Thursday, September 23, 2010

How to find competent legal help for Senior issues

Older persons face many complicated legal issues.  Planning for possible incapacity and long term care can be particularly complex and requires expert legal help.  But it is difficult for the consumer to be able to identify lawyers who have the training and experience required to provide the expert guidance needed.      
Planning for senior issues like incapacity and long term care is an important aspect of the services provided by what have become known as “elder law attorneys.”   Unfortunately, in most states any lawyer can say he or she practices elder law or hold themselves out as being an Aelder law attorney@ even if the lawyer has little or no experience with senior issues. This means seniors must be particularly cautious in choosing a lawyer and carefully investigate the lawyer before hiring.  This article contains some tips you can use to find a lawyer who can provide seniors with high quality legal services.   
A Certified Elder Law Attorney (CELA) is a lawyer who has met the rigorous standards for certification in the field of elder law set by the National Elder Law Foundation (NELF).  In Pennsylvania, where I practice, the Supreme Court has approved the NELF certification process and permits lawyer who have been certified by the Foundation to state that they are certified elder law attorneys.  

Lawyers who have not met these rigorous standards are not permitted to refer to themselves as CELAs. This means that the CELA professional designation provides a measure of assurance that the lawyer has an in-depth working knowledge of the legal issues that impact the elderly, including long term care.  This is somewhat akin to Board Certification for Physicians. 
There are CELAs located in most areas of the country. A listing of those attorneys can be found on the NELF website at www.nelf.org.  But some geographic areas are unrepresented. There are presently only 35 CELAs in Pennsylvania.
What can you do to find qualified elder law help if there no CELAs in your community? How can you find lawyers who have the knowledge and experience required?
You may want to start by seeking recommendations from friends who have received professional help with senior planning issues.  Who did they use?  Were they satisfied with the services they received?  Hospital social workers, Alzheimer and other support groups, accountants and other financial professionals can also be good sources of recommendations. 
To have an issue addressed properly, the senior planning client needs a lawyer who devotes a substantial part of his or her practice to issue of concern.  Experience is a critical platform for quality services in most professional areas, especially law. So, If your family member needs long term care planning, you shouldn’t hesitate to ask the lawyer what percentage of his practice involves long term care planning.  Or, you could ask how many new long term care planning cases the law office handles each month.  There is no correct answer.  But there is a good chance that a law office that assists with two nursing home placements a week is likely to be more up to date and knowledgeable than an office that helps with two placements a year. 
Ask whether the lawyer is a member of any Elder Law planning organizations.  Is the lawyer involved with committees of state bar organizations that have to do with senior issues?  If so, has the lawyer held a position of leadership or authority on the committee?   Does the lawyer lecture on the issue of concern?  If so, to whom?  (For example, if the lawyer is asked to teach other lawyers about elder law and long term care planning, that is a pretty good sign that the lawyer is considered to be an expert in those areas by people who should know.)  If the lawyer lectures to the public, you or a family member might try to attend one of the presentations. This should help you decide if this is the lawyer for you.
The leading national organization of elder law attorneys is the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA).  Its website, www.naela.org contains a listing of its members.  NAELA has thousands of members and there is a good chance that there will be one or more members of NAELA in your geographic region.  While mere membership in the Academy is open to any lawyer and provides no assurance that the attorney is an experienced elder law practitioner, membership does at least show that the lawyer has some interest in the field. 
In addition, NAELA (and many state bar associations) run educational sessions to help lawyers stay current on the latest aspects of elder law and issues like long term care planning.  Attending these sessions takes time and commitment on the part of the lawyer and is a good sign that the lawyer is attempting to stay up to date on nursing home issues. You may want to look for an attorney who is a member of NAELA of your state bar Elder Law Committee or Section and has recently attended one or more of its educational sessions.  If the attorney has been a speaker at one of the NAELA or State Bar sessions, that is an even better sign of recognized competency in the field. 
Finally, the internet has become an incredible resource for finding just about anything you need.  This includes an elder law attorney. By now most lawyers have websites.  Do a search on “elder law” and your city and you are likely to find quite a few lawyers show up in the listing. You can then check out the lawyer’s website.  Many lawyer websites are just glossy advertisements written by marketing firms, but some have content actually written by the lawyer. At the very least, you can read the lawyer bio page to get some useful information.

There are quite a few lawyer rating sites available on the internet.  These include AVVO, Super Lawyers, Best Lawyers in America, and Martindale Hubbell.  The internet is filled with ratings, of course. Google assigns a PageRank score to every Web site it indexes, CNET rates software, Amazon rates books, Standard & Poor's rates stocks and bonds, etc. But rating lawyers is tricky and subjective, and information can be stale. I once represented the family of a lawyer who had suffered for many years from Alzheimer’s. 7 years after he retired from practice he still was being given the top rating possible by Martindale Hubbell.  I checked his ratings again, 3 years after his death – he still had an “A” rating from Martindale.  
So, while online lawyer ratings services can provide some useful information (for example, AVVO tells you whether a lawyer has ever been disciplined for misconduct), they should be viewed with a measure of caution.
Bottom line: When you need legal help with a senior issue, it is critically important that you find a qualified lawyer who is experienced in dealing with the particular issue of concern. Be smart and don’t fall into the trap of thinking that all lawyers are equally knowledgeable about your issue.  They are not. Do some homework before choosing your attorney.
Lawyers love Latin terms and there is one that you should remember as you search for an elder law attorney - “Caveat Emptor” – which means “Buyer Beware.”      

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