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Once you have decided you need a lawyer, it is a good idea to shop around. The first step is to compile a list of names. The recommendation of someone whose judgment you trust is an excellent place to start your search. You may want to begin by asking relatives, friends, clergy, social workers, or your doctor for recommendations. Often those persons can refer you to someone who has provided similar legal services for them. Remember that you need to know more about the lawyer than simply that the person is a good attorney. Ask the persons making the recommendation for specific information about the type of legal help the lawyer provided them and how their case was handled.
The following resources may assist you in your search for an attorney:
Bar Association Referral Lists
Many state and local bar associations maintain lawyer referral lists organized by specialty. You can consult the lawyer referral service for the name of an attorney who specializes in the type of case you have. Keep in mind that the referral is not a recommendation nor does it guarantee a level of experience. Bar associations may charge participating lawyers and law firms a fee to be included on the referral list. Also, many bar associations have committees that conduct training or public service work for the benefit of older people. An attorney serving on one of these committees could have the expertise you are looking for. Check the white or yellow pages (under "Lawyers") of the telephone book for the number of the state or local bar association.
The National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA) is a nonprofit professional association of attorneys specializing in legal issues affecting older persons. NAELA is not a legal referral service; however, it does sell a registry listing over 350 member attorneys nationwide ($25 including shipping and handling).
National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys
1604 N. Country Club Road
Tucson, Arizona 85716
There are also a number of lawyer directories. Two of the larger directories are likely to be available at your local library. The Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory lists 600,000 American and Canadian lawyers alphabetically by state and by categories. Each entry has a biography, which includes information on each lawyer's education, specialty, law firm, and the date of admittance to the bar. It also includes a "rating" based on information supplied by fellow lawyers. It does not include a rating by clients or judges. The Who's Who in American Law directory lists about 24,000 lawyers and includes biographical notes. This directory is somewhat difficult to use as the lawyers are listed alphabetically rather than by state or specific area of expertise.
Many communities also have other lawyer referral services to assist people in finding a lawyer. Often the services are for specific groups such as persons with disabilities, older persons, or victims of domestic violence. Groups that may be good sources for a local referral include the Alzheimer's Association and other support groups for specific diseases, Children of Aging Parents, the Older Women's League, the state civil liberties union local social services agency, or the local agency on aging. Other referral services may be run by groups of attorneys specializing in a certain area. Some services may screen the lawyers who wish to have referrals in a particular area. If you use a referral service, ask how attorneys are chosen to be listed with that particular service. Many services make referrals to all lawyers who are members (regardless of type and level of experience) of a particular organization.
Lawyers are permitted to advertise within specific guidelines. You will be able to gather some useful information from the publicity, however, like advertisements in general, you should always be careful about what you read or hear. Many advertisements for attorneys specializing in certain areas of the law (such as personal injury or medical malpractice in which there may be substantial fees) offer free consultations. Other advertisements may list a set fee for a particular type of case. It is always a good idea to investigate further and to comparison shop. Many attorneys who do not advertise may also provide free consultations or offer set fees for a certain legal problem. Also, keep in mind your case may not be a "simple" one and set fees are usually for routine, uncomplicated cases.
In addition, the court and your banker may be good referral sources. Finally, the telephone book often lists lawyers according to their specialties.
IS FREE OR REDUCED-COST LEGAL HELP AVAILABLE?
There are a number of options for finding affordable legal help. Federally funded legal services programs exist in every state and there are pro bono or reduced-fee attorney panels and legal hotlines in a number of states.
Free Legal Help for Older People
The Older Americans Act (OAA) requires your state office on aging to fund a local Area Agency on Aging (AAA) program that provides free legal help on noncriminal matters to people age 60 and over. Each of the over 644 local AAAs sets aside funds to provide free legal assistance for those older persons who are in the greatest social and economic need. In many states, the AAAs contract with the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) funded programs described below. They may also set up their own programs or contract with private attorneys to provide legal services to older persons.
OAA legal services advocates provide representation in court or at administrative hearings, community education, and self-help publications. The OAA programs offer other types of assistance and services as well. For example, an advocate may assist an older person with a food stamp appeal and arrange for transportation to a nutrition site. The OAA legal services programs do a great deal of outreach to the community. Some attorneys spend as much as half of their time speaking at senior centers or visiting people in their own homes.
There are no income guidelines that clients must meet in order to qualify for services. However, the legal services provider and the Area Agency on Aging may set priorities about the preferred type of representation, such as obtaining government benefits, and may not be able to provide help in cases the agency considers to be a lower priority.
Cost: No cost to eligible clients.
Eligibility & Access to Service: OAA legal services providers handle civil (not criminal) matters for persons age 60 or older regardless of income. Local offices set priorities for the types of cases they will handle. Not all cases can be handled.
Locating Local Agencies: Agencies providing free legal help to older persons can be identified by calling your local Area Agency on Aging listed in the government section of the telephone directory.
