With the number of older Americans increasing at a rapid pace issues that the elderly face have become a focal point for professions such as medicine and the law. While the elderly have always dealt with legal problems, the sheer number of elderly Americans has created a distinct area of the law in recent decades known as elder law. In addition, some attorneys have chosen to focus on elder law issues by becoming certified as an elder law attorney.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that the law began to recognize the need for attorneys who specialize in elder law issues. In 1988 the National Academy of Elder Law Attorney, or NAELA, was created to address the unique issues faced by the elderly in the United States. Elder law is unlike other areas of the law because elder law is a compilation of various areas of the law instead of an in-depth focus on one area. Instead of an attorney needing highly technical skills in a narrow area of the law, an elder law attorney must have a broad understanding of many areas of the law as they pertain to a specific group of people.
Five years after the creation of NAELA, the National Elder Law Foundation was formed. The purpose of the non-profit NELF was to help improve the professional skills of attorneys who choose to focus on elder law. Toward that end, NELF then developed a national certification program for attorneys known as the Certified Elder Law Attorney, or CELA, certification program. The first CELA examination was given in 1994 with the American Bar Association endorsing the certification program the following year.
Qualifying for CELA certification is a rigorous process. Just to be considered for CELA status an attorney must be in good standing, have substantial involvement in the practice of Elder Law, take 15 hours of continuing legal education in Elder Law each year, and submit to peer review. In addition, an attorney must successfully pass a comprehensive written examination. The examination itself only has a 60 percent pass rate, indicating how difficult the examination is even for experienced attorneys. Once certified, a CELA must submit to a re-certification process every five years.
For an older individual, or the loved ones of an elderly individual, knowing that an attorney has the CELA designation should be a source of re-assurance and comfort when faced with issues involving elder law.