Bringing Dignity to Practice in Elder and Special Needs Law

Amy Rombyer Tripp keeps client files filled with details few lawyers would ever think to ask: favorite food, laundry detergent, brand of shampoo.

Not every file inside Chalgian & Tripp Law Offices PLLC includes such personal data. But for clients without a living family — widows, orphaned, never-married — she wants to know the best way to care for someone once they no longer can care for themselves. That includes making sure care providers know that a particular brand of laundry detergent will cause a rash or that the hospice worker knows to use vanilla-scented lotion.

Those details — seemingly so far removed from the realities of a legal practice — are what sets Chalgian & Tripp apart in the arena of elder law. It’s why the fi rm has grown to encompass Michigan’s pioneers in elder law and why it has grown to 20 lawyers and five locations in fewer than 15 years of business.

“Our goal is to enhance quality of life and preserve dignity,” Tripp says. “If I’m going to be your trustee, it’s not just about managing money. It’s about managing care options for you.”

She’ll never forget meeting with a woman who had recently put her husband in a nursing home. She lived in a modest home with limited income. She was scared about the future and overwhelmed with guilt that she no longer could take care of her husband at home.

As Tripp outlined a plan for her, a weight lifted from her client’s shoulders. She stood up, went to Tripp, and pulled her into a deep embrace.

“I’m not going to lose my house, and I will be able to afford groceries,” she told Tripp. “You have made me feel so much better.” And that’s why Tripp does it.

“She’s one of many people who, when we’re able to fully explain the issues and the options, feel relieved,” she says. “It’s just such a good feeling to be able to provide that comfort.”

About the Author: Amy’s first experience with Elder Law came as she assisted her great-grandmother with decisions regarding long term care placement. As a young attorney and grandchild, Amy’s eyes were opened to the challenges families face when dealing with the complex, emotional, legal, and financial issues of planning for long term care. Since then, Amy has helped hundreds of families navigate through these same issues.

Learn more about Amy R. Tripp

1. Building a Dream

Tripp was age 20 when she saw a television movie that has stayed with her ever since. When You Remember Me was the story of a 14-year-old boy with muscular dystrophy who was put in a state nursing home by his mother.

“I thought, ‘I’m going to go to law school and do what that lawyer did to get the kid out of the nursing home. Look at that advocacy,’” says Tripp, who was an engineering major at the time.

As a teen, Tripp volunteered at a local nursing home and helped with the Senior Olympics. She developed a soft spot for the elderly.

Tripp attended Spring Arbor University, followed by Thomas Cooley Law School. Then she took a job with Legal Aid and was there when she completed her first Medicaid application — for her 97-year-old great-grandmother. Though the application was straightforward, she found that getting it approved was a long and frustrating experience.

“It opened my eyes to how difficult something could be that should be very easy,” she says.

In the end, her great-grandmother was approved for Medicaid. It turned out that her application went through much more quickly than the ones the nursing home had been submitting. So, it started sending Medicaid applications to Tripp.

As Tripp developed relationships with area nursing homes, she attended her first conference on elder law. There, she listened in awe as two of the speakers — Michigan industry pioneers David Shaltz and George Cooney — described their work.

“I looked at those two and thought, ‘I want to do what they do? I want to be that kind of advocate,’” she says. And she got her chance.

After meeting fellow elder law attorney Doug Chalgian in 2003, she joined him in forming a partnership that they expected would only ever encompass their two practices. But as the years went on, both Tripp and Chalgian invited their respective mentors to join the firm. With the addition of John Boss, David Shaltz and others, the firm had perhaps the deepest knowledge of elder law anywhere in the state. Most lawyers at the firm are ICLE speakers, chapter authors and elder rights advocates.

“We have a whole host of extremely experienced, veteran lawyers in elder law and estate planning,” Tripp says. “We even have a retired probate judge as part of our firm. It’s second to none in our area.”

Ultimately, Tripp believes that so many top lawyers were attracted to Chalgian & Tripp because of their underlying mission: to provide the highest quality of legal services with kindness and compassion.

“We have a huge mission for being empathetic,” Tripp says. “Our clients come to us when they are usually in crisis. They’re in one of the most difficult positions they can be in, so I like to think we provide an empathetic spirit and high-quality work.”

2. Growing the Firm

Currently, Chalgian & Tripp is adding three more lawyers and opening its sixth and seventh locations in Ann Arbor and Saginaw. It’s a far cry from the two-person practice they first envisioned.

“It just happened because good people reached out from those areas, wanting to work with us,” Tripp says.

That’s how it worked for Chalgian & Tripp lawyer Christopher Smith, who has known Tripp for about eight years but “spent the first four years trying not to work for Amy.” Despite Tripp’s stellar reputation, her office was about a 90-minute drive from his home.

“I was really desiring to find a mentor to help me expand my knowledge at a much faster rate,” Smith says. And that’s where Tripp came in. She hired Smith and began working with him.

He made that 90-minute commute for years, keeping a blow-up bed under his desk in case he got snowed in during the winter. The sacrifice was worth it, he says. “I can learn more from her in an hour than I could read about in 40 hours.”

A year ago, Chalgian & Tripp opened its Southfi eld office just 15 minutes from Smith’s home, expanding their geographical reach and allowing him an easier commute.

