Denise Mullen, the assistant director of Legal Specialization at the NC State Bar, recently spoke with Sean P. Devereux, a Board Certified Specialist in Federal and State Criminal Law, about specialization and the impact it has had on his career. Devereux received his law degree from the University of North Carolina School of Law in 1977. He established his own firm in 1999, after practicing as a partner for 12 years with an Asheville firm. He is now president of Sean P. Devereux, PA.
Q; Why did you pursue certification?
Actually, Sara Davis, a Certified Specialist and former member of the Board of Legal Specialization, called and encouraged me to apply. It was the second year of criminal law specialization and they were looking to grow the program. At the time I thought it was a good idea and that studying wasn’t a bad thing to do.
Q:. How did you prepare for the examination?
I read Chapter 15A, Rules of Criminal Procedure. It was really an eye-opening experience. I took the combined federal/state exam, so I also read the Federal Rules of Procedure. I listened to a set of Irving Younger evidence tapes in my car, which really helped, as there were a number of evidence questions on the exam that year.
Q: Was the certification process (exam, references, application) valuable to you in any way?
Yes, it really was. At the time my practice was about one-half criminal and one-half civil law. Studying for the exam gave me a solid desire to focus my practice on criminal law. Taking the time to study was important and while I didn’t learn everything, I really learned where to look things up. It increased my confidence tremendously.
Probably the best thing to come out of my pursuit of certification was that I was working on a civil case, against Tony Lynch, shortly after I passed the exam. I ran into Tony at the library and he chided me for not being prompt about some discovery that I owed him. He finally asked me if I had just taken the exam and I told him I had. He wanted to know how I had prepared and I told him about the tapes. He asked to come to my car right then and borrow them. I helped him study for the following year’s exam and we became good friends. He and I worked on a number of cases together after that and we used to consult with each other all the time. Tony died last February. I think sometimes about how our friendship began with those Irving Younger tapes and our mutual interest in specialization.
Q: Has certification been helpful to your practice?
Yes, mainly through other lawyers referring clients to me. I also became active in the Criminal Defense Section of the North Carolina Academy of Trial Lawyers and joined the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) and really began to focus my practice on criminal law. I am now the VP for Membership of the Academy and am reaching out to other criminal lawyers to expand the roster of members. Since becoming certified, I’ve also taught CLE courses at the Academy of Trial Lawyers and at Wake Forest School of Law. When I became certified, I started to view myself as a criminal defense lawyer. It’s really been an important part of shaping my practice, my goals, and my view of myself as a lawyer.
Q: What do your clients say about your certification?
Many of them are not aware. I do have the brochures in the office, but I get clients through referrals and through the appointed list and they generally don’t know about the certification until later in the process. I have noticed over the last few years that I’ve gotten more white-collar defendants as referrals from other attorneys who are aware of certification. Judges and prosecutors also seem to take me more seriously and clients are aware of that. Or maybe it is my increasingly gray hair. Anyway, in a relatively small community, a lawyer’s reputation is awfully important.
Q: Who are your best referral sources?
Former clients and other attorneys. The absolute best advertising is having the deputies take a client back to jail to get his possessions after an acquittal. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen often enough.
Q: How does your certification benefit your clients?
When you decide to become certified, you decide to do one thing, but you also decide not to do other things. You commit to maintaining a familiarity with that area of the law. Clients are better served by an attorney with that level of commitment.
Q: Are there any hot topics in your specialty area right now?
This is a tough time to be a criminal defense attorney. With “homeland security,” things are changing. The Fourth Amendment was already in bad shape and it’s worse now. For some reason, I’ve always been interested in issues related to traffic stops. Any male with black skin or long hair can pretty much count on being stopped by the police and having his car searched. Where there is obviously no probable cause for a search, officers are accepting blanket assertions of “consent” to search. Even when no drugs are found, young males are often charged anyway with resisting, obstructing, or delaying an officer. There is not much room these days between “consent” and “resistance.” We are getting awfully close in this country to the point where even the assertion of a Fourth Amendment right is considered resisting arrest. It is reassuring to see that juries can still tell the difference. Ironically, I think that juries are more sensitive to issues like racial profiling, more so than many judges.
Q: How does certification relate to those hot topics?
When you specialize your practice, it lets you read more deeply in a narrow area. You get to be pretty well-versed in your subject and able to feel confident in your knowledge.
Q: How do you stay current in your field?
I subscribe to quite a few publications. I attend CLE courses that focus on criminal practice, and, over the years, have taught some CLE myself. Nothing teaches you like preparing to present a CLE segment. One of the best avenues has been the NCATL and NACDL list-servs. They are very educational, helping with strategies, techniques, and ideas. Through the list-servs, I communicate daily with some fine lawyers, many of whom I have never met. It seems informal, and hit or miss, but it’s actually a tremendous asset to those who practice in a specialty area. I am amazed at the number of good lawyers around our state. A daily dose of the list-serv puts you in your place, allows you to maintain a healthy humility.
Q: Is certification important in your region?
Yes, most lawyers with whom I associate on cases are certified. You develop genuine relationships with these attorneys. I would imagine it’s harder to be specialized in a rural area, but no less important. Criminal defense attorneys are a perverse bunch, but we need support from other lawyers, and in many ways specialization does that.
Q: Does specialization benefit the public? The profession?
Absolutely. The exam alone doesn’t make you a good lawyer, but when you choose to pursue specialization, you become serious about your practice area. It helps you become a better lawyer. The perception of criminal defense attorneys is changing, and many of our criminal law specialists, Tommy Manning, Joe Cheshire, Dan Boyce in Raleigh; David Rudolf in Chapel Hill; Eben Rawls, Chris Fialko, Tony Scheer in Charlotte; Roy Neill in Hendersonville; Chuck Alexander and David Freedman in Winston-Salem; Jon Megerian in Asheboro; Locke Clifford and Charles Lloyd in Greensboro; David Teddy in Shelby, to name a few, are helping to change that perception. These are lawyers who are committed to criminal law and who present a positive, skillful image to the public.
Q: How do you see the future of specialization?
I think there will be more and more specialists. The world is becoming more specialized and lawyers will have to follow suit.
Q: In what other areas would you like to see certification offered?
Perhaps capital defense. It may be a hard area in which to certify, but it would be nice to have testing, or standards of some kind for lawyers taking these cases.
For more information about the certification programs, please visit our website at www.nclawspecialists.org or contact Denise Mullen at 919-828-4620 x255. Applications are accepted in May and June each year. Exams are held during the first week of November.
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