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I recently had an opportunity to talk with Christa McGill and Virginia Noble, board certified specialists in Durham. McGill earned her undergraduate degree at Georgetown University and graduated from Duke University Law School. She began her legal career with the Social Security Administration in Baltimore, working on legislation and also gaining valuable litigation experience. Noble earned her undergraduate degree at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and graduated from Duke Law School. Her early legal experience came at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Washington, DC, adjudicating federal claims for discrimination. McGill and Noble returned to Durham to open their firm, McGill and Noble, Attorneys, in 1991. Subsequently, both have pursued additional degrees, McGill earning a PhD in Sociology at Duke, and Noble earning a PhD in History at UNC. They each became board certified specialists in social security disability law in 2006.

Noble and McGill both practice social security disability law, and they also handle veterans disability compensation cases. Here are a few of their comments about the specialization program and the impact it has had on their law firm and their careers.

Q: Why did you pursue certification?

McGill: Certification was an avenue of validation for our experience, skills, and knowledge in this practice area.

Noble: It also communicates to the public an ability to provide better representation in this field of law than a general practitioner could. Neither of us was discouraged by the idea of taking another test!

Q: How did you prepare for the examination?

McGill: Since we took the exam the first year that it was offered, we weren't sure what to expect. The committee had put out some study materials online that were helpful. We also used an assortment of practice guides from other practitioners across the nation.

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

Noble: The exam was helpful mostly in revisiting areas that you don't encounter in your practice every day. It's a way of forcing yourself to take the time to sit and study a particular area of the law in depth. Of course, in the moment, you're pressed and grumbling, but in the long run, it is definitely beneficial.

McGill: It was also a good way to get feedback from judges we had asked to serve as references.

Q: Has certification been helpful to your practice?

Noble: Yes, it has. Clients and potential clients feel more comfortable that we're prepared to handle their cases at all levels, including federal court. Having the board certification is also a good way for other lawyers to know that they can refer cases to you.

McGill: We often use the online directory to make referrals to other specialists. It helps us to refer with confidence.

Q: What do your clients say about your certification?

Noble: Some are aware of it and understand the certification. Our clients have varying degrees of sophistication about the legal process. Some see the words "board certified specialist" and it catches their eye in a yellow pages ad or online. Even if some clients don't understand the designation, it's nice to have a legitimate way of communicating the focus of our practice.

Q: How does your certification benefit your clients?

McGill: Since we are dedicated to this practice area and are committed to keeping current with any legal or administrative changes, we are able to provide our clients with the depth and breadth of knowledge needed to handle their cases in the most competent and efficient way possible.

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

Noble: One area of contention is the Equal Access to Justice Act. It was designed to facilitate access to the federal courts by making the government pay portions of the legal fees in certain circumstances. There are different interpretations of the Act, though, and disagreements about whether those fees should be paid directly to the attorney or to the client.

Q: How does your certification relate to those?

Noble: As board certified specialists, we feel an obligation to stay on top of current issues in this practice area. We have a responsibility to live up to the standards of specialization set out by the Bar.

McGill: We use several different resources to stay current in this field, including national and local continuing legal education courses, excellent practice area list-serves, and a wealth of information that comes through our national association, the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR). There are also quite a few attorneys who blog about their social security cases. These are a great resource for practice tips, legal changes, and links to many other informative websites.

Q: How is certification important in your practice area and in your region?

McGill: Since there are nonlawyer representatives who also assist social security claimants, having this State Bar certification has been a great way for us to distinguish ourselves to the public.

Noble: This is particularly important in our practice area because our clients are among society's most vulnerable groups. They are sick, unemployed, and facing a large, indifferent bureaucracy. In many cases, they're not highly educated, and their resources are quite limited. They find us through the phonebook, or through advice from friends and family. The specialization designation is an easy way for them to identify experienced attorneys dedicated to this practice area.

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

Noble: It's always useful for the public to have more information, especially in the areas that the State Bar offers for certification (see sidebar, above). The program benefits the profession overall by elevating the competence of its members. Each specialist who improves his or her skills and knowledge of the practice area contributes to raising standards in the profession.

McGill: In addition, many sociological studies have shown that lawyers who represent corporate clients tend to have higher levels of recognition and prestige than lawyers working for individual clients. The areas that the State Bar recognizes for specialty certification are all areas that are central to the lives of those affected, many of whom are disadvantaged by not having the resources to find good counsel. The certification program is a fantastic recognition tool for many attorneys who have dedicated their careers to helping people in very unfortunate circumstances, but who may not receive a great deal of financial reward or outside recognition for their work.

Q: How do you see the future of specialization?

McGill: We anticipate more and more specialists in various practice areas. Few lawyers these days are general practitioners. Most specialize in one or two areas. It is very nice to see that the Bar recognizes that fact and has put in place a program to set standards for specialization.

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

Noble: Certification for personal injury law would provide a wonderful service to consumers. And with recent regulatory changes facilitating greater attorney involvement at the administrative level, veterans' law might be a good area to add at some point in the future.

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

McGill: There are no downsides to pursuing certification, and there are quite a few benefits, including the increased opportunities for marketing. The exam preparation is over in a few weeks. The process of studying your practice area only adds to your knowledge, and you end up being a better lawyer.

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