A self-proclaimed “nerd,” Letha not only enjoys the substantive practice of elder law and special needs planning as well as helping her clients in North Carolina and Virginia, she also likes the tax law and the practice management side of the practice.
If you have ever met or spent some time talking with NAELA’s 34th President, Letha Sgritta McDowell, CELA, CAP, chances are there were several things you noticed by the end of the conversation — Letha is smart, dedicated, friendly, and she loves the ocean. This may not be the exact order in which you would make your observations, but I assure you these will be your lasting impressions.
Growing up near Lake Norman in Mooresville, North Carolina, Letha enjoyed swimming, boating, and all sorts of water activities on the lake. Although she enjoyed lake life, she fell in love with the ocean while spending her summers visiting family in Maine.
Letha attended Purdue University in Indiana, where she initially pursued a degree in chemistry but then became interested in studying law after taking a class in constitutional history and becoming aware of an incident where some of her friends suffered injustice. She graduated from Purdue with a BA in political science and went on to earn her juris doctorate from the University of Maine’s School of Law.
During law school, Letha worked at a public accounting firm where she became enthralled with preparing tax returns, such as fiduciary income tax returns, gift tax returns, and estate tax returns. After law school, she worked for a small-town lawyer in eastern North Carolina for a few months before joining the Hook Law Center, PC, where she is currently a shareholder. Her areas of practice include estate planning, elder law, special needs planning, estate and trust administration, asset protection planning, long-term care planning, personal injury settlement consulting, guardianship/conservatorship, and tax law.
Letha first became a NAELA member in 2009 when, at the request of her partner, Andrew H. Hook, CELA, AFP, CFP, she attended the NAELA Annual Conference held in Hawaii. Although she will admit that Hawaii itself was “spectacular,” the best part of the trip was meeting and developing relationships with other NAELA members who quickly became great resources and good friends. After that first conference, she was hooked on NAELA and wanted to become more active in the organization.
She sought guidance from a fellow North Carolina attorney and NAELA Past President A. Frank Johns, CELA, CAP, Fellow, who encouraged her to get involved and join various committees. Letha must have really taken this encouragement to heart because she eventually went on to join and become a leader in several boards and committees throughout the organization, including the Essentials Committee, Co-Chairing NAELA’s Annual Conference in Denver, Co-Chairing the Programs and Publications Committee, Federal Advocacy Committee, Finance Committee, NAELA Board of Directors, Executive Committee, NAELA Foundation Board of Trustees, and the NAELA North Carolina Board of Directors.
“I don’t know that I would have appreciated my NAELA membership as much if I didn’t get involved,” Letha said. “It’s really important for members to be active in NAELA in any way they can be. Whether it’s writing an article or volunteering on a committee or section. It doesn’t matter what it is, just take a little time to get involved because the time and investment that you make will be paid back to you in spades with the knowledge and the connections that you build.”
“A Nerd and Proud of It”
As a self-proclaimed “nerd,” Letha not only enjoys the substantive practice of elder law and special needs planning as well as helping her clients in North Carolina and Virginia, she also likes the tax law and the practice management side of the practice. Where some attorneys may feel overwhelmed or intimidated by things like billable time and origination, or budget and financial statements, Letha likes to dive right in. She feels like the “numbers” side of the practice is helpful in determining trends in services and how the practice may be shifting.
In addition to practicing law in her firm’s North Carolina and Virginia offices, Letha was certified as an elder law attorney by NELF in 2012, was invited to join NAELA’s Council of Advanced Practitioners in 2019, and was named as a Fellow of the American College of Trusts and Estates Counsel (ACTEC) in 2020. She is also accredited to prepare and prosecute claims with the Department of Veterans Affairs; has been named a Super Lawyer Rising Star for 2014, 2015, 2016, 2018, and 2019; and Super Lawyer for 2020 and 2021.
Letha’s proven leadership and practice skills have earned her the respect and high praise of many colleagues throughout NAELA.
“From the first day I met Letha, I knew she was destined to be a proven leader,” NAELA Past President Hyman G. Darling, CELA, CAP, Fellow, said. “Her willingness to take on and complete any task with enthusiasm (even tax issues!) allowed more responsibility to be given to her. It is a testament to her knowledge, ability, energy, and ambition that she will be assuming the role of President of NAELA.”
