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I recently had an opportunity to talk with Ben and Christine Burnside, board certified specialists in Social Security disability law, practicing in Greensboro. Ben graduated from UNC Wilmington in 2003 and went straight through to UNC Law. Knowing that he wanted to pursue a career as a plaintiff’s attorney, Ben sought out an internship at Deuterman Law Group the summer after his 1L year. When starting out at Deuterman, Ben practiced workers’ compensation and personal injury law, but soon found his home in the Social Security disability department. Ben is now a senior associate at Deuterman Law Group.

Christine is a double Tar Heel, having attended UNC for undergrad before returning two years later to study at Carolina Law. When graduating law school in 2012, Christine planned to return to her hometown of Wilmington to look for work, but came across an ad for a position in Greensboro. Taking a chance, she accepted an interview for a workers’ compensation attorney at Deuterman Law Group. However, within ten minutes of the interview, the firm director sparked an interest in Christine for Social Security disability law, and the passion for this practice that allows one to make a direct and tangible impact on clients has yet to dwindle. Ben and Christine also met in this first interview and have been married since 2014. Their three-year old twins keep them busy but entertained, especially since working from home during the pandemic. Christine was recently promoted to senior associate at Deuterman Law Group.

Q: Why did you pursue board certification?

Ben: Pursuing board certification challenges one to learn more about their practice area than might ordinarily be needed in daily practice, to have a deeper understanding of the regulations and rulings and how they have changed and continue to change over the years. Board certification is also a clear signal to clients that attorneys have this depth of knowledge and experience in their practice area. Dan Deuterman has always encouraged attorneys at Deuterman Law Group to seek board certification, where five of the seven attorneys eligible for board certification have achieved this distinction.

Q: How did you prepare for the examination?

Ben: I found it useful to take several days out of the office immediately before the exam to study. I primarily used the posted study guide as a reference.

Christine: I humbly admit that I only set aside a few hours to study in 2018 due to a busy hearing schedule and then one-year-old twins. I missed a passing grade by roughly 20 points. In 2019 I ensured that I had no meetings or hearings for several days prior to the test and spent the workdays studying the Social Security Regulations, rulings, and posted study guide materials. I encourage anyone who may not have been successful on their first attempt to apply again and not give up.

Q: What do your clients say about your certification?

Christine: For me, it’s more what my clients don’t say now that I am board certified. I used to get comments regularly from older clients about my young age, and I had to reassure them that I was experienced and competent. Since becoming board certified, these comments have lessened dramatically, and if I am questioned, the fact that I am board certified is always enough to end the conversation.

Q: How do you stay current in your field?

Ben: The two best resources in our practice are the National Organization for Social Security Claimants’ Representatives (NOSSCR) and the NCAJ Disability Advocacy Section listserve. The listserve helps us keep our finger on the pulse of local issues, while NOSSCR keeps us informed about national trends, proposed regulations, and how we can advocate for needed change in Congress. Our local NOSSCR representatives, George Piemonte (also 2020-2021 NOSSCR president) and Rick Fleming, do a wonderful job of keeping communication flowing between our local bar and the national organization.

Q: What is most challenging about your work?

Christine: We typically meet our clients when they are going through extremely stressful periods in their life, dealing with difficult medical challenges on top of financial upheaval. Getting denied for disability benefits after losing their health and livelihood can understandably cause great angst and, although we are their advocates in the Social Security disability system, we can often become the face of this problem for our clients.

Ben: It can be challenging to bear the brunt of our clients’ frustrations with their life circumstances and with the often years-long process of applying for Social Security disability benefits. However, we are lucky to work with a dedicated group of paralegals, legal assistants, and staff who always strive to remember that the harsh words come from a place of pain and grief, not malice.

Q: What is most fun about your work?

Christine: Our work allows us to bring direct change to the lives of some of the most vulnerable members of our society, and securing a win for them never stops being thrilling. The knowledge that our efforts can mean the difference between a client living in a shelter or in stable housing has yet to stop being a daily reward. We also read thousands of medical records a week, and the things that some people say to their doctors can be crazy.

Q: What activities/volunteer groups are you involved in?

Ben: I am an avid hiker and I was training to hike Mount Kilimanjaro in July 2020 before the pandemic canceled all travel plans. I participated in the 2018 Make-a-Wish Trailblaze Challenge, hiking over 28 miles to raise money for the charity.

Christine: I support Ben’s efforts, but I am an avid non-hiker. I enjoy voice and theater and made my acting debut at the Winston-Salem Theatre Alliance in 2016 before putting life on the stage on hold due to the arrival of the twins. I take voice lessons at the Cultural Arts Center and plan on moonlighting on Broadway if I can ever find the time.

Q: Has your practice area been impacted substantially by the current pandemic situation?

Christine: There were a worrying few weeks when all Social Security disability hearings were postponed indefinitely, but the Social Security Administration rather quickly pivoted from in-person hearings to telephonic hearings. It has been an adjustment, as we were used to meeting face-to-face with our clients to prepare for the hearings and again for the hearing itself, and we value the in-person interaction between ourselves and the judges at the hearing.

Ben: While it has been a different experience, it hasn’t necessarily been a negative experience, as the administrative law judges are also doing all that they can to continue “business as usual” and make these phone hearings as useful as possible. 

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