Recently, I had an opportunity to talk with Garth Dunklin, a certified specialist in both commercial and residential real property law. Garth graduated from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in 1985 and from the UNC School of Law in 1988. He is currently a partner in the firm of Wishart Norris Henninger & Pittman, practicing in Charlotte. Garth’s comments on specializing in real property law follow.
Q: Why did you pursue certification?
Eleven years ago, right after the certification was established, I realized just how specialized the practice area had become. I saw certification as a way to validate that fact. I’ve always enjoyed the practice of real property law, dating back to a summer internship through the Morehead program in Washington, DC. I did some tax law work, which helped solidify my interest in real property. My father worked in the real estate industry and I had always been fascinated with his work. When I was interviewing for my first position, finding a firm that worked in real property law was a big factor.
Q: Has certification been helpful to your practice?
Yes, people who are evaluating their choice of lawyers use it as a distinguishing factor. People who are in the real property business appreciate the designation. There is a high concentration of specialists in my firm. We have seven real property lawyers, two of whom aren’t eligible for certification yet, and three others are certified specialists. The firm is very supportive of the program.
The certification has also helped further my career in a number of ways. I do a lot of administrative practice before the Real Estate Commission, and I’ve served as an expert consultant and witness on numerous occasions. Certification is certainly a factor in the way I’m perceived in this industry.
Q: How did you prepare for the examination?
I hesitate to say this, but I made a conscious choice not to prepare for the exam. I felt that the standard of practice was set, and that if I were truly a specialist, I should not have to study. In order to practice at the standard, I should be able to pass the exam based on my every-day knowledge of real property law.
Q: Was the certification process (exam, references, application) valuable to you in any way?
As an applicant, you don’t get to see the references, but it is nice to know that they must have come back favorably. In the type of transactional work that I do, I interact with many lawyers, but not in the traditional win/lose situations. Knowing that other lawyers think highly of your work and your knowledge base is heartening.
Q: What do your clients say about your certification?
Many don’t know about it right away. It is on my letterhead and business cards. I do occasionally get smart remarks about it, one client in particular likes to say “Put on your cape, super-lawyer!” In general, my new clients are either dissatisfied with other legal counsel or are first-time seekers of real property lawyers, so it is important to them in making a decision on counsel. Although in an ongoing client relationship, how you handle issues on a daily basis is of the highest value.
Q: Who are your best referral sources?
My best referral sources are industry participants. I keep up to date on the business side, which I hope makes me a better lawyer. I am also a REALTOR® and a CCIM, a certified commercial investment member. I teach continuing education courses for commercial real estate agents and have written chapters for the Real Estate Commission. My participation in the industry helps keep me up-to-date and gives me a profile among my colleagues and they refer issues to me on a regular basis.
Q: How does your certification benefit your clients?
The biggest benefit to my clients comes through my devotion to the practice area. When I teach throughout the state to commercial real estate agents I learn so much about the impact of the law and current regulation on business practices. What they see in the market place helps me to enhance my understanding of the legal and procedural issues as well.
Q: Are there any hot topics in your specialty area right now?
Our firm focuses on providing business information as well as legal counsel. We work with closely-held businesses and have noticed an increase in the number of multi-state transactions over the past few years. We also see more title company involvement, which seems to be a logical progression.
We handle a lot of land use issues these days. The plaintiff’s bar in this area has grown over the years and there’s more opposition to development. Everybody has a lawyer these days, which leads to some good dialogue and unfortunately some bad dialogue.
Q: How do you stay current in your field?
On the business side, I stay current through teaching and writing articles. In preparing the materials, I look for the most up-to-date information. I read trade publications, sort through a deluge of articles, and attend regular continuing legal education courses.
Q: How do you see the future of specialization?
I would like to see it expand. I would like to see people wear it as a badge. I am disappointed that more real property lawyers have not participated in the program. For a long time I was one of only three dually certified in Charlotte. I would like to see a focus on real property law and to increase the sense of pride among the bar in this area.
Q: What would you say to encourage other lawyers to pursue certification?
How the public and others generally view a profession or a practice area is often a reflection of the value the practitioners themselves place on their profession. Seeking and maintaining certification demonstrates a commitment to the highest level of practice; so by expanding the base of specialists, we demonstrate that we value our profession and our practice area.