When you strive to accomplish your life’s work, “all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” This was the lesson an Andalusian shepherd boy named Santiago learned in Paulo Coelho’s book, The Alchemist. The inspiring story teaches that many do not discover what they are meant to do in life, but if we learn to recognize the “signs and omens” put in our path, we will see that many of our life experiences were guiding us towards and preparing us for our life’s work.
The story of how Todd Whatley and Justin Elrod got to where they are today suggests that the lessons of The Alchemist are true. The story begins in Benton, Arkansas, where Todd learned how to show respect to those older than him from one of the most influential people in his life, his mother’s father, “Bull” McKinnon. Todd’s grandfather died when Todd was 19, but he planted in Todd the seed of a desire to one day become an attorney.
As is often the case, Todd didn’t take the most direct path in life. He initially entered the medical field because his mother was a nurse. As soon as he was old enough, he became an EMT and learned to work on an ambulance. That led him to the field of physical therapy. Todd wanted to work with athletes—but there was not much demand for sports PT in Benton. What seemed like a disappointment, though, led Todd one step closer to his life’s work.
Because sports PT was not an option, Todd reluctantly became a home health PT, primarily working with older clients who wanted nothing more than to improve enough to go to church or visit the beauty shop. Although this is not what Todd thought he wanted to do, he learned from this experience how rewarding life could be when helping people, especially seniors, meet their goals. He also learned how difficult it was for people to get quality care without losing their life savings, and he decided to do something about it.
The seed planted by his grandfather years prior took root with Todd late in the 1990s. Todd went to law school and opened his own law practice in Benton. In 2000, because of his time as a home health PT, Todd decided to focus solely on the legal issues of the elderly.
Todd’s practice thrived. Seeing an unmet need and prime business opportunity in Northwest Arkansas, Todd opened a second office in Springdale in 2007. For about a year, Todd worked to maintain both offices on his own, but the distance between his central Arkansas practice, which by this time had moved to Bryant, and his office in Springdale proved to be too much. He knew he needed help if both offices were to continue to succeed.
Around this same time, another series of seemingly unrelated events put Justin in Todd’s path. Justin graduated from law school in 2005 and immediately went to work in a large litigation firm. Although he loved the people at his firm, he quickly realized that the large-firm litigation practice was not going to be his life’s work. Instead, Justin saw himself working with seniors, catching the vision of his father.
In 2007, while Justin debated career options, Justin’s dad, Jimmy Elrod, opened his first assisted living facility in Benton. The lessons of The Alchemist were apparent in Jimmy’s life, too, as God guided him towards his life’s work. In retrospect, his winding career path seemed perfectly designed to prepare him to run an assisted living facility. Jimmy spent twenty years as the business administrator of a large church in Little Rock. In that position, he learned to manage facilities, oversee employees, and implement a budget. The church even asked him to serve as the minister to the congregation’s senior adults. When he left his position at the church, he became the long-term care insurance specialist for a large insurance company. None of this seemed to fit together . . . until he had a dream about opening an assisted living facility. Jimmy was led to the assisted living business because his mother, Justin’s grandmother, had spent the last years of her life in long-term care, and he knew he could give seniors a better experience than she had.
Exposure to his dad’s experiences primed Justin for a career serving seniors. But perhaps even more impactful to Justin was seeing his own grandparents struggle with legal and financial issues late in life. Justin’s grandfather mowed his own yard even into his eighties. In fact, his desire to mow sent him to the doctor—for the first time since his army physical—with complaints about his energy level. He could no longer mow his front and back yards in the same day. His doctor ordered tests, the results of which prompted emergency bypass surgery. His grandfather later declared the entire ordeal a complete waste of time, because even with the surgery, he still couldn’t mow his entire yard in one day.
Shortly after the surgery, it became apparent that Justin’s grandparents could not stay in their home without help. Justin’s grandfather was a veteran, and Justin later learned about VA benefits that would have helped pay for that assistance, but the family did not know about the benefits at the time so the family struggled to help them stay at home without any help.
When Justin’s grandfather died, his grandmother couldn’t stay in the home even with assistance. Assisted living would have been ideal for her at that time, but she thought she couldn’t afford it so she moved in with her daughter’s family. No one complained for a second, but the situation wasn’t easy. Those same VA benefits that Justin’s grandfather didn’t apply for while he was living would have helped Justin’s grandmother with the costs of assisted living, but lack of knowledge caused them to miss out on the benefits a second time.
