Ever wonder how to find a good lawyer? For my friends over 100 miles from Asheboro, North Carolina, I’ll show you how to find a great elder law attorney. If you are within those areas, I think you can guess who I would recommend.
Much of my advice could also apply to finding ANY good lawyer (family law, criminal law, real property, and so on).
Let’s look at two factors: Technical/legal expertise and character/personality. Many folks overlook the latter, you ideally want a combination of both.
Finding a Technically Good Elder Law Attorney
You have to learn the rules of the game. And then you have to play better than anyone else.
— Albert Einstein
No one factor will control, but try to find someone with as many positives as possible.
Time as an Elder Law Attorney
How long has he or she been practicing in elder law? And how much of his or her practice is devoted to elder law? There is a difference between someone who has been practicing for 10 years with a substantial focus on elder law and someone who has been practicing for 30 years with three years in elder law.
How to find out? Ask! A good lawyer shouldn’t be offended. Look at an online bio (perhaps on a firm website). Does it look like she has her fingers in numerous pies (elder law, real estate, corporate), or is elder law or special needs law pretty much the main topic?
Ask how she came to be an elder law or special needs law attorney. How did she learn the technical skills? A mentor? Training?
Ask how many cases of the sort you have presented he has handled. Ask for a reference! Again, a good elder law attorney won’t be offended or mind.
Associations and Credentials
Find out if he is a member of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA). Simply go to the NAELA website and look. There may even be a brief bio.
If the attorney is NOT a member of NAELA . . . go see somebody else. Period. NAELA is THE only national organization for elder law attorneys practicing in all areas of elder law (within elder law many attorneys may “unofficially” specialize in trusts, asset protection, housing, Social Security, and so on). If the attorney is not a member, it immediately tells me (and should tell you) that the attorney is not interested in the latest news, having ongoing conversations with colleagues, learning about the latest educational offerings, or reading any professional literature such as the NAELA News (a quarterly magazine for elder law attorneys) or the NAELA Journal (denser, law review type reading).
If the attorney is NOT a member of NAELA . . . go see somebody else. Period.
Has she earned any advanced certification? On the national level, the American Bar Association recognizes the certification by the National Elder Law Foundation (NELF). NELF maintains a searchable website. To become a certified elder law attorney (CELA) by NELF, an attorney must have practiced substantially in elder law for ten years, pass peer review, and pass a MONSTER day long exam (the last few years the pass rate has been around 25% to 50%).
I CAUTION YOU: An attorney who is NOT a CELA may be a great attorney. An attorney who IS a CELA is likely very good (although I cannot guarantee there are not a few clowns out there . . . you can weed those out . . . read below).
Under almost all state bar rules, it is permissible for an elder law attorney to public hold himself out as a CELA (as long as that is true!). Some states also have their own board certification process (similar to what the medical folks do). North Carolina DOES.
In North Carolina, the board certification process is very similar to NELF’s. The neat thing about North Carolina is that you can check out an attorney in MANY specializations. The NC Board of Legal Specialization also maintains a searchable website. Again, the same caution applies: There are many good attorneys who are NOT board certified . . . I know a significant number of very good attorneys who are not certified. On the other hand, if you are on your own in your search, a certification should give you some comfort.
How involved has she been in the organized bar? Committee work? Offices held? Articles written? This is not a “make or break” factor, but it certainly indicates commitment.
Martindale-Hubbell is a very old, very reputable lawyer rating service. They, too, maintain a searchable website. Lawyers are rated based on strictly confidential questionnaires sent out to abroad sample of the bar. Lawyers know their responses are totally confidential, so presumably honesty is assured. A Martindale “Notable” rating means the attorney is a good, competent practitioner in the eyes of her peers. A “Distinguished” rating means the practitioner is held in very high esteem. An “AV Preeminent” rating means “top of the heap” (my term) or ”old” (my wise guy 20 year old son’s term).
One thing to be cautious of: A Martindale “AV Preeminent” attorney may be an incredible criminal law attorney but not know a blessed thing about elder law (or whatever it is that you’re looking for).
Finally (maybe most importantly), if you can find an attorney you know and trust (any attorney . . . your real estate attorney or your family attorney, your next door neighbor) ask him or her for a referral . . . those are the ones who should be honest because they don’t want to be embarrassed by sending you to a clown.
Finding an Elder Law Attorney You Are Comfortable With
You may find the most technically proficient attorney in the state, but if he is a creep (at least to you) you won’t be very happy.
First and foremost you should find someone with whom you are comfortable. You do not need to become best friends. On the other hand, you should not be repulsed by the person.
You will have to make that call. No amount of advice can help you with that.
Another factor that I believe is overlooked, but very important, is how clever or imaginative the attorney is. If someone has truly mastered the rules, she can be free to improvise and to “think outside the box.”
One of the things I love about practicing is coming up with a creative solution to a knotty problem.
Speaking of creativity, here’s an idea I came up with for getting rid of old computer equipment (a particularly vexing problem). It works like a charm and is based on a deep, deep understanding of human nature (hehehehe). I captured a photo for your edification.
Finally, do not base your selection on fees. A very good attorney who knows exactly how to solve your problem will likely cost a bit more. Of course, a very inexpensive attorney (who doesn’t know what he’s doing) may, in the end, be the most expensive attorney you could find.