A national directory of OAA legal services providers (entitled Law & Aging Resource Guide) lists a state-by-state breakdown of the addresses and phone numbers of each office and is available from the American Bar Association Commission on Legal Problems of the Elderly, 1800 M Street, NW, Suite 200, Washington, DC 20036, (202) 331-2297. Single state profiles are free. A complete copy of all state profiles is $20.
Legal Aid Offices (free help to low-income people of all ages)
There is also a nationwide network of legal aid offices (or legal services) that receive federal funds to provide free legal help to low- income people of all ages. The Legal Services Corporation (LSC) is a quasi-governmental entity that receives an annual appropriation from the U.S. Congress and funds 324 legal aid programs throughout the country. LSC legal aid programs are designed to provide free legal services to persons with low incomes, including many older persons.
The legal help provided by LSC-funded programs is substantially the same as that provided by the OAA-funded programs and, in many cases, is provided by the same office. Staff advocates provide representation in court or at administrative hearings, community education, legal clinics, and self-help publications, as well as helping client groups in the community such as tenants groups. Many offices also conduct outreach programs to assist persons in nursing homes, mental hospitals, or others who cannot easily reach the legal aid office. The legal services offices have staff who specialize in issues related to older people, such as Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and other public benefits.
There are income and asset guidelines that you must meet to be eligible for LSC-funded programs. The office can readily explain these eligibility requirements to you. As mentioned above, some of these offices also receive special Older Americans Act funding, and can provide help to people 60 years of age and over, regardless of income or assets.
Cost: No cost to eligible clients.
Eligibility & Access to Service: Legal aid offices handle civil (not criminal) cases for persons with income below 125% of the federal poverty guidelines ($12,300 for a couple in 1994). Local offices set priorities and not all cases can be handled. In some cases (such as abuse), the income guidelines may be waived.
Locating Local Agencies: You will find these agencies in your telephone book under "legal aid" or "legal services" offices or by calling your local bar association. Before making an appointment, call to make sure that the services are free. Be aware that some private attorneys have opened clinics that use the same type of name but don't provide free services.
Also, the National Legal Aid and Defender Association publishes an annually updated national directory that lists the addresses and phone numbers of all LSC-funded legal services offices, by state and county. The guide can be obtained by writing to: NLADA Directory, 1625 K Street, NW, Suite 800, Washington, DC 20006, (202) 452-0620. The cost is $30.
Pro Bono or Reduced-Fee Attorney Panels
Most legal aid offices and some bar associations have started special pro bono panels (pro bono refers to free legal help that private attorneys provide as a public service). In addition, some private attorneys are willing to reduce their fees if a client's income is low. The panels discussed in this section are the listings of the private attorneys willing to offer some free or reduced-fee legal services. The panels do not employ the attorneys but simply work to connect the attorneys willing to offer services with the clients who need them.
Cost: Reduced-fee panels provide legal help at a cost less than the fee that the private attorney "usually" charges for a case of the same type. The exact fee varies based on locale and the individual attorney's fee schedule. Attorneys who agree to handle a case pro bono will not charge for their services although there may be court costs and other costs associated with the case.
Eligibility & Access to Service: Many local bar associations have lists of attorneys who volunteer for either reduced-fee panels or for pro bono cases. Some have special panels for elderlaw cases. In many instances, the local legal services programs (LSC and OAA) are part of this network. The legal services programs identify cases of persons who exceed financial guidelines or whose cases they are otherwise unable to handle. The cases are then referred to pro bono or reduced-fee panels. Since the OAA and LSC legal services programs often must first screen the cases for the pro bono or reduced- fee attorney panels, contact with the legal aid agency is often a good way to identify a program in your area.
Locating Local Sources: Local legal aid offices and bar associations are usually listed in the yellow (under "Lawyers") or white pages of the telephone book.
Some areas offer special legal hotlines for call-in advice. Often this telephone advice service is sponsored by bar associations and has limited hours or covers limited geographical areas. Sometimes the hotline may be offered for a limited time such as on Law Day, May 1.
The federal government's Administration on Aging (AoA) sponsors statewide legal hotlines that provide legal advice to all persons age 60 or older, regardless of income or the nature of their problem. The hotlines are staffed by attorneys who give advice, send pamphlets, or make referrals to special panels of attorneys or to legal services programs.
Cost: Most (including the AoA-funded hotlines) do not charge for the advice given. Cases which require additional work are referred to private attorneys or legal services programs (individual hotline policies will vary).
Eligibility & Access to Service: Open to all persons age 60 or older. The services exist only in limited areas of the country. See Appendix 2 for a listing of the statewide legal hotlines as of the date this guide was published. Plans are underway to expand to other states.
Locating Local Agencies: Call your local bar association or Area Agency on Aging.
Excerpted from An Older Person's Guide to Finding Legal Help
from Legal Counsel for the Elderly
601 E Street, NW
Washington, DC 20049
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