Albright, Bennington, Black, Morgenstern
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing four family law specialists, at different stages of their careers, from the law firm of Black, Slaughter, Black in Greensboro. While each of these accomplished lawyers is the same in that the majority of their practice is dedicated to family law, when in their career they decided to pursue certification, and their reasons for doing so, are very different.
Carole Albright has been certified in family law since 2015. She earned her law degree from Wake Forest Law School in 1995. While a law student, Albright was honored with the E. McGruder Faris Memorial Award for extraordinary character, leadership and scholarship. She has been named to Business North Carolina magazine’s Legal Elite.
In addition to practicing family law full time, Albright dedicates an extraordinary amount of time to higher education. She was a professor for Concord Law, an online law school. Albright has also served in several capacities, from department chair to instructor, with Guildford Community College. She was awarded the institution’s Excellence in Teaching Award in 2000. She has been an adjunct family law professor with the college’s paralegal program since 2011.
Ashley Bennington has also been certified since 2015. She earned a bachelor’s of social work from Campbell University before earning her law degree from Wake Forest Law School in 2009. Bennington has dedicated a vast amount of her time to several outreach organizations including Junior League of Greensboro and Junior Achievement, and recently served as the site co-chair of the North Carolina Bar Association 4-All Statewide Service Day. She is a member of the Family Law Sections of both the North Carolina Bar Association and Greensboro Bar Association. Bennington has also participated in Elon Law School’s Preceptor’s Program, mentoring and working primarily with first-year students, but also second- and third-year law students and law school alumni.
Keith Black earned his law degree from the University of North Carolina Law School in 1984. He was certified in family law in 2015. While Black devotes a large portion of his practice to domestic law matters (he has extensive experience with trials in alimony, custody, and child support), he also practices civil litigation, commercial collections, real estate, and personal injury.
Black generously volunteers his time with several organizations, most notably as an attorney for the Triad Health Project, an organization which provides valuable support and education to the HIV/AIDS Triad community. Black was honored with the Pro Bono Achievement Award in 1990.
Barbara Morgenstern has been a family law specialist since 1991. She earned her law degree from UNC Law School in 1986. Morgenstern served on the Family Law Specialty Committee from 2009 to 2016 and was committee chair from 2015-2016. She is currently listed in the Best Lawyers of America, NC SuperLawyers, Legal Elite, and is a fellow in the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. She has been an adjunct professor teaching advanced family law at Elon University since 2008. She joined the firm of Black, Slaughter, Black after running her own law firm for 23 years.
Q: Why did you pursue certification?
Carole Albright (CA): I knew it would force me to sit down and study the statutes and case law in a more focused manner than I am able to in the midst of a busy practice.
Keith Black (KB): After 32 years of practicing a wide variety of law, I realized that the greatest portion of my time was being spent on domestic matters. I believed that I could better serve my clients if I “went back to school” and made sure that I had a strong foundation of understanding of the basics and the current law. And besides, Carole Albright made me do it with the help of Barbara Morgenstern.
Ashley Bennington (AB): My practice has been limited to family law since I started practicing in 2009. I was motivated to become a specialist because many of the influential attorneys in my practice have been specialists, and I was excited to become one of them.
Barbara Morgenstern (BM): I pursued specialization at the earliest possible date so I could distinguish myself from many of the lawyers practicing family law in Greensboro. I thought it would allow me to attract more clients and would provide my firm with the prestige of having a family law specialist working for them. I took the specialization exam after practicing a little over five years to improve my practice, and to let the public know that I had qualifications over and above most of the family lawyers practicing in Greensboro at that time.
Q: How did you prepare for the examination?
CA: I read the NCBA’s Family Law Section newsletter, Family Law Forums, regularly; around May I started reading cases from the previous four to five years, and I studied all of the relevant statutes. I am a big fan of flashcards, so I created an outline and then flashcards. I also outlined the NC Trial Judges’ Bench Book District Court, Volume One, Family Law (Family Law Bench Book).
AB: I started by talking to other attorneys who recently took the specialist exam to find out what they found to be most helpful in preparing for it. A number of attorneys in Greensboro had taken the exam the year before, and they were extremely generous in providing me with their study materials. I also participated in a CLE intended to assist in preparing for the exam, which was extremely helpful.
KB: I took the CLE reviewing the changes and updates in the law, I studied the statutes extensively, and also looked at the Family Law Bench Book.
BM: I studied for over 50 hours, reading all the statutes and the annotations, and focusing on the cases that were important over the prior three years.
Q: Was the certification process (exam, references, and application) valuable to you in any way?
CA: The examination process was very valuable, and it was nice to know I have colleagues who were willing to write references!
AB: Absolutely. It was a great opportunity to discuss the process and what being certified meant to other attorneys I work with when I asked them for a reference. It was also extremely valuable to review and learn additional aspects of family law that we may not encounter on a daily basis in our family law cases.
KB: Yes, the process of studying refreshed and updated my knowledge and understanding of the law and how it was being applied in the district, appellate, and supreme courts of North Carolina.
BM: Absolutely! It was the best refresher course I could have taken. It was nice to know that my peers thought highly enough of me to recommend me to sit for the exam after only being a lawyer for less than six years.
