Recently, I had an opportunity to talk with Edward C. Boltz, a member of the John T. Orcutt law firm and a certified specialist in consumer bankruptcy law. Ed graduated from Washington University in St. Louis and from George Washington University School of Law in Washington, DC, in 1996. He became a certified specialist in 2004, a year before the bankruptcy laws were substantially revised with the enactment of the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005. His comments on specializing in bankruptcy law follow.
Q: Why did you pursue certification?
I was interested in becoming a certified specialist mainly for personal satisfaction and pride. I had been in the practice area for a number of years and really wanted to test myself to see if I knew as much as I thought I did. It seemed like an objective measure of my knowledge base.
Q: How did you prepare for the examination?
I read and completed the online study guide. I talked to other attorneys who had taken the exam. They all suggested reading the Bankruptcy Code. I read the entire code 4-5 times, and then re-read sections about things I didn’t see in my daily practice. I read with the idea of connecting the code with the law as I knew it and saw it in my practice.
Q: Was the certification process (exam, references, application) valuable to you in any way?
I found preparing for the exam to be very valuable. I found many nuggets of information that I was able to use in new ways for quite a few of my cases. Overall, it was a great opportunity to refresh my memory.
Q: Has certification been helpful to your practice?
Certification has probably been the most helpful in my relationship with other lawyers. In a consumer practice with internet savvy clients, it is helpful. But some of my clients are poor and just want to see someone right away who can help save their house. They’re not looking for a specialist, per se.
Q: What do your clients say about your certification?
Many are very glad to see the credential. In difficult cases, they seem especially glad. I had one client greet me by saying she knew I was the “man for the job” because she had found my certification online. Many of my cases are relatively simple, and I have found to be true the old adage about spending 95% of my time on 5% of my cases. Some clients are willing to trust, but some come in so worn down and burdened that it’s hard to establish a trust. In those cases, the clients do seem to appreciate the certification and feel that at least I know how to handle things.
Q: Are there any hot topics in your specialty area right now?
Our ongoing hot topic is the new bankruptcy code. With everything being new, we have to litigate issue after issue in order to establish case law. At this point, there are more decisions coming out of North Carolina courts than nearly any other state. The laws will have been in effect for a year in October and there are parts that are just not easily understood, including hanging paragraphs, triple negatives, terms of art… I just completed an hour and half hearing on the meaning of the words “such” and “and.” We have become experts at interpreting semantics!
Q: How do you stay current in your field?
The bankruptcy judges, particularly in the Middle District, do a good job of getting current opinions into the hands of lawyers. I regularly check the court website at www.ncmb.uscourts.gov for important opinions. In 2005, I took 84 credit hours of continuing legal education courses to really learn the new laws. As a board certified specialist, I am invited to speak at seminars fairly often. In order to do that, I have to do a lot of research and really dig into the information to prepare. I particularly enjoy the opportunity to speak when the judges are in attendance, as that gives me the chance to frame some of the questions I have for them.
Q: Is certification important in your practice area?
It is important; it does set us apart a bit. Since our fees are generally regulated flat fees, it is in the best interest of the consumer to select the best lawyer he or she can find. The consumer won’t pay more for a more experienced lawyer. Becoming board certified allows us to show the consumer that we are knowledgeable and dedicated to the practice of bankruptcy law.
Q: How does specialization benefit the public?
The more the public becomes aware of the certification program, the more it will help steer them toward lawyers who have proved themselves. Consumers suffer when an attorney doesn’t know how to handle an issue.
Q: How do you see the future of specialization?
I am glad to hear about the new arrangement with the American Board of Certification (see sidebar). That should make it easier for lawyers to take the exam and then not have to take another exam. This agreement puts North Carolina bankruptcy lawyers on the national list and into a wider prominence. Hopefully more bankruptcy lawyers will take the exam in the next few years as the laws are more established.
Q: What would you say to encourage other lawyers to pursue certification?
If you’re serious about being a bankruptcy lawyer and committing the time to learn the law, this is an excellent way to prove to yourself and the legal community that you are knowledgeable and dedicated to this type of work.