Work Hard, Play Hard
If you ask NAELA Past President Jennifer VanderVeen, CELA, CAP, Fellow, a long-time friend and colleague of Letha, about her friend’s work ethic, she will tell you that Letha’s schedule makes her head hurt.
“I don’t know anyone else who crams so much into a day,” VanderVeen said. “I think the phrase ‘Work hard, play hard’ was coined for her.”
A typical day for Letha will start by waking up at 5:30 a.m. to work out, then get ready for work while making sure her son, Liam, is ready for school. Since Letha practices in North Carolina and Virginia, she faces a 2-hour commute (one way) from her home in North Carolina to her firm’s office in Virginia three times a week. After a long day in the office, she comes home to her son and husband, Kyle (who are usually both asleep), only to do it all over again the next day.
In addition to her law practice and active leadership role in NAELA, Letha spends a lot of her time generously sharing the wealth of her knowledge. Throughout her time in NAELA, she has written articles for NAELA News and NAELA Journal. She has also presented at NAELA conferences, taught numerous continuing education programs on elder law and special needs planning, and has worked on revisions to legislation that affect people with disabilities in North Carolina.
If that’s not enough, Letha is also a subject matter expert for InterActive Legal Estate and Elder Law Planning software and serves as a strategic advisor for the company. She has worked with an IBM Watson partner to develop plain English explanations of complex legal concepts available for the public.
As busy and focused as Letha may be on her practice and efforts with NAELA and other professional endeavors, she makes great efforts to complete her work in time for the weekend so that she can focus on having fun with her family — even if it means working late into the night during the week.
Letha loves to travel and spend her free time at the beach with her family. Whether she is relaxing in a beach chair facing the ocean, swimming in the ocean with her family, or surfing with her son, she is happiest near the ocean and does not go a day without at least seeing it. When asked about surfing with her son, Letha will readily admit that Liam is the surfing guru of the family.
“My son is a much better surfer than I am,” Letha said. “He’s been doing it for years. He did have a lesson or two, but he’s really figured it out for himself and, of course, he has to give me tips when I go out there and try to get on the board. He’ll tell me that my foot’s not in the right place, or I’m too far forward. He loves to tell me what to do.”
Letha shared her love of the ocean and surfing with her fellow NAELA members when she baked and decorated a cake for the NAELA Foundation Cake Challenge in 2020. The cake, which was entitled “Hang 10,” was decorated with surfboards, waves, and a shark and it looked delicious.
An Extrovert by Nature
Letha describes herself as an extrovert by nature and admits that people say she would talk to a brick wall. Her fun and easygoing sense of humor exemplifies her overall good nature and friendly personality. Letha’s gift of gab and genuine friendliness has served her well throughout her involvement with NAELA helping her to make many long-lasting and meaningful friendships, or as some would say, NAELA kindred spirits.
Some of her favorite NAELA memories have been made with her friends and colleagues at NAELA’s Annual Conferences. She enjoys the welcoming environment at NAELA and appreciates the willingness of members to share their ideas and experiences about the practice of elder law and special needs planning.
“I love the spirit that NAELA brings to the practice,” Letha said. “You have people you can bounce ideas off, and you don’t feel like a complete idiot. You can ask legitimate questions and get really good information and answers. It’s not a stuffy organization, and you can find your people when you’re at NAELA.”
Although she was thrilled with the attendance at the 2021 NAELA Annual Conference that was held virtually in March and very grateful that many members were able to attend as a result of the virtual venue, Letha missed seeing her friends and colleagues in person. In addition to enjoying the interaction with other NAELA members at conferences, Letha is very generous with her time and insights and is always open to calls and emails from members.
As the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys enters another year of figuring out the “new normal” as an organization thanks to COVID-19, Letha will continue the excellent work of her predecessors but with new challenges and goals to overcome and meet as president. We wish her and NAELA much success in the coming year.
We all join Frank Johns in saying, “Here’s to you, Letha, our president and surely a NAELA kindred spirit.”