By Mark T. Johnson, CELA, and Barbara S. Hughes, Esq., CAP, Fellow
WINAELA provides its members with state-specific education, networking opportunities, and advocacy on matters important to their clients.
The Wisconsin NAELA Chapter (WINAELA) expresses a state-specific version of the hallmarks of the national organization — providing top-notch learning opportunities for its members, connecting members across the state, and advocating for clients both in judicial proceedings and in public policy.
History and National Engagement
WINAELA grew out of active member involvement in NAELA national. While the State Bar of Wisconsin has a strong elder law section (which officially added special needs to its name in 2019), NAELA members recognized the additional benefits a chapter could bring to attorneys in the state. For example, the dedicated Listserv for WINAELA members and the latitude to litigate elder law cases go beyond the services and options available through the State Bar Elder Law and Special Needs Section. Furthermore, NAELA connects elder and special needs law attorneys across the nation with resources beyond those of the State Bar.
Through the years, Wisconsin NAELA members have been active in NAELA national, established the state chapter, and maintained a strong link between the state and national organizations. The “founding generation” of attorneys — Paul Sturgul, CELA, CAP, Fellow; Barbara Hughes, Esq., CAP, Fellow; Jeff Drach, CELA; Tim Crawford, CELA, Fellow; and Jim Jaeger, Esq., to name a few — laid a lasting foundation for the state chapter, even as most are retired or close to retirement now. They participated in NAELA through board membership, committees, and chairing and speaking at national conferences. Plus, they spearheaded the establishment of WINAELA and its activities. WINAELA received its charter at the 2006 NAELA Institute.
Over the years, numerous NAELA members from Wisconsin have been active in NAELA national, through service in leadership roles, and in planning and presenting at conferences. Furthermore, many of our WINAELA members are distinguished with designations of Fellow, CAP (Council of Advanced Practitioners), and CELA (Certified Elder Law Attorney). For example, Carol Wessels, Esq., currently serves on the NAELA Board of Directors and Mark Munson, CELA, CAP, just finished his term on the NAELA Board in May 2020. In addition, the current WINAELA board of directors and advisors includes five CELAs and two CAP members.
Learning and Sharing Among Members
WINAELA offers two top-notch learning experiences each year to help members build their practices. Each January, WINAELA hosts its winter workshop for two days of extensive continuing legal education. The first half-day is a basic program, and in recent years has focused on the ins and outs of institutional Medicaid eligibility, application, spousal impoverishment protection, and estate recovery. The advanced program offers a day-and-a-half of various topics, often starting with a theme on the first half-day. For example, our 2020 themed half-day and part of the full-day were about retirement and disability Social Security benefits and when fee approval is required, presented by Avram Sacks, Esq., of Chicago. Drawing on expertise from national and regional presenters, as well as the extensive experience of our members, we attract approximately 150 attendees. The winter workshop is open to WINAELA members, non-member attorneys, and law firm support staff.
The second WINAELA learning event each year is our summer UnProgram. Open to WINAELA members only, we gather for one or two large group sessions, along with several break-out sessions of 10-15 participants sharing ideas and experiences on various topics of elder law and special needs planning. We discuss the latest trends and concerns in the administration of Wisconsin’s Medicaid program, along with other recent changes in the law, such as ABLE accounts, retirement account planning, and trust law.
Informal sharing through the WINAELA listserv also provides a forum where members can share ideas, comments, and strategies. The listserv membership is restricted to WINAELA members (which is narrower than the state bar elder law listserv that may include attorneys working in state and county agencies). Therefore, WINAELA members can discuss topics on our listserv that they may not wish to share with agency attorneys, especially if the topics relate to strategies or arguments to be made in fair hearings or litigation.
In recent years, WINAELA created a paralegal network for support staff members who work with WINAELA members to connect and share ideas. Starting with a dedicated Listserv, we hope to build and expand the reach of the paralegal network to include more members and provide in-person or online learning experiences.
A hallmark of WINAELA has been our dedication to litigation support, especially in cases involving the implementation and administration of institutional Medicaid. Our litigation committee receives, reviews, and recommends case requests for support from the Chapter Litigation Fund. The committee works to discern appropriate cases with good facts and potential to preserve or expand favorable legal precedent. WINAELA offers support through financial assistance when the represented party may not have the financial means to appeal a decision. Furthermore, WINAELA members with relevant elder law litigation experience may provide support in legal representation or briefing issues. For one 2019 case that involved a spousal testamentary trust and Medicaid, WINAELA took the unusual step of filing an amicus brief with the county court case for the appeal of an unfavorable fair hearing decision. The judge adopted WINAELA’s legal position, and the county court’s decision stopped an unfavorable fair hearing decision from being used as policy interpretation for statewide Medicaid.
WINAELA’s litigation support sets us apart from the State Bar of Wisconsin Elder Law and Special Needs Section, which specifically cannot engage in litigation because different sections of the bar may be adverse—e.g., elder law attorneys litigating a matter against government attorneys who represent a state agency.
Public Policy and Legislative Advocacy
An area of growing interest and effort for WINAELA is public policy and legislative advocacy. We have realized that judicial advocacy can only address policies and laws after they have been enacted and implemented, and only when a case rises to litigation. In recent years, WINAELA has discussed ways for greater engagement in the legislative process for advocating for or against, or for amendments to, proposed legislation, beyond our efforts to be aware of proposed and enacted law that affects our practice areas.
While this area is developing for us, it is not without growing pains. For example, we have learned that hiring a lobbyist is too expensive, and, in many cases, can involve conflicts of interest for established lobbyists in the state capital. Over the years, WINAELA members have taken various grassroots steps, such as contacting legislators and offering testimony at legislative hearings. However, we are still trying to determine how best to establish concerted grassroots efforts to influence legislation.
WINAELA began with strong connections and support with the national organization, and our chapter continues the hallmarks of the organization through education, networking, and litigation support. We are learning and growing in our means and efforts to promote good public policy and legislation for our clients. And, we are innovating with new ideas for our members and their staff to build and enhance their practice of elder and special needs law.
About the Authors
Mark T. Johnson, CELA, is immediate past president of WINAELA. Barbara S. Hughes, Esq., CAP, Fellow, is an advisor to the WINAELA Board.