our client’s lives.”
“We tell them that their house is not going to be taken by the government for Medicaid. In other states, they will take it if there is no chance of them returning to their home in six months. In Florida, as long as the intent is to return home, no matter how remote, it is an exempt asset. Another misconception is that Medicaid is the same in every state.”
WHY SHE WON’T PRACTICE IN ANOTHER FIELD
“There are a lot of attorneys out there who don’t like what they do. I can’t think of one elder law attorney who doesn’t enjoy it. I realized that it was making a difference in people’s lives. It wasn’t just who gets their stuff when they die or protecting their assets from taxes. It includes that but it’s making sure that people’s dignity is intact and that their desires are carried out. Elder law lawyers are also willing to send their clients to attorneys who are needed. There’s none of that competitive junk.”
NEW KID ON THE BLOCK
“Elder law has not been around that long, maybe 12 years. It started out with only a few practitioners. I took the first offered certified exam in 1994. Thirty took the exam nationwide. There are probably 150 certified elder law attorneys in the country and maybe 30 in the state. It’s a growing number.”
WHAT DOES THE CERTIFICATION MEAN?
“You have to have practiced in elder law for a certain number of years, have a certain amount of CLE credits and have taken on 60 elder law cases. You have to know a lot about a lot of things.”
HOW IT ALL GOT STARTED
O’Donnell and Asbury (a now-defunct law firm) employed her as a paralegal. “They basically sent me to law school. They gave me the opportunity. I worked there until the firm split up and then I went to work for Ron Fairchild. I became his law partner. In 1997, I decided to go off on my own.”
WHY HANG OUT YOUR OWN SHINGLE?
“I wanted to explore a different way of running and managing a law practice. I’m the only law firm in Jacksonville who only works in the elder law arena. We’re all women here.”
“I went to junior college in Brevard County and then I went to Boca to FAU [Florida Atlantic University] for my undergraduate degree. I waited 12 years, then went to law school.”
WHAT WAS YOUR UNDERGRADUATE MAJOR?
“Elementary education. I taught junior high for one year. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. Teachers should get paid more than CEOs. After that I became a legal secretary because I was a great typist. It was a natural progression [into becoming a lawyer]. My best friend was part of a law firm and made me realize I could go to law school.”
In addition to being a member of the Jacksonville Bar Association, Berg is on a myriad of boards, including Planned Parenthood, the Cathedral Foundation, Hope Haven, the Academy of Florida Elder Law Attorneys and the advisory board for Hubbard House.
JUSTICE FOR ALL
In the 1970s, Berg was employed by the City as part of the affirmative action staff. She was also the state president of the Florida arm of the National Organization of Women and spoke out publicly in support of the Equal Rights Amendment. Currently, she is a member of the Jacksonville Women’s Network and the Mayor’s Sexual Assault Advisory Council.
Traveling abroad and working out with her personal trainer are favorites for Berg. A San Marco resident, Berg enjoys dining at bb’s. For entertainment, she tunes into the old Peter Sellers film “Being There” or an episode of “The West Wing.”
—by Monica Chamness