Justin’s grandmother eventually had no choice but to move to assisted living despite the cost, and she began to liquidate her life savings. After suffering a stroke, she moved from assisted living to a nursing home. With a little planning, Medicaid benefits would have helped cover the nursing home charges. But again, because of a lack of knowledge, she continued liquidating her life savings, now at a faster pace.
When Justin’s grandmother died, Jimmy worked to wrap up final affairs. He was surprised to find among his parents’ papers a revocable trust, written to avoid probate court. His surprise turned to disappointment, however, when he found that his parents never put any of their assets in the name of the trust. Despite the time and money they spent drawing up a trust, Jimmy had to take their estate into probate to distribute what was left. Lack of knowledge caused Justin’s grandparents to make almost every legal mistake an older couple could make. Observing the stress and unnecessary financial struggles Justin’s family endured provided strong motivation for entering a field in which he could help other families avoid similar problems.
Even after life seemed to guide Justin directly toward the field of elder law, it still took one more seemingly chance encounter to solidify his final move. Justin’s brother, Josh Elrod, published a local magazine at the time. He was seeking professionals to write advice columns, and one of this writers recommended that Josh reach out to her friend, Todd, for a monthly article on legal topics. When Josh spoke with Todd, he learned that Todd had recently moved to Northwest Arkansas and, while he still had an office in Bryant, he was trying to get his Springdale office off the ground. He didn’t think it wise to commit the time necessary to write a recurring magazine article. As a matter of fact, if Josh knew of any attorneys in the area who might be looking to make a career change . . .
Things moved quickly after that conversation. Josh set up a dinner between Todd and Justin. They met at the Macaroni Grill in Little Rock and quickly hit it off. Within two weeks of that dinner, Justin took over management of Todd’s Bryant office, and Todd focused on growing his practice in Northwest Arkansas. And grow it did. In no time, Todd opened satellite offices in Fort Smith and Bentonville. Meanwhile, Justin expanded the central Arkansas practice to include an office in Hot Springs Village.
For more than three years, Todd owned all five offices and employed Justin to manage the central Arkansas locations. Then on January 1, 2012, they formed a legal partnership to jointly run the operation state wide. That partnership thrived for two years until, out of concern that the operation had gotten too large to run as a single entity, the partners agreed to split the business into two separate law firms. On January 1, 2014, Justin became the sole owner of the offices in Bryant and Hot Springs Village, operating under the name The Elrod Firm. Todd became the sole owner of the offices in Springdale, Fort Smith, and Bentonville, operating as The Elder Law Practice of H. Todd Whatley.
Although the business was divided into two separate legal entities, Todd and Justin remained in close contact, sharing business ideas, brainstorming about cases, and traveling to conferences together on a regular basis. Then in 2016, Todd’s mindset began to change. Within a twelve month period, Todd lost both his father and his mother. After his father’s death but shortly before his mother died, Todd approached Justin about the prospect of a buyout. Todd didn’t want to leave the practice of elder law, but after almost two decades, he was ready to get out of the business of law firm management.
After determining that Todd was serious about making a change, Justin agreed to buy Todd’s practice. To Justin’s relief, Todd agreed to stay on as a consultant to act as a mentor to the attorneys who joined him in Northwest Arkansas over the years, to continue offering valuable guidance to clients, and to ensure a smooth transition to new ownership.
While helping their clients plan for the future and protect their life savings will always remain the top priority for Todd and Justin, they have added another goal to their mission. They now spend a lot of time and energy raising public awareness, both locally and nationally, as to the existence of elder law and its place as a sorely needed legal specialty. Locally, Todd and Justin are both adjunct professors of law, teaching soon-to-be attorneys the ins and outs of elder law. They also speak at public education events on a regular basis and Todd hosts a weekly radio show. Nationally, they are both Certified Elder Law Attorneys, as certified by the National Elder Law Foundation, an ABA accredited organization striving to raise the bar in the practice of elder law across the country. Both Todd and Justin serve as members of the board of directors of the National Elder Law Foundation, with Todd serving as the 2016 and 2017 Foundation President.
When Todd embarked on this journey in 2000, almost no one in Arkansas knew anything about elder law. The work Todd began almost two decades ago, and the mission Justin joined in 2008, continues to grow exponentially. Today, the practices serve more clients than ever thanks to the dedication of the attorneys, case managers, and staff who joined Todd and Justin along the way. It has been a long, winding road, and the final destination was not always apparent. But it seems clear that Todd, Justin, and the team members who have joined in this mission have succeeded in finding their life’s work because looking back, it’s hard to miss how the universe conspired to bring us together on this rewarding journey.