Finding an Elder Law attorney can be stressful. Do you ask a neighbor for a recommendation? Search online? The criteria to consider can be daunting. However, through diligent research, you can find a qualified Elder Law attorney to assist you and your family.
What is an Elder Law attorney?
Elder Law is a unique field built around the needs of the client rather than a single subject area. Though there are many areas of law encompassed by Elder Law, a few core areas include:
- Estate planning (wills, trusts, powers of attorney)
- Court-ordered guardianships/conservatorships
- Medicaid planning and asset protection
- Long-term care planning
- Probate and trust administration
Why do I need an Elder Law attorney?
Elder Law attorneys are uniquely qualified to address legal issues facing the senior and special needs communities. These areas of law change frequently due to the numerous laws and regulations that impact seniors and those with special needs. Finding an attorney whose practice focuses on these areas will ensure that all potential issues are spotted and addressed.
So how do I find a qualified Elder Law attorney?
Because seniors are one of the fastest growing segments of the population (it is estimated that one-fifth of the U.S. population will be 65 or older by 2030), elder law is a growing field. This has led many attorneys to add “Elder Law” to their list of practice areas, even if he or she does not practice in the field very much. It is important for the public to educate themselves to become savvy consumers of these valuable legal services.
With that in mind, you should look for the following:
Experience. This factor may seem like a no-brainer, but “experience” encompasses more than years of experience. Check to see how long an attorney has specifically practiced Elder Law. It is very difficult in today’s legal world for an attorney to have a complete grasp on all areas of the law. Particularly in the complex and constantly changing Elder Law field attorneys really need to focus their practice on Elder Law to have a deep understanding of how the nuances may affect your situation. Attorneys can change focus areas several times during a legal career. One year in Elder Law plus 20 years in criminal law is not as valuable to a client as five years practicing Elder Law. As a rule of thumb, you should look for a lawyer with more than five years focusing their practice on Elder Law.
Involvement. Look for how involved an attorney is in reputable professional organizations. Be wary of legal lists or recognitions that only require an attorney to pay a fee to receive. In the Elder Law field, look for involvement with local non-profits and the following professional organizations and recognitions:
- North Carolina Bar Association’s Elder and Special Needs Law Section
- National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys
- National Elder Law Foundation for Certified Elder Law Attorneys
- Super Lawyers
- Best Lawyers in America
Best Lawyers in America recognized Andrew Atherton in the Elder Law field in 2019 and Super Lawyers recognized both Andrew Atherton and Kathleen Rodberg in 2019.
Specialization. One of the simplest ways to find a qualified Elder Law attorney is to look for a specialization certification. In North Carolina, an Elder Law attorney can become dually certified by both the North Carolina State Bar and the National Elder Law Foundation. In order to become a specialist in Elder Law, an attorney must demonstrate the following:
- Substantial involvement in Elder Law for at least 5 years
- Continuing legal education course credit in elder law and related fields
- Receive peer reviews to attest to the competence and qualification of the attorney
- Take and pass a written day-long exam
McGuire Wood & Bissette is proud to have Kathleen Rodberg, a board-certified specialist with the North Carolina State Bar and a Certified Elder Law Attorney (CELA) through the National Elder Law Foundation as part of its Trusts, Estates and Elder Law Team. Kathleen is one of only three attorneys in Western North Carolina to earn this designation.
A Good Relationship. You should always be comfortable with your attorney for any legal matter. If you are not sure about fit, most Elder Law attorneys will agree to have an informal brief meeting with a potential client to introduce themselves before scheduling a substantive discussion to assist you in developing solutions. This allows the potential client to determine if they can build a positive and productive relationship with the attorney.
Setting Expectations. There are different ways to run a law practice. Some attorneys are readily available to their clients and will speak with clients directly, while others will assign many or most tasks to paralegals or other attorneys. There is not a “right” or “wrong” approach to this, but make sure that you and your attorney are on the same page about how your file will be handled.