Is becoming a Certified Elder Law Attorney, or CELA as it is called, worth it? That’s a question many elder law attorneys ask. They know that the test is difficult, it takes time to prepare for the test, and many who take it don’t pass the first time.
Incoming NELF President Marilyn G. Miller, whose legal practice bears her name, says the CELA is worth attaining because "The real rewards come in how it helps you grow your practice, market it, and in having a network of leading elder law practitioners available to tap into to help shape solutions for your clients."
To better understand how NELF members use certification today in their practices and the benefits it delivers, NELF recently surveyed its membership of 510 CELAs. Twenty-two percent of members participated in the survey or phone interviews. Participants ranged from new CELAs to those who had held the designation for more than 20 years. Here’s a synopsis of what we learned from the research.
The CELA Designation Differentiates Me From Other Elder Law Attorneys
Seventy-five percent of survey respondents said the CELA designation sets them apart from other elder law attorneys. They say the certification can often be a deciding factor when clients are choosing between multiple elder law attorneys in a market. Although most clients have not heard of the designation, during a preliminary meeting, certification can sway them in their favor.
“It’s like being a board-certified doctor versus one who is not board certified,” says Evan Farr, CELA, CAP, and president of the Farr Law Firm in Fairfax, Virginia. “In my opinion, it’s an absolute requirement to have a truly successful practice.”
For those who are entering elder law as a second career, the CELA designation can help establish an attorney quickly as an expert. For instance, April Hill, CELA, CAP, founder of the Hill Law Group in St. Petersburg, Florida, was a social worker before she went to law school. When she started practicing, she obtained Florida’s elder law certification. She later took the CELA exam and is now a CELA.
“I wanted people to respect my expertise,” says Hill. “The CELA designation gave me the credibility I was looking for, and the exam was not as hard as I expected.”
Preparing for the CELA Exam Improved My Legal Skills
The CELA exam is by no means a static certification test. Every testing cycle includes something on it that is different from the previous test. The certification is also far more than a one-time test. Every 5 years, a CELA must apply to recertify and provide references from outside his or her firm who can attest to his or her expertise.
“Preparing for the test added to my knowledge base,” explains Patrick J. Haase, CELA, an associate at San Diego, California-based Seltzer, Kaplan, McMahon Vitek. “At the time, I was doing quite a bit of MediCal planning, but I still wasn’t knowledgeable about options like Section 8 housing benefits and HUD. Studying for the CELA exam gave me that.”
Michael Delaney, CELA, practices in Chicago and is a member of NELF's Board of Directors. He says his work on the essay portion of the CELA exam has improved his legal skills. When he is hired by a client, Delaney always prepares a letter explaining his analysis of potential solutions to the client’s problems. “The skills I honed preparing for the essay portion of the CELA exam are directly applicable to drafting that opinion letter,” says Delaney. “Learning to spot elder law issues, analyze them properly, and communicate my analysis quickly and effectively makes me a better attorney."
Other Lawyers Refer You Because They Can Trust a CELA
CELAs receive referrals from those who need more specialized elder law advice regularly. Thirty-five percent of those surveyed said the most significant benefit they get from the certification is referrals from other lawyers in complementary fields or other elder law attorneys who need more expertise for a specific client challenge.
Referring lawyers know that they can count on the CELA designation to ensure they are sending clients to attorneys who will provide the best advice possible. Karyn L. Seace, CELA, a partner at Nescio & Seace, LLP, in West Chester, Pennsylvania, is a case in point. She estimates that about 30 percent of the business she gets comes from referrals by other attorneys who do not have the knowledge that she has obtained as a CELA.
So, the answer to whether taking the CELA exam is worth it is a resounding yes. To help potential CELAs prepare for the test, NELF offers multiple resources, including a handbook, and most recently, for the first time ever, a sample CELA exam. This practice test, which is similar to the test potential CELAs take, provides multiple-choice and essay questions similar to those on the actual test so that test takers have a better idea of how to prepare for the exam.
About the Author
Aimee Stern is a communications consultant working with NELF on raising the visibility of the CELA designation and the elder law profession. The CELA exam is administered by NELF. For more information about NELF and the CELA designation, visit www.NELF.org.