The National Elder Law Foundation (NELF) often hears hesitancy from lawyers interested in taking the Certified Elder Law Attorney (CELA) exam. They say it’s a hard test with low passing rates or that they are already so busy between life and lawyering that it’s impossible to find the time to study.
But the long-term benefits of obtaining the CELA designation far outweigh the challenges of becoming one. CELAs join a supportive network of 515 elder law attorneys across the United States with extensive knowledge of the intricacies of elder law. The CELA network is an invaluable resource for referrals and advice on legal matters. And the CELA designation often seals the deal with prospective clients.
In an effort to demystify the process of studying for the CELA exam, we spoke to four CELAs who were awarded the designation in 2019. Mallory Moreno and Christine Barone, associate attorneys at Delaney Delaney & Voorn, Ltd. in Chicago; and Matthew T. Kitka and Robert K. Schweitzer with Julian Gray Associates in Pittsburgh, Pa., share how they did it.
Three of the four CELAs took the exam at the first possible opportunity -- after five years as a full-time lawyer, and three years of substantive time spent practicing elder law. The fourth had practiced law for 18 years but switched fields several years earlier. One CELA failed the test the first time but passed on the second try with the others.
“I think the most beneficial and worthwhile part for me is to have that confidence that I absolutely know the material,” said Christine Barone. “It’s not that my clients thought I wasn’t a good attorney, but now I’ve taken these extra steps to obtain a designation that is not easy to get, and it helps.”
Finding the Time
Family obligations complicate studying but are not as daunting as they may seem. Rob Schweitzer said preparing for the exam was a time commitment and a process. With a young family and clients to take care of, his life was quite full. But coming from a background in commercial litigation, he saw the test as a way to upgrade his knowledge and gain insights into client challenges that might take years of practice to obtain.
Those without children also had to make adjustments. Mallory Moreno explained that even though she and her husband don’t have children, everyone has a routine in their home and preparing for the exam rocked that routine. So, they figured out how to adjust who cooked dinner, cleaned, and took care of other responsibilities to allow time for her study schedule.
Studying for the Test
Rigor is a key part of the preparation process. For the March 2019 test, they all began studying in the late fall of 2018 or right after the New Year and continued studying up until the day of the exam.
There are multiple courses and study guides that can help prepare for the exam. The resource used most frequently by these test-takers was the book by Robert B. Fleming and Lisa Nachmias Davis, The Elder Law Answer Book. Now in its fourth edition, this book contains the most current legal, regulatory, and practice guidelines in elder law plus the core topics of estate planning, retirement planning, health care decision-making, and rights of the elderly, among others. The current edition has a 2019 supplement.
Webinars are also available. Robert K. Schweitzer took a 10-week webinar with Fleming, Marsha Goodman, and Professor Rebecca C. Morgan of Stetson University. The webinar helped him develop a study plan and parse out his time. He said it’s also helpful to have a study partner who can act as a sounding board.
NAELA offers the Advanced Elder Law Review, which is designed by NAELA Past Presidents and offers 14 advanced-level sessions in elder law education. If you can’t make the live presentation, you can purchase the recordings on NAELA’s website.
NELF offers a study guide for the exam and other resources on its site as well. And this past year, NELF released its first sample test that gives studiers a chance to look at the test and essay questions.
The four new CELAs are emphatic that studying for and taking the test was well worth the effort put into it. Matthew T. Kitka offers this advice to those who hesitate in making a commitment. “Just do it,” he said. “If you are a practicing attorney, you at least have good study habits, and you can rely on those habits. Even if I had not passed the first time, taking the test once would have been really helpful the second time around.”