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Lady Justice

Ellen Makofsky came to the law late but to elder law early

Photo by Luigi Ciuffetelli

Published in 2022 New York Metro Super Lawyers magazine

By Timothy Harper on September 27, 2022


In the 1950s, Manhattan attorney Sidney L. Garwin gave a gold charm of Lady Justice to his wife, Esther, who put it on a necklace and wore it proudly, showing the world she was married to a lawyer.

That was the norm for women in the better suburbs of Long Island back then: go to college, marry well, work for a few years and then raise kids. And for a time, the Garwins’ daughter, Ellen, followed that path. She went to Boston U, graduated in ’66, married businessman Marvin Makofsky, whom she met over spring break during her sophomore year. He went on to run a thriving business-forms company, while she taught English in junior high before quitting to stay home and raise their two children. She was 25 when she retired. She assumed her working days were over.

Then the culture shifted. In the mid-1970s, their daughter Sari, just 4 years old, had a set piece of entertainment for adults during parties. She would climb up on chair or table and belt out an enthusiastic version of Helen Reddy’s hit song “I Am Woman.” Everyone loved it. They laughed and applauded. As did her mom. At the same time, the lyrics began to sink in:

I can do anything/I am strong/I am invincible …

“And I started thinking about law school for myself,” Makofsky says.

Entering Brooklyn Law School in 1981, Makofsky worried about being able to handle both home and school—one child was in junior high, the other in kindergarten—but her mother and husband and a host of friends, many of them former teachers, stepped up to help. She also worried about studying again. Did she still have it? She did. Attending night classes, she quickly connected with several other first-year women, including a few mothers in their thirties, to form a study group. She wound up graduating cum laude in 1985, age 40.An enduring regret is that her father died before she got her admission letter to Brooklyn; he had been supportive and hoped she might someday join his firm, Garwin Bronzaft & Gerstein. After graduation, that’s what she did, but found it wasn’t the right fit. She didn’t want to represent corporations suing each other. She wanted to have more personal contact with clients.

So in 1991 she left her father’s old firm and rented a shoebox of an office from a lawyer in Westbury, Long Island. Unsure what kind of law she wanted to practice, Makofsky began going to every law-related event she could find in Nassau County, talking to anyone about what kind of legal services were needed.

“Just from talking with people, I found that there were only eight other attorneys who identified themselves as elder law attorneys,” Makofsky says. “It was a brand-new practice category back then. That meant not a lot of people knew more than I did. And I figured I could learn anything.”

Judith Raskin, who also got her J.D. after motherhood, was in the office next to hers, and after an introduction from a mutual friend the two became fast friends. After a few months in adjacent shoeboxes, they moved to a larger space and opened a boutique firm specializing in elder law.

Eventually the firm moved to its current space in Garden City, seven miles from Makofsky’s home in Manhasset.

Makofsky became the rainmaker, going to events aimed not only at lawyers but at health and medical professionals, financial advisers, social workers and anyone who worked with the elderly. “We spend an inordinate amount of time with every client,” Makofsky says. Unlike some lawyers, they let their clients talk while they listened—to their histories, their fears, their hopes. They agreed that clients were more important than billable hours.

The first year, they each made $8,000.

You could consider all that listening a loss leader, because it paid off. “Clients thought it was casual conversation, but that casual conversation gave us lots of information about the family, and what they wanted and needed,” Makofsky says. The little firm became known for its personal touches with clients, and for getting results, and the practice grew. Referrals came not only from professionals working with older people, but via word-of-mouth over golf games, card tables and lunch counters. As the years passed, the original clients’ children came in. Many clients bring in flowers or cookies.

“It turned out Nassau County is a hotbed for elder law,” Makofsky says. “It’s a very knowledgeable community of aging and affluent or moderately affluent people who are looking for answers.”

Back then, there were no classes to take, no conferences to go to, no forms to follow. “For every client, I had to figure out what to do for them, and how to do it, from scratch,” she says. “I had to learn everything. And that gave me a broad base and a deep base of knowledge. That has really served me well.”

