The Need of the Moment
Elder law and estate planning attorney Carole Cukell Neff on good pro bono work and bad actors
Published in 2016 Louisiana Super Lawyers magazine on December 22, 2015
Q: You’re originally from upstate New York? Was it college that brought you here?
A: I am. It was law school that brought me to New Orleans—law school and a sister who had moved down here to be with her boyfriend. My own boyfriend and I just graduated college and wanted a place to go together, so we said, “Well, New Orleans sounds like a cool place.” And before I ever got here, that’s when I decided to apply to law schools. So usually the easy answer to the question is, “I came here for Tulane Law School.” But, really, law school was sort of secondary.
Q: Did you apply to other schools?
A: Syracuse was my safety if I decided I hated being in New Orleans or didn’t want to be around my boyfriend anymore, who’s now my husband of almost 40 years. Then I’d go back north. I’m actually from the Finger Lakes, a small town called Geneva, New York. And I went to University of Buffalo as an undergrad.
Q: And you got a teaching degree.
A: Yeah. So law school was completely out of the blue. It never crossed my mind until after I graduated college.
Q: Do you teach at all now?
A: I do a lot of public speaking about aspects of the law to continuing education programs and a lot of lay groups, but not formally teaching a course.
Q: Anything in the teaching degree that translates to law?
A: It’s funny because people say, “What a waste of a degree,” but I don’t think so. Elementary education taught me techniques to explain concepts and break them down in an understandable fashion, and the ability to communicate complex concepts to clients and judges has been a very useful tool. It helps in public speaking and writing, as well. It was a very useful degree, it turned out.
Q: When did you clerk for Justice Dixon?
A: The year after I graduated. My first job out of law school was as a Louisiana Supreme Court clerk.
Q: What did you learn from your time there?
A: I think I fine-tuned my writing. I had been on the [Tulane Law Review], so I was really getting a lot of opportunities to fine-tune, but writing for a Supreme Court justice—and opinions that ended up getting published—was a very useful way to really home in on writing and research skills.
Q: I heard he somehow led you to Sessions Fishman Nathan & Israel.
A: He did. When I had offers from three different firms, I sat down with him and said, “What do you think I should do?” He said, “If you have a chance to work with Max Nathan, you ought to grab that job.”
I ended up coming to this firm and working with Max Nathan, who has played many different roles in my life—mentor, partner, co-author—and is probably the most influential person from a career standpoint, if not from a personal standpoint.
Q: So it was a good choice.
A: It was an outstanding choice.
Q: This was the late ’70s?
A: Yeah. I graduated from law school in ’77, and when I got the job offer from the Louisiana Supreme Court, it was the only job offer I had. I graduated third in my class, and I had one job offer. That was back in the day when it was very difficult for women to break into the practice of law.
Q: What brought you to elder law and estate planning?
A: Max Nathan worked in those areas and loved it. So I tried it, along with other areas of practice, but was instantly attracted to this. It just suited me.
Q: Any cases that stand out for you?
A: Oh, there are all kinds of stories. Lots of cases. It just depends on what triggers a memory. You want me to go into any?
Q: Please do.
A: It’s funny, I was just having lunch with somebody and something triggered this one. It goes back to probably the early ’80s, when a little old lady living in a very close-knit neighborhood finds an enormous satellite dish in her yard. This is in the day that satellite dishes were as big as the house. She was a widow who walked her little dog and people knew her, and knew she was up in age and had some difficulty using the remote control for her TV—and would occasionally get a neighbor to come over to show her how to turn it on. All of a sudden there’s a satellite dish, so one of the neighbors stopped by to inquire and her response was, “What? I don’t know where that came from.” The neighbor then, flipping through her check register, finds out not only the name of the company that had sold her this humongous bill of goods, but sees an entry for a legal clinic.
