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Denise Mullen, the assistant director of Legal Specialization at the North Carolina State Bar, recently sat down with Ann Robertson, a board certified specialist in Immigration Law, to ask her about specialization and the impact it has had on her career. Ann is a partner at the Robertson Immigration Law Firm in Raleigh. The opinions expressed are Ms. Robertson’s and not the opinions of the Board of Legal Specialization. Here are a few of her answers.

Q: Why did you pursue certification?

I really love learning. I have four degrees and just enjoy studying and learning new things. While I’m confident in my knowledge about the field, I was also sure there was a lot I didn’t know yet. There are more non-immigrant visa types than there are letters in the alphabet. On a daily basis, I need to understand all of my options to help my client. Studying the law for the certification exam helped everything sink in. I wanted to do a good job for my clients; I wanted to really know immigration law.

Q: How did you prepare for the examination?

The American Immigration Lawyers Association gives excellent CLE programs. I attended the basic track at the annual meeting and found it very helpful after eight to nine years of practice! I listened to tapes of previous CLE programs. I even sought out a certified specialist in Immigration Law and spent the day with him. I learned a great deal about E-visas, among other things.

Q: Was the certification process (exam, references, application) valuable to you in any way?

Yes, I learned new areas of immigration law. I became more knowledgeable and better able to advise clients. It increased my confidence about my practice and frankly I found it really interesting. One of the little known facts that I learned through studying (involving international adoption of siblings when at least one is over age 16) became useful in my practice right after the exam. I was glad to have that knowledge and a reason to use it so quickly.

Q: Has certification been helpful to your practice?

I know it has. It does matter to other attorneys. Immigration is a really complicated area of the law and it changes nearly every day. Many attorneys have clients with immigration issues that they refer out. Not many lawyers dabble in immigration law, as bad advice can lead to such serious consequences. Mainly they’re looking for a qualified attorney to handle the referral. My certification helps them feel good about referring to my firm.

Q: Who are your best referral sources?

I use an intake form to find out how new clients located me. Other attorneys are a large source of my referrals. I attend Wake County Bar Association luncheons and network quite often. I am also on retainer for the Mexican Consulate and they regularly refer clients to me. I speak at NAFSA (National Association of Foreign Student Advisors) conferences often and also get some referrals through them.

Q: How does your certification benefit your clients?

The main benefit would be my knowledge base in immigration law. Typically each member of a client family has different needs and I am able to find ways to help each one. There are certain types of cases that I used to refer out to more experienced attorneys in the area. Now my knowledge and confidence have increased and I handle those situations myself.

Q: Are there any hot topics in your specialty area right now?

Yes. There are many “hot topics” now; most of them are the results of the September 11th terrorist attacks. Since these terrorists were foreign nationals, our government is treating many innocent foreigners as potential terrorists. The government’s attitude seems to be “guilty until proven innocent.” The Immigration Service is allowed to conduct warrantless arrests, detention with no bond and no legal representation, and to hold people indefinitely in jail on the basis of mere suspicion alone. Amnesty International now lists the United States as a country that denies people basic civil rights.

Q: How does your certification relate to those?

My certification has given me the confidence to talk about these issues. I can speak with passion and know that I have the legal knowledge to back it up.

Q: How do you stay current in your field?

I am a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association and I attend their annual, state, and local meetings. I subscribe to a service that publishes a 26-volume treatise with additional updates regularly. I also check InfoNet every day for changes in the law. I read a lot since there’s so much to keep up with.

Q: Is certification important in your region? How?

Yes, there are only four immigration specialists east of Greensboro. It is especially important in terms of referrals, particularly attorney to attorney.

Q: How does specialization benefit the public? The profession?

Unfortunately there are people who prey on immigrants. There are non-attorneys who charge fees to help people fill out forms and translate or interpret. This is particularly prevalent in the Hispanic culture. When the services are performed by people not well versed in the law, many problems can arise. Certified specialists in Immigration Law definitely know what they’re doing. We can often prevent problems by completing the process correctly the first time.

Q: How do you see the future of specialization?

My father, who is now 82, practiced as a family physician. He was one of the first advocates of board certification for doctors. He even believed in regular retesting to keep knowledge and skills strong. So I am a strong believer in specialization and hope to see the program continue to grow. It just makes sense to focus your practice and challenge yourself.

Q: In what other areas would you like to see certification offered?

Perhaps tax or corporate law.

Q: What would you say to encourage other lawyers to pursue certification?

I would tell people that they would be surprised at how much there is to learn. I found so many new things when I studied. Certification really is beneficial, particularly to other attorneys. It helps each of us refer with confidence.

For more information about the certification programs please visit our website at or contact Denise Mullen at 919.828.4620 x255. Applications are accepted every year during May and June. Exams are held during the first week of November.