APRIL 18, 2011 VOLUME 18 NUMBER 14
All you want to do is to find a lawyer to draft a simple will and powers of attorney. You ask your friends, but no one has a referral they feel unequivocally good about. A little online searching reveals that there are any number of organizations, credentials and qualifications–but how on earth do you figure out which lawyer actually knows something about estate planning, or Medicaid eligibility, or special needs trusts, guardianship and conservatorship (or whatever your elder law problem actually might be)? Let us give you a primer so you can identify the candidates.
NAELA (the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys) is probably the first place to look. Any lawyer in the country who does any significant amount of elder law (and that term is generally understood to include all the categories in the previous paragraph) probably belongs. There are about 5000 members, and the organization has been around for twenty years.
To belong to NAELA all you have to provide is proof that you are a lawyer and a $375 check each year. Even though the dues are not high, they serve as a low-level filter–those who sign up tend to actually work in the trenches of elder law. The organization has the best continuing legal education programs, the best camaraderie and the best sharing of any professional organization around.
There are actually several “flavors” of NAELA. Advanced elder law practitioners formed a subdivision of the organization two years ago; the Council of Advanced Practitioners (NAELA/CAP) is a highly selective group who meet separately once a year, exchange more sophisticated practice ideas and share much closer personal and professional connections.
Then there are the NAELA Fellows. Each year a small handful of NAELA members are selected to be Fellows, based on their reputations in the national and local communities, their hard work in the field, and their writing and speaking. The Fellows are the best-known, hardest-working elder law attorneys in the country–and there are fewer than 100 of them.
NAELA members who want to announce their availability for particular types of elder law work can sign up for the NAELA Experience Registry. Other than a certification that you are familiar with the area you sign up for, and payment of an annual fee, there is no requirement that you prove knowledge, experience or capability. Still, participation in the Experience Registry can be an indication of real interest in an area of elder law.
NELF (the National Elder Law Foundation) was an outgrowth of NAELA but is a separate entity. Its primary function is to operate an elder law certification program, and to grant successful applicants the CELA (Certified Elder Law Attorney) designation. CELAs must pass a full-day written exam (which has a famously low pass rate) and establish that they have real experience in the field.
ACTEC (the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel) is an entirely separate organization with some overlap but a significant difference. ACTEC Fellows (the name for all members) have to have been nominated by an existing Fellow; there is no application process and no way to sign up other than to get invited after a year-long vetting process. ACTEC Fellows tend to dress nicer, drink finer wines (not nearly as much beer) and belong to larger law firms than NAELA members.
There are, in addition, several for-profit organizations focused on estate planning and other elder law sub-specialties. Membership in any one of these may indicate that the lawyer takes the practice seriously, is trying to improve his or her skills through continuing education, and is committed enough to the practice to pay a (sometimes hefty) fee. Those organizations include the National Network of Estate Planning Attorneys (NNEPA), the American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys (AAEPA), and Wealth Counsel. Each of those organizations has its staunch partisans; even a cursory look at their websites will illustrate that their primary focus is on their membership, rather than providing public information or referrals.
There are at least two national organizations for lawyers who practice in the special needs arena. One, the Special Needs Alliance, is a non-profit organization with an invitation-only membership structure. The other, the Academy of Special Needs Planners, is a membership group open to anyone who is interested enough in the field to pay its hefty membership fee.
In addition to all of that, your state bar association and/or Supreme Court may have created a legal specialty in estate planning, tax, elder law, or related fields–or in more than one of those. State specialization usually indicates a serious peer review process, a challenging written examination, and a higher requirement for continuing legal education to maintain the certification. Arizona, for example, provides certification for “Estate and Trust” lawyers as well as Tax practitioners, and also recognizes the CELA designation described above.
Should you demand that your new lawyer have one or more of the credentials described here? No, not necessarily–though you might ask further questions if he or she does not belong to any of these professional associations. The websites of each may give you some leads to locate experienced and competent practitioners in your area.