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Charlie D. Brown, a Board Certified Specialist in estate planning and probate law, recently sat down with Denise Mullen, assistant director of specialization, to talk about his decision to pursue specialization and his recent experience with the application and examination process. Brown received both his MBA and JD degrees from Wake Forest in 1997. He is currently practicing at Wishart, Norris, Henninger and Pittman, with offices in Burlington, Charlotte and Mebane. Here are a few of his comments.

Q: Why did you pursue certification?

I’ve always had the goal in mind. After law school, I worked as a trust officer for Wachovia, so this past year was the first time I was eligible to sit for the certification exam. I wanted to provide a distinction for my clients and my firm is very supportive. About 20% of the lawyers in our firm hold certifications in their practice areas, most of those who practice in an area where specialization is available.

Q: How did you prepare for the examination?

I rented the videotapes of the NC Bar Association’s Estate Planning and Probate Law Survey Course. I watched the entire 16 hours. In addition, my oldest daughter, Bailey, was rehearsing to be in the “Wizard of Oz,” so while I waited for her to finish rehearsal, I read everything I could think of. I knew the exam was difficult, so I took it very seriously and studied for months.

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

Yes it was. In law, you mostly learn as things come up in your practice and you rarely have a chance to go back and review. So this was an opportunity to sit down and really study the material. I took the time to learn about things that hadn’t come up yet in my practice.

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

The designation itself is kind of a minor goal. Keeping up the pace that’s required for certification is the best benefit to my clients. Studying, reading and continuing legal education courses will be the most helpful. I’ve always been dedicated to CLE, traveling all across the country to maintain my requirements. The certification is an addition; one that increases a client’s trust in me and identifies me as someone who does estate planning. But the commitment to maintaining the standards required for certification is a long-term benefit for my clients and me.

Q: What have your clients, staff and colleagues said about your certification?

Everyone has been so happy for me. They see it as a good progression; that I’ve stepped up a level as a professional.

Q: Do you think your certification will benefit your clients?

Very much so- in the level of trust they have that I’ve put in the time to understand what they need. Again, the process, rather than the designation itself, should provide the strongest benefit. I’ve always taken more CLE than necessary. The field is just too broad not to. On a daily basis, I deal with such diverse issues, ranging from special needs trusts to out-of-state guardianships, to discussing problems with the IRS. My clients need to know that my level of commitment to this field is that high.

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

Right now there is a legislative committee re-writing the state trust laws to standardize the code in North Carolina. They anticipate taking it to the legislature for approval this session. It won’t change daily practice much, except for having to memorize the new code and be able to counsel clients accordingly. It will, however, really change how trusts are administered.

Q: How do you stay current in your field?

Mainly through taking continuing legal education courses. I teach them as well, both CLE and courses for certified public accountants. That is really the best way to ensure that your knowledge base is strong- to prepare to teach a course. I also read constantly, everything that comes into my office.

Q: Is certification important in your practice area?

It is. If you’re committed to this practice area, and already handling these issues, you don’t need the certification per se. But if you achieve it, being a certified specialist does confirm for everyone that you’re serious.

Q: How does specialization benefit the public?

It shows who is serious about the practice area. Clients know that the lawyer is keeping up with current information. When I hand a client a 30-40 page document, they need to be able to trust that it is, in fact, what I promised them it would be a month ago.

Q: How does specialization benefit the profession?

It raises the level of practice. By not doing 50 different types of things and specializing in one area, you raise your knowledge base in that area. You interview clients and know what to do to help them. You don’t have to re-learn every time something interesting comes in the door.

Q: How do you see the future of specialization?

I see the program growing. Certifications are now offered in so many different fields like financial planning and medicine. I think law has been slow to offer these options.

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

I would like to see a specialization in tax law, perhaps even with subspecialties.

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

Certification raises the level of practice. The law is just too broad for a person to handle even 3 or 4 different types of cases these days. Lawyers are specializing more and more and certification is a good way to communicate that specialty. Certification makes you work harder and also makes the competition work harder.