In his four years working with Tripp, Smith says he has learned key ways of helping clients find resources and secure benefits within the constraints of government regulations.

“She has an ability to digest a legal issue,” he says. “She knows how to issue-spot like nobody else in the fi eld that I know. She can take a client’s situation, break it down, and find ways to solve the issue.”

Fellow attorney Danielle Streed, a sole practitioner from Kalamazoo, refers clients to Chalgian & Tripp or uses the firm as a resource about once a month.

“They stay on top of everything in the estate planning arena, but they take it to a level that I, as a sole practitioner, can’t do alone,” she says. “They’re a great resource. I know that when I send something to them, my clients are in good hands.”

Tripp is well-known among Michigan elder law specialists as someone who is generous with her knowledge and quick to coach other lawyers along as
they navigate a new area of the field. Lauretta Murphy, chair of the Probate and Estate Planning Practice Group at Miller Johnson in Grand Rapids, recalls a time when Tripp helped her with a matter pending in a court where she frequently practices.

“It was an unusual situation, and the court staff imposed difficult conditions on our findings and court dates,” she says. “Amy was able to intervene, explain the situation to the court staff, and get the staff on our side so that, instead of barriers, we got red carpet treatment.”

Murphy says it’s clear that Tripp’s clients love the way she is determined to solve their problems.

“No matter what Amy is involved in, she brings a compassionate, problem solving, strategic mentality,” Murphy says. “Her personal commitment to her clients and her deep understanding of the issues confronting families facing elder law or disability issues sets her apart from her peers.”

3. Becoming an Advocate

Remember that movie? The one that moved Tripp to become a lawyer to fight for kids with special needs?

As Chalgian & Tripp became more established and added more lawyers, it opened Tripp’s practice to delve into cases for clients with special needs.

“There’s this whole other area of advocacy,” she says. “Working in elder law opened up the doors for me to help people with special needs.”

She began educating herself about multiple diseases that affect people with disabilities, autism and mental health issues. She is sensitive to the struggles that parents face and advises them on the resources available. She counsels them on guardianships, alternatives and special needs planning so that, once the parents have passed away, these children will continue to have an increased quality of care.

“I’m never going to say, ‘I know how you feel,’ but at least I understand some of the daily struggles,” she says.

Tripp recalls a husband who came to her office to discuss his wife’s nursing home issues. They were unusual, and they prevented him from caring for her in the family home around their children. Because of her experience in the fi eld, Tripp understood his challenges well.

“He told me that at age 52 she suffers from frontotemporal degeneration, but he didn’t have to explain it to me — I already knew about it,” she recalls. “He said, ‘You’re the first lawyer to know about this and understand this disease.’

“Twenty years ago, I wouldn’t have,” she admits.

These days, about 60 percent of Tripp’s practice involves estate planning and helping people with special needs. Her firm employs two social workers and two case managers to give clients the best support possible.

Tripp has found that, while she thoroughly enjoys elder law, she finds particular satisfaction in the long-term relations formed with families of a special needs child when serving as trustee.

“I’ve been working with some families for six or seven years,” she says. “We become part of their team. In the next 20 years, I see us having a group of families that we are really connected to.”

Tripp’s ability to connect with clients is unmatched, says partner Doug Chalgian. He recalls helping the parents of a severely disabled young adult put together a special needs fund. He brought Tripp to court so she could meet the family.

“Smartest thing I could have done,” he says. “We went to their home and saw how they managed their child’s needs. It was impressive but overwhelming…Amy bonded with the family and, for the next several years, worked closely with them to accomplish amazing things for this family.

“They never called me again. And that is typical. Amy connects with people in a very authentic way.”

Beyond that, he says, she has an extremely deep working knowledge of her industry.

“With respect to the areas in which Amy practices — elder law and special needs planning — no one is more sophisticated about the law,” Chalgian says.

4. Bringing It Home

Those connections are deep, however, and they aren’t ones you can leave at the office. That’s why Tripp sleeps with a notepad beside her bed, hoping she can jot down a midnight brainstorm and still get back to sleep.

“I understand I’m a small part of my clients’ lives, but they are a larger part of me,” she says. “I come home, and I can’t check it at the door. I wake up thinking about issues and am constantly trying to problem-solve.”

That passion is the motivation shared by each lawyer at Chalgian & Tripp. It’s also a source of frustration that can make elder law most challenging. The hardest part of the job, Tripp says, is “when a situation comes in and we can’t fi x it. Sometimes there are poor choices or a lack of communication that happens before we get involved. It just kills us that we can’t fix it.”

But for as much energy as goes into her job, Tripp gets equal enjoyment from the time she spends with family. She likes to travel with her husband, who works in manufacturing, and her daughter, a junior in high school. She thoroughly enjoys her daughter’s company and attempts to spend quality time with her.

As for extended family, during adulthood Tripp has had the chance to know each of her grandparents. Watching her grandmothers in nursing homes — and caring for a grandfather who ultimately died in her home — gave her even more perspective into end-of-life wishes and dignity in aging.

“My grandparents and my great-grandmother….They gave me the best gifts they could give me,” she says. “They gave me such unique and different end-of-life experiences that I hope make me a better lawyer.”