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November 17, 2019

Year in Review: COLA Supports Law and Aging Providers

The Commission provides expertise to lawyers and other providers on advance planning, decision supports, and more.

The Commission provides expertise to lawyers and other providers on advance planning, decision supports, and more.

(The pdf for the issue in which this article appears is available for download: Bifocal, Vol. 41, Issue 2.)

By David Godfrey

The Commission has been a part of federally-funded national support programs for professionals in law and aging for 36 of our 40 years. Over the decades we have been funded to provide expertise on a diverse array of substantive issues and on legal service delivery. At times we have been funded as a stand-alone grantee, at other times as a partner in a collaboration or as a subcontractor.

The structure and focus of the national support centers have varied, but the commitment to creating resources, providing education and training, and providing advice to professionals in law and aging has remained constant. The Commissions’ role in national support offices has allowed us to share our expertise with a diverse group of advocates in law and aging and spread awareness of the work that we do.

The National Center on Law and Elder Rights (NCLER) was created in the fall of 2016 by the Administration for Community Living funded from the Older Americans Act with an expected term of five years. We are beginning our fourth year as part of the NCLER.

The role of the Commission in the NCLER is to provide expertise on advance planning, decision supports, guardianship reform, and elder abuse. We create and present six national webinars each year. The webinars are offered free of charge to professionals in law and aging and archived online for viewing on demand. For each webinar we create an issue brief of three to six pages. The goal of the issue briefs is to provide concise action-oriented written materials for advocates and consumers. See for details on NCLER.

The Commission presented webinars in 2019 for NCLER on:

  • Drafting advance planning documents to reduce the risks of abuse or exploitation
  • Representing a client in defending against a guardianship case
  • Signs of abuse neglect or exploitation
  • When the guardian is the abuser
  • Ethical issues in mandatory reporting
  • Self-neglect and hoarding

We created six or more issue alerts that NCLER distributes to its email list. The most popular have been practice tips, and practice checklists. Tips to become a better family guardian, and tips for writing better funding proposals were among the most popular. NCLER funds also enable the Commission staff to spend time providing expert advice to advocates in law and aging. NCLER refers to these as “case consultations.” We receive requests through the NCLER website, through other NCLER partners, and directly from professionals in law and aging seeking information, guidance or advice on many of the issues.

This year, we responded mostly by email or phone to 277 requests. The NCLER has an email database of over 30,000 professionals in law and aging from across the country. About one-third report being lawyers; the rest are a blend of social workers, health care professionals, academics, government staff, and various advocates.

National Aging and Law Conference

The 2019 National Aging and Law Conference (NALC) was held October 31-November 1 at the Crystal Gateway Marriott in Arlington, Virginia. Attendance was up slightly from the year before; about 250 attended NALC and about 90 attended the pre-conference program. It was the Commission on Law and Aging’s sixth year of organizing and hosting this annual event. What sets NALC apart from other conferences on aging, elder law or estate planning is a focus on training advocates who provide services to primarily low-to-moderate income older adults. The Commission on Law and Aging has played a role in interdisciplinary conferences on aging and law since the 1980s.

First called the Joint Conference on Law and Aging, it was co-hosted by several advocacy organizations including COLA. AARP underwrote, planned, and co-hosted the conference starting in the early 2000s through 2010 when it became known as the National Aging and Law Conference. From 2011 through 2013 the conference was hosted by the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys under the program title, National Aging and Law Institute. NALI was an effort to produce a conference for both attorneys in private practice and legal aid – public interest advocates. This proved very difficult. When NAELA shifted directions, the Commission on Law and Aging assumed responsibility for organizing and hosting the National Aging and Law Conference in 2014.

In 2019 the program started with a Pre-Conference program on advanced issues Supplemental Security income organized by NCLER. The main conference agenda included 30 workshops and four plenary sessions. The planning committee carefully balances the agenda covering health care, abuse, guardianship reform, legal service development and delivery, benefits, and legal ethics.

Planning is underway for the 2020 National Aging and Law Conference. It will be held at the Hilton Crystal City in Arlington, Virginia, with pre-conference programs on October 21 and NALC on October 22-23. The request for workshop proposals will be released in early 2020. The best source of up-to-date information on NALC is the Elderbar distribution list.

Stay Connected

The Commission on Law and Aging has hosted email discussion lists on issues in law and aging for years. The largest of these is Elderbar, with nearly 1,400 members. Elderbar is open to any professional in law and aging. We also have specialized lists such as Collaborate on elder mediation, Law and Aging Networking for ABA members and staff interested in programs, services or policy on aging, and Aging SOLO, a discussion list for professionals helping persons without readily identifiable family or friends. These lists provide a forum for discussion and a place to disseminate information. 

Platform Changes

For decades the lists were hosted using a software platform that allowed list members to send an email to all members of the list, using a single email address, and for replies to the list to go to all members of the list. That platform was largely unchanged since the early 1990s. The platform had an online function, but its operation was not user friendly or intuitive. This year the ABA has begun transitioning our email lists to, hosted by Higher Logic. The new platform goes far beyond the basic email discussion platform (though it does that well.) The new platform provides a robust and easily searchable online archive of past discussions, an online library of documents posted to the list, or uploaded to the website, an events calendar, and an online directory of list participants.

Student Interns and Externs

The Commission hosted four students in 2019: Laura B.Ruppalt; Travis Goeden, an undergraduate at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois; Zack Allen, a second-yearlaw student at Temple University in Philadelphia; andAnn Moody, a second-year law student Georgetown Law School in Washington, D.C.

Students conduct in-depth research, attend policy briefings, and learn about law, aging, and public policy under the tutelage of our team. Many of our students have gone on to be leaders in the field of law and aging. Sarah Richardson Ferendorf is now at the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Dara Valanejad is now a staff attorney at the Center for Medicare Advocacy. He interned with us when he was a law student at American University. Jenica Cassidy interned with the Commission and returned as a Borchard Fellow working on complex guardianship issues. She is now an associate with the law firm Lerch, Early & Brewer in Bethesda, Maryland.

Emeritus Pro-Bono Practice Rules

In the minutes of the first Commission on Law and Aging meeting 40 years ago, a discussion ensued involving the emeritus pro-bono practice rule that the Washington, D.C., Bar Association had just adopted. These rules lessensome of the licensing burden for attorneys who agree to practice pro-bono cases only.

The rules are intended to make it easier for retired or inactive attorneys, or attorneys who are not otherwise engaged in the practice of law to offer probono help. In the last decade, the number of jurisdictions that approved these rules increased from 32 to 44.

Several states have recently amended their rules to make them more helpful, such as expanding the definition of a qualified legal service or pro-bono provider, allowing attorneys licensed in other states to participate, or by including inactive attorneys to the mix. In the past year we updated our listing of Emeritus Pro Bono Practice rules, provided resources and consultation to several states looking to create new rules or amend new rules, and provided resources to researchers writing on these issues. The Commission is seen at the go-to place in the ABA for understanding these rules, and also for what is happening across the country.

For more information about pro bono work, visit the ABA Center for Pro Bono at We provide technical assistance and planning advice to a wide range of constituents in the field, including bar associations, pro bono programs, legal services offices, bar leaders, law schools, corporate counsel, judges and government attorneys.


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