chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.

Voice of Experience

Voice of Experience Archives

What is a CELA?

Michael A Kirtland


  • Certified Elder Law Attorneys (CELAs), granted by the National Elder Law Foundation (NELF), is a designation in the legal field signifiying a higher level of expertise in elder law.
  • CELAs must meet strict criteria, including substantial involvement in elder law, passing a challenging exam, and maintaining ongoing education.
  • The designation, valid for five years, is seen as a mark of distinction, with CELAs often becoming leaders in relevant legal organizations.
  • Referring to a CELA instills confidence in both attorneys and clients, and CELAs offer valuable networks of non-lawyer experts in elder law-related fields.
  • There are many benefits for attorneys in other practice areas to establish connections with CELAs.
What is a CELA?
Inna Luzan via Getty Images

Jump to:

In an earlier article (What is Elder Law? And why should you care?) I wrote about elder law to help clarify for non-elder law attorneys what this area of practice is, and how it impacts attorneys whose own practice is outside of elder law.   Because elder law does not have its own Committee or Section within the ABA, it can be hard for an attorney in need of an elder law practitioner to know where to find an experienced elder law attorney.

The two largest concentrations of elder law attorneys within the ABA are found in the Senior Lawyers Division and the Real Property, Trust and Estate Law Section, each of which has committees which deal specifically with elder law. But, finding a well-qualified elder law attorney can be a difficult task if you don’t know where to look for one. The largest concentration of organized elder law attorneys is found in the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA), which has an elder law attorney locator by state. However, while this helps one find elder law attorneys in your local area, it really doesn’t tell us anything about the qualifications of that attorney, or the specific areas of practice in which that elder law attorney concentrates his or her practice.

As NAELA grew as an organization, it also realized that perhaps some sort of credential would be useful to help identify highly qualified practitioners in elder law. Fortunately, this was about the same time as the ABA began to accept the concept of attorney specialization and certification. NAELA created a task force on elder law specialization and in 1994 submitted an application to the ABA Standing Committee on Specialization, seeking recognition of a certification in the area of elder law. At the same time, NAELA created a separate organization, the National Elder Law Foundation (NELF), to administer a certification examination, should the ABA grant certifying agency status for elder law. In October of that year, the ABA granted tentative approval of the elder law certification program and in November, the first certification exam was given.   

The certification exam has always been a tough exam. Of the first 82 attorneys who took the initial certification exam, 55 passed. Of those, only 33 actually completed the remaining certification steps and became the first “Certified Elder Law Attorneys” (CELA). As time passed, more attorneys took and passed the certification exam, but the pass rate for the exam has made it one of the tougher certification exams for lawyer certifications. The historical passing rate is below 50%, though it varies from exam to exam. Elder law attorneys who have taken the CELA exam report that it is as difficult as taking a bar exam, but only in elder law subject areas. 

In order to even take the certification exam, an attorney must have practiced primarily in the area of elder law for a minimum period of at least five years prior to taking the exam. “Substantial involvement” in elder law means at least sixteen hours a week devoted to elder law issues, and at least 60 separate cases in elder law in the previous three years. In addition, in the prior three years, the attorney must have taken a minimum of 45 hours of continuing legal education (CLE) in elder law subjects. That 45 CLE hours remains a necessary requirement to maintain CELA status on an on-going basis.  Assuming the attorney passes the day-long exam, they must then demonstrate that their sixty elder law cases satisfy a mix covering all the major areas that constitute an elder law practice. They must also provide five references who can attest to their involvement and qualifications in elder law, including at least three of whom must themselves be qualified as elder law attorneys (though not necessarily CELAs). These mandatory requirements are daunting enough that some attorneys who might otherwise wish to become CELAs either do not apply or do not complete the certification process, even after having passed the certification exam.

Once the CELA designation is awarded it is good for a five year period. To renew the certification the attorney must also have continued to concentrate their practice in elder law, and be able to certify their continuing involvement as to the number and variety of cases in elder law subjects.

The result of all of this is that a CELA is an attorney with both a breadth and depth of knowledge in elder law. The author has seen highly qualified attorneys in one particular area of elder law, such as Social Security appeals or Medicaid qualification planning, who are unable to pass the CELA exam or who cannot meet both the breadth and depth requirements for certification. There are approximately 500 CELAs throughout the United States. The designation is quite coveted within the elder law community. At the NELF website (NELF.ORG) one can find a CELA locator by state. Even though CELAs typically concentrate their practice in certain sub areas of elder law, because of the breadth and depth requirement of the designation, referral to a CELA provides both the referring attorney and the potential client confidence that the CELA will have sufficient understanding of the client’s issues to handle the case, or knows to whom to send the client for such legal care if it does not fall within that CELAs preferred areas of elder law practice.

Within the elder law practice area in the varying states, one finds that typically that particular state will have either a strong elder law section within the state bar, or a strong NAELA chapter in that state, but rarely both. (Some states have neither.) By locating and referring to a CELA, the referring attorney can be assured they are not negligently referring to a person the referring attorney does not know personally. Within both state bar elder law sections and state NAELA chapters, CELAs are often found to be the leaders in those organization. The same is true for leadership in the elder law committees within the ABA Committees and Sections. CELAs often provide significant, well qualified leadership and expertise to those ABA organizations.   

The number of CELAs within a state will vary with the state population. It is common that states with larger retired populations tend to have more CELAs than states with smaller elder populations. Because state bar rules on advertising and certifications vary widely, some states, even those with significant populations of seniors, may vary in the number of CELAs compared to the senior population. Some states do not permit certification as “specialists” at all, while others may permit such certifications but not allow the certified attorney to advertise their certification, even though it is authorized by the ABA.   

An additional benefit of using a CELA is that, in addition to their own breadth and depth of knowledge of the law regarding issues related to seniors, as a part of gaining this expertise, the CELA has worked with a wide variety of non-lawyer experts in a variety of fields that support elder law, such as guardians, conservators, geriatric care managers, care givers, and supporting organizations that provides services to seniors in their communities. This provides the CELA a network of well-qualified, non-attorney, partners with whom the client may work to meet their needs for the senior in need of such services.

It is often said within the elder law community that most lawyers are going to end up being elder law attorneys, whether they realize it, or wish to become elder law attorneys, or not. CELAs provide a strong resource for the domestic relations attorney, estate planning attorney, personal injury attorney, and many other areas of legal practice with whom to partner on particular cases, refer for significant elder law services, or simply to contact for “off the wall” questions that may impact their clients. Getting to know a CELA can be of tremendous benefit to those lawyers who practice in other areas of the law for safe, reliable attorneys for referrals, advice, and expertise.