Q: Has certification been helpful to your practice? In what ways?
CA: Mainly it has increased knowledge and confidence and referrals.
AB: It has. It has allowed me to be recognized amongst my peers as someone who is dedicated to the practice of family law and learns about new developments as they come. It has also encouraged my peers to seek my opinion on their cases, which always provides a learning opportunity.
KB: I believe it allows me to market myself through word of mouth and recognition by the State Bar. As a certified specialist, the client has a deeper appreciation of my opinions, which aids in resolution of cases.
BM: I believe it has. The public now researches lawyers online. To attract the best clients, you almost have to be a specialist. Moreover, lawyer referrals are often based on the fact that I am listed amongst the specialists in Greensboro. As a result of specialization, I was elected a fellow in the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers—if you are a North Carolina lawyer, you are not eligible to be a fellow absent that designation. I also teach family law at Elon Law School and believe the school would not have hired me if I were not a specialist.
Q: Who are your best referral sources?
CA: Former clients.
AB: Former and/or currently clients and other attorneys.
KB: Other lawyers and former clients.
BM: Lawyers and former clients.
Q: How does your certification benefit your clients?
CA: Specialists in an area of law are like specialists in medicine—a family law specialist has a more comprehensive knowledge of this area of law, and generally has more experience representing family law clients and appearing in court for those clients, thus obtaining better results for clients.
AB: I believe it assists me in being influential with peers and the court because it keeps me abreast of developments in the area of family law.
KB: Well I hope it benefits my clients since, in theory, I know the law well and am able to advise them of the law and how it will most likely affect them.
BM: Clients hire a lawyer with expertise in the field. They can be confident that the lawyer they hire is competent and respected by his or her peers.
Q: Are there any hot topics in your specialty area right now?
CA: Same sex marriage, alienation of affections, alimony, and the possibility of alimony “guidelines.”
AB: Same sex marriage and adoption, alienation of affections, and there is still a lot of discussion about creating alimony “guidelines”.
KB: Same sex marriage, divorce, custody, and equitable distribution.
BM: I think arbitration is a hot topic, and same sex marriage has brought a new dimension to the practice, both with regard to premarital agreements and divorce on the other end.
Q: How does your certification relate to those?
CA: By reading the recent cases and getting more up to speed on the trends, it helps in advising clients on the law and the current temperament of the court on those issues.
AB: The process of preparing for the examination served as a beneficial exercise to become more familiar with the particulars of the topics.
KB: The certification does not relate to the items above; however, as a result of studying for the test and keeping up with current case law, I have a better understanding and grasp of the trends in the laws and how judges will most likely rule.
BM: Many separation agreements that I draft include a provision that if a dispute arises as to the interpretation and enforcement of the agreement, and if mediation is not successful, then the parties agree to arbitrate the issue with a family law specialist. Absent specialization, I would not be doing as much arbitration.
Q: How do you stay current in your field?
CA: Reading the Family Law Forums and case law, and talking with colleagues.
AB: I read the appellate opinions each time they are published, and I try to review as much material as is available.
KB: I review Lawyers Weekly, routinely look at listserv issues and questions, and meet and talk with other lawyers who practice family law.
BM: I attend family law CLE offered by the NCBA, the family law specialists, and the AAML. I read Lawyers Weekly and look up the family law cases digested in the publication. I teach family law at Elon Law, which forces me to stay current.
Q: Is certification important in your practice area? How?
CA: Family law encompasses a large body of law and affects lots of people given the high divorce rate, so having specialized knowledge on family law issues makes for more thorough representation.
AB: I believe it is important because it shows a dedication to the practice area. There are many general practice attorneys who dip their toes in the family law pool from time to time, but certification shows that this is a primary focus for me.
KB: I believe the certification process helped me stay current with the law, which means I can give my clients the best advice possible. Clients are becoming more sophisticated and as a result, having the certifications is helpful as a marketing tool and selling point of my services. It gives me a certain amount of credibility that I might not otherwise have with the client and other lawyers.
BM: Yes, because so many lawyers in Greensboro are becoming specialists, the clients are looking to hire a specialist in the area of law in which they need help, just as they hire a medical specialist to handle medical issues.
Q: What would you say to encourage other lawyers to pursue certification?
CA: If you plan to focus your practice in a certain area and want to increase your knowledge and confidence in that area, pursue certification.
KB: Decide if you want to really pursue it, and then talk to someone who is certified and ask them how they prepared for the exam.
BM: I would encourage them to take the opportunity to review the law thoroughly in order to market themselves as a specialist. Specialization is a great opportunity to meet other experienced family lawyers from across the state and create new referral sources. It is an opportunity to take advantage of the best CLE offered in the state on family law—the Intensive Seminar at the annual specialists meeting.
Q: What piece of advice would you give lawyers who are interested in pursuing certification?
CA: Start early, read the statutes carefully, and focus on the “big” cases that came out during the previous four to five years
AB: That it is definitely worth it. It opens doors to more specialized CLEs and provides more opportunities to meet other specialists in the state.
BM: Study! The exam is not easy and is very comprehensive. Attend as much CLE as possible.
For more information about becoming a board certified specialist, please visit nclawspecialists.gov or call our office at 919-828-4620.