I recently had an opportunity to talk with Pamela Silverman, a board certified specialist in estate planning and probate law practicing in Mecklenburg and Union Counties. Pam attended Brown University, earning her undergraduate degree in psychology, and subsequently received her law degree from Duke University. Following graduation she spent several years practicing tax law at Kennedy Covington. Taking two extended sabbaticals to accommodate raising her children, Pam returned to full-time practice about ten years ago and began to focus on estates and trusts. She opened her own firm and, as soon as she met the criteria in 2011, applied to be board certified. She also offers legal services in equine law to area horse farm owners and fellow equestrian competitors. A competitive rider herself, Pam has attained United States Dressage Federation Silver Medal status. Following are some of her comments about the specialization program and the impact it has had on her career.
Q; Why did you pursue certification?
There were a number of reasons, but mainly because of my varied background and my unconventional career path, I felt that certification was a very important credential for me to validate my work experience and knowledge.
Q: How did you prepare for the exam?
I knew that the exam was daunting and that I would have to prepare. I purchased the video replay of the Estate Planning Survey Course from the NC Bar Association, as the live course wasn’t offered that year. I did a lot of reading and self study. I identified areas that I knew were not my strengths and focused a great deal of my study attention on those. I also contacted one of the mentors on the list that the State Bar provided and found her to be tremendously helpful in guiding my study plan.
Q: Was the certification process valuable to you in any way?
Yes, the process was very valuable—exceedingly valuable, in fact. Because estate planning attorneys typically work independently, it was initially a bit intimidating to generate a list of references. It turned out to be a good opportunity to reach out to my peers. I was greeted positively and encouraged. I appreciated the experience of getting pushed out of my comfort zone. The exam preparation was also tremendously valuable. I feel like I should do it on a regular basis. In my daily practice I don’t address all of the estate planning issues every month. I think it’s easy to get rusty. Dedicating my time to a thorough review of estate planning law was the most valuable thing I’ve done for my practice in the last five years.
Q: How has certification been helpful to your practice?
I think becoming board certified has been most helpful in raising my self-confidence. Being able to achieve this goal was extremely validating for me. I find that marketing and networking are much more important in a solo practice than a large firm. Having this extra credential is very valuable among the legal community.
Q: What are your best referral sources?
I receive most of my referrals from other lawyers—those who are board certified and those who aren’t. I also have financial advisors, trust officers, and accountants who refer potential clients my way.
Q: How does certification benefit your clients?
The certification gives my clients the assurance that I have the expertise to handle their cases. It seems that in a large firm, expertise is assumed, whereas in a small firm or solo practice, clients don’t necessarily have that same confidence and expectation of quality. Having the additional credential of certification helps clients and potential clients to really understand my level of dedication to this practice area and the breadth of knowledge that I have to offer.
Q: Are there any hot topics in your specialty area right now?
Recent changes to the laws have had a large impact on middle market clients, typically those with estates around one to nine million or even ten million dollars in value. Many estate planning clients fall into that range, and it’s important for those who set up trust and estate plans several years ago to seek updated counsel and determine if adjustments are necessary.
Q: Is certification important in your region?
In the Mecklenburg and Union County areas where I live and practice, being able to offer the services of a board certified specialist in estate planning law is very important. Many clients and potential clients have substantial wealth that is tied up in land ownership and, therefore, not liquid. I have lived in Union County for many years on my own horse farm, so I understand the issues other residents face on both a professional and a personal level. To my knowledge, I am the only board certified specialist in estate planning law in Union County, and I work hard to keep an elevated presence there. I am active in both the Union County Chamber of Commerce and the Women in Business group. I appreciate being a part of this community and being able to offer a valuable and needed service to my neighbors.
Q: How did equine law become a part of your practice?
Those services developed out of my own hobby about 15 years ago. Through my own personal experience as a competitive dressage rider, I became knowledgeable about purchasing, leasing, and selling horses. Others in the industry began to seek my advice and counsel for their equine facility operations and other transactional issues like horse purchase and financing agreements, boarding agreements, and sponsorship arrangements between professional trainers and investors. It makes up a small portion of my practice, approximately 10-15%, but it’s a portion that I enjoy very much!
Q: Does certification benefit the public?
Certification provides a filter for the public to enable them to reach out and find the level of competence they are seeking in a lawyer. In estate and trust work, it can be very difficult for clients to evaluate the work completed by a lawyer or even to understand the language used. Selecting a board certified attorney gives clients a greater comfort level and sense of trust.
Q: What would you say to encourage other lawyers to pursue certification?
I think that board certification for lawyers will continue to increase in importance. We live in a very complex world, and most lawyers are moving in the direction of offering more specialized services. Lawyers should always strive to improve their existing level of practice. It is important to challenge yourself, push yourself out of your comfort zone, and not be complacent. Board certification is a worthy credential to obtain.
For more information on the State Bar’s specialization program, please us on the web at nclawspecialists.gov.