Thinking about becoming a Certified Elder Law Attorney (CELA)? Here is my experience.

Greg J. BanchyGreg J. Banchy, Marquette 1987, is an attorney with Banchy Law Center LLC in Eau Claire, practicing in elder law and estate planning.

Last September, I sat for the certification exam to become a CELA – a designation given by the National Elder Law Foundation (NELF).

I was warned that the exam would be difficult – and it was. The biggest challenge was actually the breadth and scope of the exam. I expected questions directly related to Medicaid law, but the exam went much further, and included topics I had not initially expected.

About the Exam

The exam I took (the specific questions are different each time the exam is offered) was broken down into 12 categories, divided between “core” and “non-core” topics, including:

  • Core Area 1: Health and Personal Care Planning

  • Core Area 2: Pre-Mortem Legal Planning

  • Core Area 3: Fiduciary Representation

  • Core Area 4: Legal Capacity Counseling

  • Core Area 5: Public Benefits Advice

  • Non-Core Area 6: Special Needs Counseling

  • Non-Core Area 7: Advice on Insurance Matters

  • Non-Core Area 8: Resident Rights Advocacy

  • Non-Core Area 9: Housing Counseling

  • Non-Core Area 10: Employment and Retirement Advice

  • Non-Core Area 11: Counseling

  • Non-Core Area 12: Litigation and Administrative Advocacy

Because much of my practice over the last seven years has been focused on elder law, I was somewhat familiar with many of the rules related to public benefits law (Core Area 5) and tax (covered in a couple of the included areas), but had absolutely no background whatsoever in other areas, such as Housing Counseling (Non-Core Area 9), which includes topics related to laws such as Section 8 of the Housing Act of 1937.

The non-core topics do represent (proportionally) a small number of the total questions, but it is still necessary to spend time learning the basic rules, because you won’t know in advance which of these topics will be included.

I have always tried to be as knowledgeable as time permits with respect to anything I have done in my professional life. The CELA exam certainly provided a real opportunity to learn about many topics related to the practice of Elder Law. It is not likely I will remember everything I learned for the exam, at least in detail, but it was helpful to gain an understanding of the things that do affect many of our clients, so in that regard it was very helpful.

Preparing for the Exam

There are a number of ways to prepare for the exam, but I found that taking the exam review course offered by Atty. Robert Fleming to be extremely useful.

As he was fond of saying, the idea is not to teach the students elder law – given the timeframe that would be a near-impossible task – but rather to help identify areas that are likely to be covered by the exam, and to learn how to organize the study experience.

Fleming provides a list of topics to be covered and several sources of study for each of those topics. I found it useful to purchase his book, Elder Law Answer Book – a comprehensive overview of each of the included topics.

His course ran every other week for 16 weeks (for a total of eight sessions), broken down by category and combining many of the non-core topics. Up until the last two weeks, I spent an average of about one day per week studying the materials included in the course outline. The last two weeks were much more intense – while I had some client matters to tend to, I spent at least 40 hours per week during the two final weeks studying for the exam. I have not studied that intensely since law school finals week!

Taking the Exam

The exam is proctored by another CELA – I spent the entire day of the exam at Jennifer O’Neill’s office in Hudson holed up in a room with my computer (thanks Jenny!).

The exam took most of the day with only a brief break for lunch. When I left, I felt like I had not done particularly well, but that I had done the very best I could. I did not learn my fate until late November when I received an email from NELF that I had passed. What a relief.

Next Steps

After passing the exam, the next hurdle was to fill out the “long form” application that asks the applicants to provide details about 60 elder law matters they have handled in the last two years, and to relate them to the required categories (weighted heavily toward the Core topics). The same cases can be used to satisfy multiple categories, but it is a long process that requires a lot of time to complete.

Finally, the applicant is required to provide the names of five references.

Is It Worth It?

So why become a CELA? I do believe there is a lot of value in being a CELA, but it isn’t what I expected it would be – at least not yet.

My initial thought was it would be a way of distinguishing myself from other lawyers who practice elder law in Wisconsin. There are, after all, only a dozen or so CELAs in the entire state.

There is some value to this, particularly when clients are looking for someone who has broader knowledge than just a traditional estate planning attorney.

This may actually be a good way of letting other lawyers (i.e., potential referral sources) and/or financial services professionals know that I am a person they can refer clients to with some level of confidence that the cases they send will be properly handled.

It may also be useful in advertising to the public (newspapers, etc.). However I do not currently do much advertising.

At this time, the most important thing I got out of it was gaining useful insight into areas related to elder law that I have largely ignored (Section 8). While I may not be able solve a given problem, I am now much better able to “issue spot,” so I can get others involved when necessary.

A couple of subjects in particular – SSI and ABLE Accounts – have come up several times since going through the exam preparation process, and I am much more comfortable dealing with them now.

I still don’t have the expertise to do all things elder law (and probably never will), but it has been extremely useful to understand the basics and to know how to find the information I need (and the right resources to go to).

An Important Enhancement to My Practice

Occasionally I see work done by estate planners that I think miss some important issues related to elder law. This is where we as elder law attorneys have a lot to offer clients.

On the other hand, there are a number of very qualified attorneys in Wisconsin who practice elder law and who are not CELAs – many of whom I still regularly ask questions when I run into things I don’t feel comfortable with. My office is only about five miles from one of the best elder law attorneys in Wisconsin.

At the end of the day, it is still all about experience, not certificates – but given what I was able to learn by going through the process, I would do it again.

This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Elder Law and Special Needs Blog. Visit the State Bar sections or the Elder Law and Special Needs Section webpages to learn more about the benefits of section membership.