I recently had an opportunity to talk with Lisa Salines-Mondello, a board certified specialist in elder law practicing in Wilmington. Lisa attended Salem State College, earning her undergraduate degree in political science and subsequently received her law degree from the University of Massachusetts School of Law (formerly Southern New England School of Law). She also received an LL.M. in taxation from the Boston University School of Law. After focusing on estate planning and tax law in the Boston area for several years, Lisa and her family moved to Wilmington in 2005, and she shifted her focus to estate planning, elder law, and special needs planning. She has practiced as a solo practitioner in North Carolina since 2005, and opened the Salines-Mondello Law Firm, PC in 2009. Lisa became board certified in elder law in 2014. Following are some of her comments about the specialization program and the impact she anticipates it will have on her career.
Q: Why did you pursue certification?
I knew that I wanted to work with the elderly population even before I became aware of the term “elder law.” When I learned about certification in elder law, I knew that it was the right fit for me. The practice area involves competency in handling legal issues in 12 specific experience categories.1 I focused my work and education on those, and when I was eligible I applied for certification through both the National Elder Law Foundation (NELF)2 and the North Carolina State Bar. I wanted to distinguish myself and my practice for clients and the community.
Q: How did you prepare for the examination?
I took studying for the exam very seriously and approached it from three different directions. I joined a national study group led by Robert Fleming, a well-respected Certified Elder Law Attorney (CELA) in Arizona. There were approximately 15 lawyers involved, all preparing to take the exam. It was a great opportunity to bounce ideas off of each other. I also purchased several sets of audio CDs from the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA)3 and listened to them as often as I could. I prepared a list of the 12 experience categories and read and outlined everything I could find from many different sources, including the books Representing Elderly Clients and The Special Needs Handbook. I started from scratch in my review, with the assumption that I knew nothing about the subject matter, and read through every section and subsection even if I thought I was already well versed in the area. For several months I treated it as a part-time job and dedicated set times each week to review.
Q: Was that process valuable to you in any way?
The process of preparing for the exam was amazingly valuable to me. I was able to dedicate time to learning and broadening my knowledge base. I am certain that the process made me a better lawyer.
Q: How do you envision certification being helpful to your practice?
I view the certification as the keystone in my practice. Having the certification demonstrates to the public and to other professionals that I have experience and a depth of knowledge in all 12 areas of elder law. It further shows the time and effort that I put into achieving this goal. I view everything else in my practice as leaning on that foundation of certification. That keeps me centered and encourages me to always be reaching for improvement.
Q: What have your clients, staff, and colleagues said about your certification?
Many knew that I had set that goal and were very supportive. When I passed the exam, I received several calls and notes of congratulations. It was really nice to have that recognition, particularly from those who understood its significance.
Q: How do you think your certification will benefit your clients?
Certification lets my clients know that I have a dedication to elder and special needs law and a commitment to excellence in my practice. I have met the threshold for all of the qualifications to become certified including substantial involvement, peer review, and a rigorous exam. I am certain knowing that will give clients and the community confidence in the services that I provide.
Q: Are there any hot topics in your specialty area right now?
There are so many, but two that I find important right now are assisted suicide/end of life decisions versus health insurance provisions. We have an aging population that wants more control over their lives than earlier generations may have had. The second topic is elder abuse and exploitation, both of which are sometimes difficult to identify and can have many serious implications. Certified elder law attorneys possess the experience and knowledge to help clients and families navigate through these difficult situations.
Q: How does your certification relate to those?
Elder law is riddled with ethical challenges. Those of us who have dedicated ourselves to this practice area know the rules and regulations and can help clients make plans and decisions. We are also in a position to combat elder abuse and exploitation. We have studied the ethics rules and case law. We can identify issues and work within family dynamics to come up with good, ethical solutions.
Q: How do you stay current in your field?
I moved here from Massachusetts where there were no requirements for continuing legal education courses, but I was already in the habit of taking courses to improve my practice. I take many courses through NAELA and the North Carolina Bar Foundation. If my schedule doesn’t allow me to attend in person, I purchase the course materials and study them on my own. I also frequently speak at continuing legal education courses and to various companies and civic groups around Wilmington. I recently spoke to 137 retired General Electric workers about elder law, special needs health care, and powers of attorney.
Q: Is certification important in your practice area?
It is. I sometimes feel that I could study elder law forever and still have more to learn. It is critical that the elderly population—and their families and caregivers—have access to qualified legal assistance. It is very difficult for a lawyer who doesn’t routinely work with these clients to jump in without knowing all of the issues involved. It can also be difficult for members of the public to navigate some of the legal forms that they find online. Certified elder law attorneys can provide a high level of services and help clients anticipate the road ahead of them, which may include how to live, die, or deal with a disability. Clients appreciate and deserve that level of caring competency.
Q: What would you say to encourage other lawyers to pursue certification?
I think certification is the future for lawyers. The public wants a way to identify lawyers who specialize. Elder law itself is a huge subject area that realistically cannot be combined with other general practice areas. If you want to be proficient at your work, you need to choose one or two areas on which to focus on. As the public becomes more aware and has higher expectations, certification is one great way to provide them the information they need to choose a qualified lawyer for their needs.
For more information on the State Bar’s specialization programs, visit us online at nclawspecialists.gov.
1. Health and personal care planning; pre-mortem legal planning; fiduciary representation; legal capacity counseling; public benefits advice; special needs counseling; advice on insurance matters; resident rights advocacy; housing counseling; employment and retirement advice; age, and/or disability discrimination; and litigation and administrative advocacy.
2. NELF is a nonprofit organization offering the only national certification for lawyers in the areas of elder law and special needs.
3. NAELA is a professional association whose primary focus is providing continuing legal education courses for elder law attorneys.