For her middle-income clients, a frequent concern is how to qualify for Medicaid benefits without being forced by federal regulations to impoverish themselves. “People come in so concerned,” Makofsky says. “I can usually put a plan in place to ease their minds, and reassure them that their spouses are not going to be eating cat food.”

But it always starts with conversation. “We talk about their choices, and try to help guide them as to what works, what will work with their family, and the kind of psychological legacy they are going to leave behind them based on the choices they make.”

An example: It’s not unusual for her to dissuade clients from leaving less of their estate to a financially successful child, and more to a struggling child. “It can be hurtful to the successful one, who thinks, ‘Mom doesn’t love me as much,’” Makofsky says. “We talk about repercussions. We talk it out.” She will often devise a legal structure, including trusts, that satisfies the more successful child while making sure the struggling child does not have to struggle as much.

Recently a client came in asking to change her will. The client had two sons: one very successful, the other less successful and with a wife whom she worried was eager to get her hands on the inheritance. The client didn’t want to leave the bulk of her estate to the rich son, but neither did she want to give more to the son whose wife might squander it. Makofsky proposed a form of irrevocable trust that would protect both inheritances.

“It is a dance,” Makofsky says. “Clients come in with preconceived ideas about what they want and how it should be done. They haven’t fully considered the implications.” She has one bit of advice for every client: “Don’t discuss what’s in your will. If you do, it’s difficult to change the provisions, and it causes hard feelings.”

Longtime client Leslie Sucher says her family has turned to Makofsky for many legal matters over the years. “I have always felt confidence in her opinions, knowledge and experience,” Sucher says.

“She’s a rock star,” says Kate Madigan, a trusts, estates and elder law attorney who practices in Binghamton and is a former president of the New York State Bar Association. “She is not only the people’s lawyer but a lawyer’s lawyer. Many of her colleagues across the state will contact her when they are dealing with a thorny elder law or estate tax issue.”

Makofsky is especially known, Madigan adds, for helping young attorneys. One example is Lisa Valente, who in high school started working as a part-time filing clerk for Makofsky in the 1990s. “Following high school,” Valente says, “I obtained my associate’s degree in paralegal studies.” She continued working at the firm as a staffer through college and after graduation. One day, after several years of this, Makofsky called her into her office, shut the door and said, “Lisa, life is not a dress rehearsal. You have so much potential. You have to go to law school.” Today, Valente is Makofsky’s only partner—Raskin retired in December 2014—with two associates and five staff.

“Ellen is a truly special person,” Valente says. “She is strong yet empathetic. She cares about others and wants everyone to succeed. She is a strong advocate for her clients, always trying to resolve their legal issues in the most efficient and practical way.

“And behind it all,” Valente adds, “she is a fantastic and super cool wife, mother, grandmother, business partner and friend.”

During the pandemic, Makofsky’s firm was busier than ever. Clients who had been putting off decisions wanted to fast-track the process in case they got COVID-19, so, working via telephone and Zoom, Makofsky developed a system of “drive-by” signings for legal papers. She and her lawyers routinely went to clients’ homes, passing documents through cracks in doors and overseeing signings on patio tables and on car hoods.

Makofsky is 77 now—older than some of her clients—but she has no plans to retire. “I love coming to work every day,” she says. “Every day I help someone.”

She also helps her husband Marvin run his Port Washington nonprofit, which establishes community farm plots to grow fresh vegetables for food banks. The two travel often to visit their children and grandchildren in New Hampshire and California.

One of Makofsky’s prize possessions is the Lady Justice necklace she inherited from her mother. “It reminds me that I didn’t need to marry a lawyer,” Makofsky says. “I am the lawyer.” She wears it when she is speaking or receiving an award and for other special occasions.

“The next time I wear it,” she adds with a twinkle in the eye, “is when the photographer comes to take my picture for this article.”

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