The practice of elder law is unique – it is not exclusive to a specific substantive area of law—such as bankruptcy. Rather, a reputable elder law attorney is proficient in several substantive areas that may affect an entire demographic segment that comprise our clients: the elderly.
Choosing a capable attorney to assist you or your parents, then, is a tall order.
But selecting someone who is a Certified Elder Law Attorney (CELA) is one way to ensure that the attorney has the necessary qualifications to provide competent representation.
Before embarking on the process involved in becoming a CELA, an awkward disclaimer is necessary: Connecticut is one state that does not yet recognize the designation of CELA. Consequently, on our firm’s letterhead and in my email, my name appears with the asterisk you see at the bottom of this post.
The National Elder Law Foundation (NELF) is the organization vested with authority to determine the criteria and standards of CELAs. NELF was created by the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys in 1994 for this sole purpose.
Obtaining certification is not an easy task; in fact, there are only 10 CELAs in Connecticut and approximately 500 nationwide.
How does one become a CELA?
Briefly, the process to become a CELA requires the following:
(1) Spending a majority of the time practicing in twelve different practice areas that comprise NELF’s definition of Elder Law (i.e., Medicaid, Estate Planning, Probate, Special Needs Trust Planning, etc.);
(2) attending a significant number of CLE (continuing legal education) courses;
(3) providing peer reviews from colleagues who practice in elder law; and most importantly,
(4) pass a grueling day-long examination that is offered only twice per year.
The exam is likely the primary obstacle for attorneys who would otherwise like to become certified. The pass rate has been as low as 14% (this was the pass rate for those sitting for the exam when I took it!) and about 30% in recent years.
Maintaining the CELA designation requires a recertification process every five years, which includes all of the above except for the exam. I have gone through two recertifications, and my third is in 2023.
So is the exam that hard?
In a word: yes!
In my opinion, the exam was far more difficult than the Bar Exam. But having studied so hard (and, by extension, learned so much), I was confident that I passed after completing the exam.
What this means for me is that it is necessary to hold attorneys to a higher standard when they represent such a vulnerable sector of the population.
The designation of CELA is not dispositive; I know many stellar elder law attorneys who lack the certification. But on the whole, an overwhelming majority of CELAs dedicate themselves exclusively to the practice of elder law, and taking the time to ensure they have the credentials ordinarily translates to competent representation.
For more information, see www.Nelf.org.
*Certified as an Elder Law Attorney by the National Elder Law Foundation as approved by the American Bar Association. Recognition of this designation is not approved by the Rules Committee of the Superior Court.