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Eben Rawls, a Board Certified Specialist in federal and state criminal law, recently spoke with Denise Mullen, assistant director of specialization, about the impact specialization has had on his career. After graduating from UNC law school, Mr. Rawls worked at Farmworkers’ Legal Services for two years, representing migrant farmworkers in rural eastern North Carolina. He began his criminal law practice in 1980 with the Mecklenburg County Public Defender’s Office, often representing defendants charged with serious felonies. He is currently the senior partner with Rawls, Dickinson and Scheer, PA, in Charlotte. Here are a few of his comments.

Q: Why did you pursue certification?

The first year that certification was available, I looked at the qualifications and found that I met all of them. Becoming certified seemed a natural step in my practice, because I had become so focused on criminal defense work. I also knew that all of the good defense lawyers would be seeking certification and honestly, I wanted to be a part of that group.

Q: How did you prepare for the examination?

The first step was filling out the application, which was a lot of hard work in itself.1 Compiling the required information about my trial work was time consuming. Once I was approved to sit for the exam, I prepared by reading the statutes, reviewing rules of procedure and evidence, and studying recent case law. I attended a number of good CLE courses that year, some sponsored by the ABA and the National Academy of Criminal Defense Lawyers. I also believe that being experienced enough to qualify for the exam prepares you to some extent. The exam is not designed to trick examinees; it is a realistic exam, based on a daily criminal law practice.

Q: Has certification been helpful to your practice?

I think so. We don’t advertise or solicit business, so I don’t use the credential in seeking clients as much as I could. But the label on my business card—”Certified Specialist in State and Federal Criminal Law —clearly identifies what I do. The fact that I am certified in my practice area shows that I work hard to achieve and maintain a high level of skill and expertise and use it for my clients. One of my partners is also certified in State and Federal Criminal Law, and another lawyer in the firm is preparing to take the exam next year. Following her certification, I think we may be one of the few practices in the state with three certified specialists in criminal law.

Q: What do your clients say about your certification?

I’m not sure they fully understand what it means, but I think it gives them comfort that they’ve arrived at an office where the attorney has experience in their area of need. I also think they’re less inclined to continue to “shop around” when they hear about the board certification.

Q: Who are your best referral sources?

I really only have two sources: other lawyers, and satisfied clients. I know the certification helps me get referrals from other lawyers, particularly lawyers who may not know me well. When I need to make a referral, I always consult my specialist directory first.

Q: How does your certification benefit your clients?

Certified specialists have extra requirements for continuing legal education each year, and I typically take even more than required. My continuously updated knowledge is a direct benefit to my clients.

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

There are quite a few. In North Carolina, the governor’s task force on driving while impaired has generated a lot of interest. The United States Supreme Court is considering the constitutionality of federal sentencing guidelines right now. The impact of that pending decision on federal and state law is a big topic of conversation among criminal lawyers, both defense and prosecution. I attended a seminar in San Francisco just this summer devoted to that topic alone. Also, the Patriot Act, allowing the FBI much more latitude in wire-tapping, has peaked our interest. That’s one topic where the criminal lawyers have some overlap with immigration lawyers and it’s very important for us to understand how the two specialty areas relate. There have been changes to the state criminal discovery statutes that are generating discussion among criminal defense attorneys.

Q: How do you stay current in your field?

I take more than the required amount of CLE. My day-to-day practice also keeps me informed. I’ve found that criminal lawyers have a high propensity to discuss the issues we encounter in our cases. I often have both formal and informal discussions with my colleagues that keep us all up-to-date.

Q: Is certification important in your practice area? How?

It is difficult for someone charged with a crime in 2004 to select a lawyer. I don’t see how a person could go to the yellow pages or respond to a random letter from an unknown lawyer, and make an informed choice. In our area, potential clients get up to 20 letters of solicitation when they’re charged with an offense. Certification helps individuals make an intelligent decision about which lawyer to retain. The choice is less random and based upon a lawyer’s standard of experience, knowledge, and demonstrated competence. Board certification pushes lawyers to become and stay competent.

Q: Does specialization benefit the public?

Yes, absolutely. There is no comparable objective measure of quality representation. Certification gives the public the information it needs, and provides a legitimate way for individuals to make knowledgeable decisions.

Q: Is there a recent case you’ve had where your specialization came in handy?

The knowledge, experience, and CLE education component of being a specialist is what comes in handy. Just yesterday, I concluded a contract murder-for-hire case. A wife had contacted an undercover police officer about killing her husband. The case worked out to a probationary sentence despite extensive phone recordings and a hand-to-hand payment of money. Being board certified helps me to deal with the nuances and subtleties of my cases. It helps in dealing with the inherent complexities of the serious matters that I handle.

Q: How do you see the future of specialization?

I worry that young lawyers, just beginning to practice, don’t have the mentoring possibilities that I had and that my contemporaries had. Mentoring is critical to establishing a successful law practice. Law school is like studying art history for three years and then being handed a paintbrush and told to create masterpieces. Mentoring is important. These days, in order to become board certified, one needs to have had been involved in a mentoring process to get the depth and breadth required to even apply. Specialization will become even more important, and an even greater part of many lawyers’ careers.

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

Personal injury law, civil trial law.

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

As a practical matter, lawyers have to specialize these days. It just isn’t possible to have a general practice anymore, particularly in the more urban areas. The only way to keep up with the law and the day-to-day changes is to limit your practice. Specialization offers a way for clients to make intelligent decisions regarding their legal needs and allows lawyers to readily identify themselves as qualified in their practice areas.

1. Recent revisions to the standards for the criminal law specialty have made the application easier to complete.