The neighbor made some further inquiries and found out that the lovely young woman who knocked on her door [not only] managed to sell a satellite dish, [but] also managed to get adopted. In those days, when a person adopted a child who was not provided for by the will, it revoked the entire will as if it had never been written. If this little old lady had died, the entire estate would go to this lovely young woman who knocked on her door. So the neighborhood collectively hired me to try to fix things. I’d actually worked with her [a few] years before when we set up a trust and wrote a very detailed will that ran over 10 pages.
We wound up having her declared incompetent by the court and having a curator appointed for her, and then sued to undo the adoption. It changed the little old lady’s life for the better because the neighborhood really jumped in to take care of her, and she had much less loneliness in her life. It really enhanced the quality of her life in her latter days.
Q: Wow. Did it uncover some sort of ring?
A: Yes. The satellite dish company was going door to door to try to find people like my little old lady and figure out ways to take advantage of them. They had done so in other states before they landed in New Orleans, so we did actually help bring down a ring.
Q: Are there a lot of instances of people trying to take advantage of the elderly?
A: There’s plenty of it. Plus, our population is aging, so there are more and more issues of incapacity. As we age, there are more and more incidences of people losing capacity, and it opens up opportunities for the bad players to insert themselves and take advantage.
Q: You and Max Nathan created a treatise that I saw referred to as “The Bible of Succession Law”: Louisiana Estate Planning, Will Drafting and Estate Administration.
A: I love when somebody says that. Yeah, we co-wrote that, and it’s been in print for over 20 years. It’s in its second edition, and we update it every year. It keeps us in the forefront for changes in the law.
Q: How much work is that every year?
A: More than I’d like it to be. [Laughs] Actually, when we first wrote it some 25 years ago, my law firm was so supportive that they provided me with two offices and two secretaries, so I could spend half of my day practicing law and then actually move to another location to write this manuscript. It was huge—an enormous undertaking.
Q: I wanted to talk about the amount of pro bono work you do and all the organizations you’re involved with. I counted 17.
A: Really? Well, fortunately, not all at the same time; I transition from one to the next as times change and the needs of the community change—or maybe I’ve already been the president, so now I’m ex officio and it’s time to move on to something else. I was on the board and executive committee of the Algiers Economic Development Foundation, and I was term-limited, so now I’m not doing that anymore. That freed me up to be able to become much more active on the board of the Jewish Community Day School, so that’s gotten a lot of my attention lately, and I chair the Pro Bono Project.
But in a couple of years I’ll be ex officio and I’ll be off the board. I’ll have all of this time on my hands, and I’ll have to find something else. But by the time we get there, I’ll have somebody knocking at my door saying, “We really could use you here.”
Q: So you just can’t say, “No”?
A: I try. I don’t say yes to everything—because there aren’t enough hours in the day—but usually whatever I’m involved with, I have a passion for.
Q: In regards to Pro Bono Project, you came to help after Katrina?
A: Yeah. It started with the staff lawyer at Pro Bono Project that was trying to help people clear title to property that had been inherited so they’d be eligible for federal funding that was available to homeowners to put their properties back online. A lot of people were living on property that had gone through generations where nobody had gone through the legal process to actually transmit title to heirs, so the Pro Bono Project needed a lot of help with that, and I became sort of a mentor. That turned into being invited to come onto the board, and then the executive committee, and now [I’m the] chair.
It has been a very rewarding experience, because that’s what lawyers should be doing: giving back some of our time to those who can’t afford legal services and need help in a variety of areas.
Q: And since Katrina, I imagine there’s been a lot of need.
A: There sure has been. We’ve gone beyond the humongous crunch there was on clearing title; that has been, for the most part, resolved. But new problems arise with immigration and landlord-tenant problems, and there are always children with needs. So there’s never a shortage of need for legal services, the demands just shift from time to time. We had an influx of issues with people who had been damaged by the British Petroleum Oil Spill, so we had a staff attorney for a while who did nothing but these cases. There’s never a downturn in the need, it’s just, “What’s the need of the moment?”
This interview was edited and condensed.