Older Americans often are very reluctant to contact an attorney, because they fear the cost will be too much or they don't know how to go about finding one, according to an AARP spokesman.
To make it easier for seniors to find an attorney, AARP began its Legal Services Network in the fall of 1996. The network provides AARP members with a free 30-minute initial consultation with an attorney who meets AARP's standard of experience and customer service. It also offers reduced fees for several basic services.
"Because they don't have an attorney, many seniors are ignoring serious legal matters," said Jane H. Margesson, senior marketing analyst for AARP's Legal Services Network.
"Many don't have a valid will, and they don't realize the consequences of not having one. If you don't designate your beneficiaries, your estate may go to a party you don't want."
A recent AARP survey found that 40 percent of people 50 years of age or older do not have a valid will, and 55 percent have not prepared a durable power of attorney, in which a person designates an agent for financial matters if unable to manage his or her own affairs.
LSN began as a test in four states and has been expanded to 31 states.
"We have 1,000 attorneys participating in the network," Margesson said.
"We are definitely planning to expand the network to the remaining 19 states. It has been very successful. Eighty percent of those who have used an attorney in our network have rated the service as excellent or very good."
AARP's network attorneys offer basic flat fees: $50 for simple wills ($75 per couple); $35 for health care power of attorney and living will; and $35 for financial power of attorney. For other legal services, network attorneys must offer AARP members a 20 percent reduction off their usual rates.
"We have 20 different practice areas among our lawyers in the network," Margesson said. "But attorneys who specialize in wills and estates are the most popular."
There are specific standards that attorneys must meet to become an attorney with AARP's network.
"An attorney must have a minimum of four years of legal experience," Margesson said.
"We are attracting attorneys with a high level of experience. The average number of years of practice is 20."
Attorneys in the network have been screened and interviewed by other attorneys. Their bar standing is checked annually and their malpractice insurance verified. They also have participated in an LSN orientation program.
James Tomlin, a Peoria, Ill., general practice attorney who specializes in elder law, real estate, wills, estates, trusts and probate.
"For me, the whole screening process started around the first of the year," Tomlin said. "I was interviewed by an attorney from Maryland who told me a very significant part of his firm's law practice comes through the network."
Tomlin already has done work for LSN clients.
"The network is brand new to central Illinois, but I believe it's going to be a very good service for seniors," Tomlin said. "I don't think people will come to me just because I charge 20 percent less (for AARP members). But it does provide a level of comfort. Somebody brand new to central Illinois may not know any attorneys. The fact that I meet the standards set by AARP should provide some comfort and confidence."
All consultations, Tomlin said, are confidential.
"Any work I do for a client remains confidential," he said. "I am asked to report the client's membership number to AARP, but I say nothing about the nature of the legal problem. In fact, if someone objects to reporting their AARP number, I won't even do that."
In addition to providing legal services at a reduced cost, the network attorneys periodically conduct legal checkup seminars.
"Attorneys pay a participation fee to be part of the network," Margesson said.
"Some attorneys have had more business from this service than others. But I would say most have been very happy in the network. Most of the attorneys who participated in the test study four years ago are still with us."