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New BLS Director Shares Opening Thoughts  

“Well, this is different.” 

OtenThat was my stand-out thought after attending the Board of Legal Specialization’s Annual Retreat and the subsequent board meeting in April 2018. Earlier that month I was announced as the State Bar’s new director for ethics and special programs – that role, among other responsibilities, named me as the new director for the Board of Legal Specialization. (Of course, this new role also gave me the unenviable task of following the great Alice Mine, who has served as director to the board for the past two decades, and who has guided the program to the success it is today. But I digress.) To be honest, this was my first extended interaction with the specialization program, and specialists for that matter. You see, during the ten years prior, I spent my time investigating and, if necessary, prosecuting claims of lawyer misconduct as deputy counsel in the State Bar’s Office of Counsel. Despite what you may think, I met some of the finest lawyers our state has to offer though the disciplinary process, whether they were opposing counsel on a case or the respondent him or herself. However, I also dealt with lawyers who did not live up to the standards we as a profession hold so dear (including those that did not display the best of attitudes). But there I was, at the specialization lunch, observing, speaking with, and learning about a room full of lawyers who voluntarily chose to meet a heightened standard of proficiency in their practice. We celebrated both lawyers who recently achieved board certification, as well as lawyers who had maintained this heightened standard for many years; and we honored three board certified lawyers for their incredible contributions to their communities and the profession. 

Yep. This is different.

I’ve been in this new position for two months now, during which I’ve had the good fortune to work with board members, specialty committee members, and the incredible staff who make this program the great success that it is: Assistant Director Denise Mullen and Executive Assistant Lanice Heidbrink. I’ve learned a great deal about not just the program, but the purpose for which specialization exists and the driving factors for why lawyers choose to put themselves through the arduous process of becoming a board certified specialist. This experience has impressed upon me the importance of our program and the valuable assistance this program can provide to the people of North Carolina and our profession in the coming years.

The North Carolina State Bar exists to protect the public. As part of carrying out that mission, the State Bar Council created the Plan of Legal Specialization in 1983 “to assist in the delivery of legal services to the public by identifying to the public those lawyers who have demonstrated special knowledge, skill, and proficiency in a specific field, so that the public can more closely match its needs with available services; and to improve the competency of the bar[.]” 27 N.C. A.C. 1D, .1701. These are lofty ideals, but in the short time that I have worked with the board, the specialty committees, and the staff, I’ve seen these goals sincerely pursued and emphatically achieved by everyone involved with the specialization program. I have watched specialty committees take great care in objectively reviewing the qualifications of applicants; I have worked with committee members as they pour over the specialty exams, analyzing every word in a question to ensure the question is fair and accurate; and I have observed the board engage in spirited debate about topics ranging from streamlining the application process to the appropriate use of program funds to increase the visibility of the specialization program to both lawyers and the public. I am proud to report that this program is guided by individuals who genuinely value and intently pursue the very purpose of this program: to protect the public by assisting in the delivery of legal services to the public and by improving the competency of the bar. I feel strongly that our lawyers can be proud of their designations as board certified specialists because certification truly does mean something – it objectively reflects the substantial proficiency acquired and demonstrated by the lawyer, and it instills confidence in the profession by the public.

The specialization program will continue to provide a great service to the people of North Carolina, and I look forward to joining in the collective efforts to maintain the heightened standards of practice for the benefit of the public. 

Spotlight: Shannan Barclay Tuorto  

Board Certified Specialist in Family Law, Asheville, NC

SpotlightWhat led you to become a lawyer?

In high school I had the opportunity to shadow a family friend who worked as an attorney. He was, and still is, a general practitioner in a small town in rural Pennsylvania. During my time with him, I was able to get a real glimpse into the practice of law and the myriad of issues and people you meet and help. I wanted to be a problem solver, and I was drawn to the practice based on that experience. That has been the most gratifying part of my practice—helping clients in very difficult positions move forward in a positive way. Also, I knew that law would allow me to move and work anywhere. Finally, I was always motivated to work for myself and establish my own practice, and law has allowed me to do just that.

What made you decide to pursue certification? 

I’ve had wonderful mentors throughout my legal career. During law school I had the opportunity to spend a semester clerking for the Honorable Rebecca Knight, who served as one of the first family court judges in Buncombe County. Judge Knight was an amazing teacher, and she was the first to encourage certification. Since then I’ve also been lucky to have an extremely supportive group of family lawyers here in Asheville. Of that group, the lawyers that I have had much respect and admiration for have been specialists. They all inspired and urged me to pursue that option. I also felt that in a town like Asheville, it was important to distinguish myself as a specialist. I take pride in what I do and how I practice law, and becoming board certified felt like the right next step.

What's the best thing about achieving that goal?

No more tests! I took the exam with a good friend who also practices in Asheville, and we both agreed we would never take another test after that one. But really, the best thing about passing the exam was taking pride in knowing that I had set a goal for myself and I had achieved it.

What is it like to work with clients seeking assistance with family law issues in Asheville?

Working in Asheville gives me the chance to experience the full gamut of family law cases. I have clients from all walks of life. Some come to me wanting to divide a trailer, and some come to me with multimillion dollar estates and businesses. I like the variety of being confronted with a new set of facts and legal questions at each consultation. I also like the opportunity to meet people and get a glimpse into the story of someone’s life that I otherwise would have no way of knowing.

What activities/volunteer groups are you involved in? 

I have a two-year-old son who happily takes up lots of my time and attention. Beyond the time with my family, I volunteer with the Mountain Area Volunteer Lawyer’s Program through Pisgah Legal Services and help provide pro bono representation to those in need of legal aid. Hiking, Pilates, and gardening are my preferred activities when I have time.

Who is your role model and why?

My mother and grandmother have been my biggest role models. Both, in different ways, have taught me what it means to be independent, hardworking, and kind. My grandmother, who has since passed away, grew up during a time when there weren’t as many options for women. Despite that fact, she played college basketball in the 1930s (and was team captain), received a masters’ degree from UNC-Chapel Hill, raised four children, and worked for 40 years in education. Similarly, my mother has shown me what it looks like to have a successful career, be engaged in your community, and be a loving parent. Both have paved the way for me and shown me what it looks like to be a strong and independent working mother. I am eternally grateful for that.

What do you want non-family law attorneys to know about what you do?

Family lawyers often have big personalities, and luckily most have a great sense of humor to match. I think that fact is important because the type of work we do can be extremely draining and emotionally demanding. We are helping clients through what is often the most difficult points in their lives. From my experience, most family law attorneys truly have a desire to help, and we want to create long lasting solutions that allow our clients and families to move forward. Keeping things in perspective and having a good sense of humor are important in all of that.

Spotlight: Shannan Barclay Tuorto  

ApplicationsThe deadline for submittal of the 2018 recertification applications was September 13, 2018. Late applications received between September 13, 2018, and January 4, 2019, will be accepted with an additional $250 filing fee. Applications received after January 4, 2019, will not be accepted. The application and supplemental materials, if applicable, are available on the website. Not sure if you need to re-certify this year? You can view your online profile to see if you need to re-certify at this time. Specialists complete the recertification process every five years from the date of original certification.