Specialization has come of age! North Carolina’s legal specialization program, administered by the North Carolina State Bar, was barely a gleam in the State Bar’s eye when it began in 1987. Initially met with skepticism from the bar, over the past 28 years it has become generally accepted among lawyers. It grew from three specialties in 1987 (real estate, bankruptcy and estate-planning) to 11 specialties in 2015. The program is accepting applications for new specialties all the time. Specialties range from common areas of practice, such as criminal law, family law and estate planning, to more esoteric and specialized areas such as immigration, trademark law, elder law and juvenile delinquency law. The number of specialties has grown as attorneys practicing in different areas of the law have observed the benefits of specialization from existing specialties and sought to obtain those benefits for their practices. Areas of practice that are promising for specialization include civil trial practice, tax law and administrative law. A proposed specialty in utilities law is currently in development.
On the brink of 1,000 Specialists. Although the program began with only 106 specialists, it presently boasts 965 certified specialists, and I have hopes that it will reach 1,000 specialists in 2015, a true landmark. Specialists comprise roughly 5 percent of the eligible membership of the North Carolina State Bar. Specialists include lawyers from large metropolitan firms and lawyers from small practices in small towns across the state.
Specialization is here to stay. North Carolina’s specialization program is one of the four largest state programs in the country, after those of the more populated states of Texas, California and Florida. It has borrowed from the experience of these states and adopted many of their procedures and resources that they acquired through trial and error.
Goals of Specialization. The specialization program has two goals. First, the program is designed to increase the proficiency of lawyers in the specialty areas. Second, the program serves the public by allowing lawyers to identify themselves as specialists in their advertising to enable the public to find proficient lawyers in the areas of specialty.
Specialization for lawyers, like specialization for doctors, allows members of the public to find a professional well-suited to their needs. It allows lawyers who concentrate their practices in a certain area of law to distinguish themselves from attorneys who merely dabble in a practice area. In specialty practice areas with an established and well-defined bar, such as bankruptcy and family law, attaining specialist status after five or more years of practice is considered a natural progression of practicing in the field.
How to become a specialist. Specialization is an achievement and an honor. Specialists must undergo an application process that includes CLE requirements in the specialty area, demonstrated competency in practice based on reviews by one’s peers, a showing of substantial involvement in the specialty, and passing an examination.
The application period begins in May and ends in June. After the specialty committees determine an applicant’s eligibility and write the exams, examinations are given in the fall and the results are announced prior to year-end. Details and forms may be found at www.nclawspecialists.gov.
The benefits of being a specialist. The benefits of being a specialist include the ability to advertise yourself as such to your peers and to the public. Both potential clients and attorneys rely on the specialty designation to know that they are hiring or referring a client to someone who has demonstrated proficiency in their chosen area of practice. The process of becoming a specialist requires studying and reviewing the body of law in which you practice, which gives you new insights and understanding of the practice area. Judges may take notice of your commitment and degree of expertise in the area in which you practice. Finally, the annual CLE requirements in your specialty practice area will help to ensure that you remain at the top of your game.
Comraderie with other specialists. The requirement that you obtain a specific number of CLE hours in the area of your specialty means that you will rubbing elbows with other specialists. You may review the list of certified specialists and consult with them as to interesting issues in your area of expertise. And many specialists remain committed to the program – in fact, the North Carolina specialization program is the single most volunteer intensive program of the North Carolina State Bar. Under the guidance of its executive director, Alice Mine, over 100 attorneys serve on the board and on the committees that make the program work. The program hosts an annual luncheon to welcome new specialists and has begun arranging for CLE for specialists to encourage them to intermingle. Jim Angell