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July 01, 2013

National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys Adopts Legal Assistance Recommendations

David Godfrey

The NAELA Board adopted recommendations on improving availability of legal assistance at the Board’s May 2013 meeting. The recommendations were developed by a special committee chaired by David Godfrey. The charge to the Committee from Greg French, the President of NAELA, was “To recommend steps for NAELA to take to support the provision of legal services to older Americans and persons with disabilities or special needs who cannot afford a private attorney.” The Committee was composed of legal aid and public interest advocates from across the country. NAELA has strong roots with public interest involvement, two of the 25 past NAELA Presidents, Judy Stein of the Center for Medicare Advocacy and Charlie Sabatino of the ABA Commission on Law and Aging, have devoted their careers to public interest work.

The recommendations speak in terms of “public interest law organizations” recognizing that while much work is done by staff of Legal Service Corporation grantees, much is done by other public interest organizations. All non-profit and public interest attorneys are eligible for discounted membership in NAELA. A separate committee is looking at membership and it is anticipated that the membership category will be renamed to reflect the breadth of the membership.

The recommendations were adopted largely as proposed; items with a budget impact are subject to NAELA budget appropriations.

The recommendations:

The availability of legal assistance to meet the needs of low income elderly and those with special needs is woefully inadequate. The need for legal assistance without charge or at reduced fees is at least four times greater than the capacity available to meet those needs. NAELA’s expertise and our members’ capacity can be leveraged to recognize and address this need. We urge NAELA Leadership to support provision of legal services to older Americans, veterans and persons with disabilities or special needs who cannot afford a private attorney by expanding opportunities for collaborating with public interest law organization members.

Public interest law organizations include governmental agencies, non-profit organizations and law school clinical programs that provide legal services or support to those who do. They include, but are not limited to, programs funded by Legal Services Corporation and under Titles III, IV or VI of the Older Americans Act to provide legal assistance.

We urge NAELA Leadership to take the following steps to make necessary legal assistance more available to the persons who need it:

Foster pro bono involvement

  • Using program presentations and articles in publications, encourage members to provide at least 50 hours per year of legal services without expectation of a fee or at a substantially reduced fee, consistent with the NAELA Aspirational Standards;
  • Establish a baseline of data by surveying NAELA members asking the number of hours of pro bono service in the past year;
  • Include annual reporting of pro bono service as part of annual dues renewal;
    Honor members who report 50 or more hours per year by designating them in the NAELA directory as “Pro Bono Honoree;”
  • Recognize exceptional pro bono service by NAELA members by presenting annual NAELA pro bono public service awards that recognize service by solo and small firms, mid-size and large firms, as well as an award for special impact or outcome of pro bono representation by a NAELA member; 
  • The public service and pro bono awards will be determined by a special committee appointed annually by the NAELA president for the limited purpose of determining the awardees based on exceptional service or impact of pro bono service.

Engage public interest law organization attorneys in the work of NAELA

  • Include at all times at least one public interest law organization member on the NAELA public policy committee;
  • Encourage at all times at least one public interest law organization member on the NAELA board, with selection based on the same criteria of service to NAELA and the profession as other board members, with subsidized travel expenses for that person;
  • Include at least one public interest law organization member on all planning committees for national conferences;
  • Encourage the inclusion of public interest law organization speakers on panels;
  • Spread awareness of opportunities for public interest law organization involvement in NAELA and of the work of NAELA in expanding access to legal assistance by low income elderly and those with special needs by featuring articles in existing NAELA media, and public interest law organization publications, and by providing workshops at conferences;
  • List and clearly identify all public interest law organization members in a distinct category as well as in the state by state listing, and alphabetical listing (online and print);
  • Redefine the NAELA membership category from Legal Service Corporation to public interest law organization;

Maintain and develop funding for public interest law organizations

  • Support maintaining and expanding funding of public interest law organizations through legislative and administrative advocacy, letters of support for funding proposals, providing in-kind support, cash donations to public interest law organizations and volunteer service on the boards of public interest law organizations;
  • Advocate for adequate funding for legal services for low income persons and persons with disabilities;
  • Expand training and education efforts that develop collaboration between NAELA private attorney members and public interest law organization members by offering discounts on training, including online training and live conferences, equal to half price or at cost, whichever is lower, for public interest law services organization member attendees;
  • Provide at least two scholarships for public interest law organization members for each national conference sufficient to cover registration and lodging costs;
  • Encourage public interest law organization members to join and maintain NAELA membership by providing a discount on membership dues of 50%, including section dues, and encourage state chapters to offer the same discounts.

This statement is not the policy or opinion of the American Bar Association. ■

David Godfrey

About the Author: David M. Godfrey is a Senior Attorney at the ABA Commission on Law and Aging.