I recently had an opportunity to talk with Bailey Liipfert III, a board certified specialist practicing in Winston-Salem. Bailey received his undergraduate degree in Soviet Area Studies and Russian Literature from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and his law degree from Campbell Law School. Following graduation, he joined the firm now named Craige Brawley Liipfert and Walker LLP in Winston-Salem to focus on estate planning and probate law. Bailey was among the first to achieve the distinction of Certified Elder Law Attorney from the National Elder Law Foundation (NELF). He added the North Carolina State Bar certification in elder law in 2009, the first year it was available. Following are some of his comments about certification and the impact it has had on his career.
Q: Why did you pursue certification?
When I first started at Craige Brawley, I was the low man on the totem pole, and as such, I was often asked to research the questions that didn’t have easy answers. It was a great opportunity to learn about many issues associated with estate planning law, including nursing home problems and disability concerns. I signed up for a continuing legal education seminar in Washington, DC, about advanced medical directives. Susan Haines was the speaker and it was enlightening to realize that there was a lot that could be done for our clients in these situations. That shaped my practice to the point that I was really focused on elder law. I sat for the NELF certification exam as soon as I was eligible.
Q: How did you prepare for the exam?
I completed an NELF exam preparation course and continued to study the materials after the course was over. I got West’s ElderLaw: Advocacy for the Aging and read that as well. I felt that the exam covered what I was dealing with on a daily basis: there was nothing I wasn’t expecting. I thought it was interesting that right before the exam I had clients come in with issues I hadn’t dealt with before, including veterans benefits. I was pleased to see that those issues were part of the exam.
Q: Was the certification process valuable to you in any way?
Since I completed the exam through NELF before the NC State Bar offered a specialty in elder law, I actually took the exam before completing the other requirements. The NELF application requires a pretty comprehensive listing of the types of matters that I handled in the previous few years. As I prepared that, I realized something about the shape of my practice that I hadn’t noticed before. Housing issues are at the heart of every engagement I have. Clients don’t want to end up living in a nursing home—that’s the goal in just about every case. The decisions that each of us make as we get older impact our risk for avoiding a nursing home. Having a willingness to downsize or move closer to a good support system are both examples of ways we can reduce our risk.
Q: How has certification been helpful to your practice?
I definitely receive more referrals due to being a board certified specialist. Becoming a specialist shows others that I have made a commitment to this practice area. I think that gives other lawyers a greater degree of confidence in making a referral, particularly if they don’t know me personally.
Q: What do your clients say about your certification?
Some clients are aware, more lawyers are aware. The clients who watch television on a national basis have heard of certification and know to look for it. I also receive many referrals from financial advisors who are aware of the certification and view it as an important accomplishment. The benefit to NC adding this certification is that more people are learning about it and it’s becoming easier for clients to identify a qualified lawyer to help them.
Q: How does your certification benefit your clients?
I really believe that the increased requirements for continuing legal education are tremendously helpful to my clients. I learn so much from attending seminars and even talking with others from around the state or nation about the issues they’re facing. I know that there are better developed community support programs in other parts of the country. North Carolina seems very biased toward institutionalizing people, in spite of recent efforts to re-balance services.
I worked as an emergency medical technician in Orange County before attending law school and in that position worked with a large number of people with disabilities. I think that experience gave me a great deal of compassion for those with physical disabilities. In my practice now, I have a lot of clients with disabilities and I feel a special connection with them and a strong desire to provide good service and legal advice. My certification allows me to really focus on learning as much as I can about the issues specific to this practice area.
Q: Is certification important in your practice area?
Yes, the rules are so complicated and strange that you really have to dedicate yourself to this practice area in order to do a good job for your clients. Lawyers can join the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and begin to learn about the details of elder law. But if I need to make a referral, I look for someone who has achieved the certification. I know that a certified lawyer has experience and has passed the examination. That gives me comfort in making the referral.
Becoming a certified specialist helps the profession in general by allowing those who specialize to educate others and increase expectations and the quality of representation. We’re facing some issues in elder law, including budget cuts, which will affect so many North Carolinians. Decisions that people make now can have a great impact on their options as they age. Having more lawyers who understand those issues will benefit not only the profession, but the public and the state as a whole.
Q: How do you see the future of specialization?
I expect the program to continue to grow, particularly among lawyers practicing in the more metropolitan areas. I hope that more lawyers from lower populated areas will see its value in differentiating their practice for potential clients. I could see offering more areas of certification; education law might be a good option.
I would encourage others to pursue certification to help develop a successful practice. I found that once I achieved board certification, I started to see more sophisticated clients who were looking for the distinction. In elder law, we would all benefit from increasing the number of certified specialists throughout the state. Services vary among counties and attorneys who know what’s available in their county can provide a higher quality of services to clients.
For more information on the State Bar's specialization program, please visit us on the web at www.nclawspecialists.gov.