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I recently had an opportunity to talk with law partners Beth Tillman and Christina Goshaw Hinkle, board certified specialists practicing in Chapel Hill. Tillman attended Vanderbilt for her undergraduate degree and then earned a Masters in English and her JD from UNC - Chapel Hill. Hinkle earned her Bachelor’s degree from Duke and her law degree from UNC - Chapel Hill. While Tillman knew that her focus would be estate planning, Hinkle made that decision a few years into her practice. They worked together as associates in a small Chapel Hill firm before Tillman started her own law practice. They both became board certified specialists in estate planning and probate law in 2008. Hinkle joined Tillman’s firm in 2011 and the name changed to Tillman Hinkle, PLLC. They have one associate, Amy Walker, who hopes to also become board certified when she is eligible. Former North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Willis Whichard will join the firm on September 1 of this year. Following are some of their comments about the specialization program and the impact it has had on their firm.

Q: Why did you pursue certification?

Tillman: I wanted to enhance my knowledge of the practice and knew that I would learn more by signing up to take the exam and then setting aside the time to study. I wanted to prepare well and waited until the timing was right.

Hinkle: I had considered pursuing an LL.M. (Master of Laws) in tax, but was put off by both the cost and the necessary time. It was important to me to find a way to show my clients that I was dedicated to this practice area and that I knew what I was doing. It was also the first time since I became eligible that I felt I could adequately prepare. My children were a bit older and I was able to dedicate the time necessary to study.

Q: How did you prepare for the examination?

Tillman: We studied together and followed the course materials from the NCBA Estate Planning Study CLE course that is offered every couple of years.

Hinkle: It was such a different experience to study after being in practice. The content means so much more because you’ve experienced those situations in your daily work with clients. I really found that you can’t just study for a specialty certification exam; you have to have the experience to draw from as well.

Q: Was the certification process valuable to you in any way?

Hinkle: In an estate planning practice we usually don’t have opposing counsel, so it was an interesting exercise to make sure I had enough peer references and mentors.

Tillman: It provided a moment to take a self-assessment and make sure that I had a close relationship with at least ten colleagues in my field. I also found that studying for the exam provided a real confidence boost.

Q: Has certification been helpful to your firm?

Tillman: It has been quite helpful, especially because we are both certified. We are able to give our clients some confidence and faith in our firm even before they come in to the office for the first time. It shows our clients that we are really dedicated to this practice area and that they can trust our advice, even if it’s not what they had hoped to hear.

Hinkle: It’s hard for potential clients to evaluate legal services and this is one way to provide additional information to them about what we do. We have limited our practice to estate planning and probate law. This is what we do, it’s not something that’s added on to a broader practice. I think having that information is helpful to clients as they make those difficult decisions.

Q: What do others say about the certification?

Hinkle: Some clients know before they come in, particularly the more savvy clients who have researched the firm online. They see the certification as a distinction and sometimes it influences their decision to schedule a consultation.

Tillman: I also recently went to a doctor who didn’t know that lawyers could be board certified specialists. She was excited to learn about the program and asked questions about the practice areas and where she could access the list.

Q: Are there any hot topics in your practice area?

Hinkle: There have been constant changes in the estate planning laws over the past 16 years. This is the first time in a long time that we have permanent laws with which to work. That means that anyone who has an existing estate plan should have it reviewed to see if anything needs to be changed.

Q: How do you stay current in your field?

Hinkle: There are two list-serves we use that are very active, one through the North Carolina Bar Association and the other through the American Bar Association. Both are excellent resources to learn about updates, law changes, and how others are interpreting various situations.

Tillman: There are also many continuing legal education courses offered that provide an in-depth look at various estate planning topics. I have also found that I learn from teaching CLE courses.

Q: Does certification benefit clients?

Tillman: Yes, I feel that if you’ve devoted your life and career to the practice of law, you need to be the best you can be for your clients. Particularly in estate planning law, we work with clients in their frailty years. They need our best service, care, and legal advice.
Becoming board certified encourages lawyers to continue to learn and provide the best service possible.

Hinkle: Because we have additional CLE requirements, we have a built-in incentive to make the time to take longer, in-depth courses that we may not otherwise have taken. Our clients benefit from that deeper knowledge base.

Q: Does certification benefit the legal profession?

Tillman: It absolutely does. I recently taught a CLE on estate planning basics, covering how to work with a client from the initial consult through the signing of the documents. I got good feedback from the attorneys in attendance and hope to offer the CLE again. I value the service that estate planning lawyers offer to clients and recognize that we all benefit from lawyers doing good work. As we elevate the work of lawyers in general, we all feel better about what we do and that can only enhance how the public perceives us.

Hinkle: It’s important for each of us to do what’s best for our clients as well as we can. The law is so broad and complicated that we can’t know everything. When we limit our practice it allows us to delve into complicated issues and really focus. That improves the quality of work we are able to provide.

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

Hinkle: I would encourage lawyers to look at their career path and to think about the future. Dedicate yourself to your practice area and do all that you can to excel in that work.

Tillman: I encourage lawyers to pursue board certification. I love what I do and I love having a good work situation. Board certification is a part of that—it has changed how I felt about my career. We have an aging population and there’s enough work for all. I view it not as a competition, but as camaraderie among lawyers.

For more information on the State Bar’s specialization programs please visit us on the web at