I recently had an opportunity to talk with Afi Johnson-Parris, a board certified specialist in family law, who practices in Greensboro. Afi attended the University of Miami on a ROTC scholarship, earning an undergraduate degree in computer information systems in 1994. Upon graduation, she served as an officer in the Air Force, and earned an MBA in technology management. Upon completion of her active duty service, Afi received her law degree from the University of Virginia. She joined Kilpatrick Stockton LLP in Atlanta and focused her practice on complex civil litigation. She relocated to Greensboro in 2006 to practice employment law, along with civil litigation, at Smith Moore Leatherwood LLP. Following a series of fortunate events that brought Afi her first family law case, she shifted her practice to family law and veteran’s benefits.
Practicing family law brought a renewed sense of purpose, and Afi dedicated her legal work to helping families in need. Afi became board certified in family law in 2013, joining Ward Black law the same year. Afi’s experience and dedication to family law issues have given her some unique opportunities to impact her community. She joined the North Carolina Equal Access to Justice Commission in 2015. Following are some of her comments about certification, her family law practice, and her commitment to improving access to justice in North Carolina.
Q: Why did you pursue certification?
I wanted to show that I was committed to this area of practice and an expert in the field by taking the next step of certification. I also wanted to challenge myself. Many of the people that I aspire to be like in this area of the law are specialists. I’m just following in their footsteps and heeding the advice they’ve been so gracious to give.
Q: How did you prepare for the examination?
I read the statutes that applied. I read the latest NCBA family law section case updates and newsletters. Then I studied the Judge’s Bench Book. I had actually used one of the mentors on the list provided by the State Bar. I gave Justin Mauney a call and asked him how he studied. He suggested the Bench Book, a resource I hadn’t thought to use. It was exactly what I needed to cover a lot of material in a short amount of time.
Q: Was the certification process valuable to you in any way?
Yes, I was really gratified by the support that I received from the colleagues that I reached out to for references. It’s nice to know you have the respect of your colleagues and the judges. I learned a lot by preparing for and taking the exam. I was happy about all that I did know and humbled by how much I didn’t know. Even after I passed the exam, I was aware of how much more learning I had to do. Being certified has certainly given me some confidence that I have a solid knowledge of family law.
Q: Has certification been helpful to your practice?
I gain a lot of knowledge from the specialist-only CLEs that are offered. It’s been a good marketing tool to be able to tout my expertise in this area of law. Although I haven’t been practicing as long as many lawyers in this area, I am at least able to show that I am knowledgeable through taking the extra step to be certified.
Q: How does your certification benefit your clients?
I think it gives me some credibility with other family law attorneys and the court. The trust that colleagues have in me and in my ability helps get cases settled and that helps my clients. It also means that I’m held to a higher standard of continuing legal education which is beneficial to my clients because I’m motivated to continue learning about this area of law as it evolves. A lawyer who knows what she’s doing is always helpful to clients.
Q: Are there any hot topics in your specialty area right now?
We’re watching with interest the impact that same sex marriage will have on this area of law. Many perceive that structurally things will be the same, but we wonder if in reality there will be differences in how a case actually progresses and the law applies. Alienation of Affection and Criminal Conversation claims are also interesting in that there has been some success defending against these actions on Constitutional grounds at the trial court level, but there have not been cases that progressed through the appellate courts sufficiently to make a statewide impact on these laws.
Q: How has your work in family law contributed to your interest in equal access to justice issues?
In my daily work I see over and over how impactful it is for individuals who do not have access to good legal representation. I see individuals struggle and know that if they had a good lawyer, things may have turned out very differently for them. In addition to my work on the pro bono committee for the Commission, I am also serving as the President of the Greensboro Bar Association. In that role, I am working to set up a strong pro bono program that would provide legal representation in some of these gap areas. The initial focus will be on expunctions. I wanted to start with something that’s relatively simple and formulaic. We’ll provide training for the attorneys and meet this need in the community before expanding the program.
Q: What would you say to encourage other lawyers to pursue excellence in their careers, including board certification?
I would encourage other lawyers to be open to opportunities for personal career growth as well as opportunities to magnify the impact you can have on your community. Pro bono work is a good way to do that because it is invigorating and can remind you of what’s good about being a lawyer. In many ways, pro bono work saved my legal career when I wanted to stop practicing law. Once I dedicated myself to family law, the goal of board certification was a natural next step. I learned a lot just in the process of studying and attaining my certification. I also have access to a higher level of knowledge through the courses that are offered only for specialists in family law.
For more information on the State Bar’s specialization programs, visit us online at nclawspecialists.gov.