I recently had an opportunity to talk with Chris Fialko, a board certified specialist in state and federal criminal law practicing in Charlotte. Chris attended Stanford University, earning his undergraduate degree in economics, and subsequently received his law degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Following graduation he spent a few years working in a civil litigation firm where he routinely was asked to handle any criminal work that others did not want. Chris recognized his passion for criminal law, so he left the firm to open a solo practice handling criminal defense cases. In 1999 he joined Rudolf & Maher, which is now Rudolf, Widenhouse and Fialko, with offices in Chapel Hill and Charlotte. He became a board certified specialist in state and federal criminal law in 2002. Following are some of his comments about the specialization program and the impact it has had on his career.
Q: Why did you pursue certification?
There were three incentives that led me to pursue certification. First, Eben Rawls approached me and strongly suggested—ordered—that I apply to sit for the exam. His confidence in me was much appreciated, and I now find myself encouraging others in the same way if I think that they are really good. Second, I was looking for a way to distinguish myself from others. I thought that if I could pass the exam, I could certainly use that information in my marketing efforts. Third, I had been in practice for about ten years and I was curious. I wondered if I had achieved that level of competence.
Q: How did you prepare for the examination?
I took several days off and read all of the North Carolina Criminal Code, Chapters 14, 15, and 15A. I read every word and it was a great exercise. Since I had applied for both the state and federal criminal law exams, I also took one day to read Chapter 18 of the Federal Criminal Code and focused on the evidence and ethics rules. I also read through the practice questions online. I remember that there were a few questions on the exam that I particularly liked. I felt that they were written by practicing attorneys, not professors, and I appreciated that distinction.
Q: Was the certification process valuable to you in any way?
Reading the code was a valuable experience. I have continued that practice each January since the exam. As a criminal lawyer, you work so hard on your cases and are typically so busy, it would be easy to let it slip by. But it is so important to take the time to review the code and the new laws that come out every year to maintain your knowledge and guide your practice.
Q: Has certification been helpful to your practice?
As I anticipated, the certification has been helpful to my practice, especially marketing my practice. I find that I get a lot of referrals from other attorneys who know that I am board certified. My clients are not often aware of the certification initially, but when they find out, it gives them a sense of confidence about my ability to handle their cases.
Q: What are your best referral sources?
I get the majority—probably about 90%—of my referrals from other lawyers. Many of those lawyers are also board certified in their fields. I’ll ask how they found me and they’ll often tell me it was the directory of board certified lawyers, either the printed booklet or the online version. I also routinely use the directory to make referrals to other board certified specialists throughout the state. Particularly if I don’t personally know a lawyer in that geographical region, I can count on the directory.
Q: How does certification benefit your clients?
In a complex case there has to be a level of trust between the client and the attorney. That trust is often hard to develop in a criminal case. The knowledge that I am board certified helps to establish that trust with my clients early in the process, which substantially benefits both the client and the case.
Q: Are there any hot topics in your specialty area right now?
One hot topic—that I hadn’t really anticipated—is the need for criminal lawyers to be proficient in immigration law. Over the past few years I have had to develop strong relationships with lawyers who are board certified in immigration law. I find that I call on them at least once a week to discuss how a potential conviction will affect my client’s immigration status.
Q: How do you stay current in your field?
There are a few resources that I use on a regular basis. One is the monthly magazine that the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers publishes. It’s called The Champion, and it is an invaluable resource that provides the latest developments on a wide range of topics including search and seizure, grand jury proceedings, death penalty, and white collar crime. I also use the list-serve sponsored by the North Carolina Advocates for Justice on a regular basis. It’s like having a daily continuing legal education (CLE) course with a constant stream of case law and strategy questions and answers that provide really good information.
I have also adjusted my approach to CLE over the past few years. I look for courses that will be challenging, not just provide required hours. I was recently appointed to the North Carolina Sentencing Commission and I look forward to those meetings as an opportunity to learn everything that the legislature is doing on a monthly basis.
Q: Is certification important in your practice area?
Yes, although there are some really good criminal lawyers who are not board certified. For me, becoming a certified specialist helps me market my skills and develop my practice. It also continues to give me an incentive to stay up to date with current developments in my practice area.
Q: Does certification benefit the profession or the public?
To the extent that it creates more knowledgeable and skilled lawyers, it helps both the profession and the public. Additionally, it can help lawyers distinguish themselves and encourage them to develop a deeper knowledge base in their practice area.
Q: Would you encourage other lawyers to pursue certification?
I do encourage lawyers that I know to pursue certification. First and foremost because it requires them to really dedicate themselves to learning the substantive law and procedures for their practice area. Second, it can help them market themselves and subsequently assist clients to find them. It’s not necessarily an easy process, but if you’ve been practicing at least five to six years and you spend a week studying, it is certainly doable.
For more information on the State Bar’s specialization programs, please visit us online at nclawspecialists.gov.