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Charles E. Nichols Jr., recently became a board certified specialist in real property law (business, commercial, and industrial transactions). He passed the examination in November 2003 and agreed to talk with Denise Mullen, assistant director of specialization, about his decision to seek certification and his experience throughout the application process. Nichols received his law degree from the University of North Carolina in 1982, along with an MBA that same year. He is a shareholder with Manning Fulton and Skinner, PA in Raleigh.

Q: Why did you pursue certification?

Mainly I pursued certification for personal reasons. For 15 - 16 years I was primarily a litigator. About six years ago, I made a transition to transactional-based legal work. Certification helped me legitimize that transition so that in my own mind—and perhaps in my colleagues’ and clients’ view—I was now a transactional lawyer instead of a litigation lawyer. I also really wanted to confirm that I understood the basic, substantive law in real property. I wanted to satisfy myself that I am a real property lawyer.

Q: The real property specialty exam had a new format this year, would you describe it for us?

The exam had a general portion, which consisted of 50 general knowledge, objective questions, along with the preparation of a preliminary title report. The afternoon session focused on business/commercial issues, which involved reviewing and commenting on actual commercial real property documents including a purchase contract, shopping center lease, and loan commitment letter. I thought the exam was a fair but challenging exam. The document parts were a good reflection of what I do in actual practice.

Q: How did you prepare for the examination?

Since the exam was new this year, the State Bar posted a study guide on-line that helped determine what to expect. I spent the most time preparing for the general/objective portion, since there was very little detail in the study guide about what topics would be covered. I reviewed the Bar-Bri materials for the real estate portion of the bar exam and read the Bar Association’s real estate newsletters, focusing on the case summaries and new statutes. I made copies of the interesting cases and reviewed those. I also read selected portions of Hedrick on Real Estate for general knowledge. It sounds like I prepared a lot more than I actually did!

I review titles as part of my practice, but I don’t do the title work myself, so I sat down with a few titles and went through them in some detail. I do a lot of document review in my practice, so I spent the least amount of time preparing for the business/commercial portion, but I did look at some of my forms and checklists before the exam.

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

Yes. Taking the exam forced me to prepare and to learn the information, which has given me more confidence in my knowledge of real estate law. It was also interesting to look back at all of the CLE I’ve taken, and nice to get the peer references, but preparation for the exam was the most valuable part of the process for me.

Q: How do you envision certification being helpful to your practice?

It likely won’t change the mix of clients I have or what I do in my practice. I completed the process more for personal reasons. I don’t think it can hurt, and it should help people think of me more as a real property lawyer and trust my competence in the field.

Q: How do you think your certification will benefit your clients?

I think it will benefit my clients to the extent that I’ve updated my knowledge. I’ll also be more conscious of the CLE courses that I take in the future to make sure I meet the extra requirements for certified specialists.

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

One hot topic these days is the new urbanism high-density mixed-use development: mixed uses of commercial and residential property within the same parcel and the same building. This presents numerous challenges on how to manage these properties. We’re seeing more mixed use development in the Triangle area—for example at North Hills, Meadowmont Village, the downtown Raleigh condos and the Creamery building.

Working on these types of projects is interesting and fun, and usually requires an appreciation of the business issues as well as analysis of the legal issues.

Q: How do you stay current in your field?

Mainly through CLE and by reading Bar Association publications, especially the real estate newsletters. I also read Lawyer’s Weekly and the Triangle Business Journal.

Q: How do you see the future of specialization?

I envision more and more younger lawyers pursuing specialization. Those with 5-6 years of experience can qualify for the program and use board certification as a good way to show their experience level and give others confidence in what they do.

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

Maybe certain litigation areas or intellectual property. Areas of the law that require discrete substantive knowledge are good areas for certification.

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

It is not an easy process, but it is a rewarding process. Certification will confirm or reinforce your practice area. The benefits of preparing for the exam are substantial.

There are many qualified attorneys who haven’t yet pursued certification. For many of us, it’s a personal issue. I would encourage lawyers to get more information about the program and to consider it seriously, as a challenging, but rewarding, step in a legal career.