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I recently had an opportunity to talk with Elizabeth and Graham Gurnee. Elizabeth is a board certified specialist in child welfare law practicing in Durham County and Graham is a board certified specialist in state criminal law practicing in Robeson County. The married couple both became board certified specialists in their respective practice areas in 2022.

Elizabeth attended Campbell University for both her undergraduate and law degrees, graduating in 1992. She began her legal career working in private practice until 1997, when she became a guardian ad litem (GAL) attorney advocate until 2001. In 2005, Elizabeth was hired by the Cumberland County Department of Social Services (DSS) and stayed there (working remotely at times) until she was hired by Durham County in 2019.

Graham attended NC State University and Campbell University. He was in private practice for about 20 years, primarily in criminal defense. In 2011, Graham accepted a position in the District Attorney’s Office in Cumberland County. He practiced as both a public defender and district attorney in New Mexico between 2016 and 2019, and he returned to North Carolina in 2019 to work in the DA’s Office in Robeson County.

Q: Why did you pursue becoming a board certified specialist?

Elizabeth: To learn the nuances of the field of law even though I’d been practicing for many years. I wanted to stay at the top of my game and not become stale.

Graham: I wanted the challenge to see if I could pass. Also, I knew it would make me a better lawyer.

Q: How did you prepare for the examination?

Elizabeth: I read the recommended materials, spoke with mentors, read blogs, and read the recent statutes and administrative codes with which I was less familiar. I also read the Abuse, Neglect, Dependency, and Termination of Parental Rights Proceedings in North Carolina (AND) manual.

Graham: I read Chapter 15A and recent caselaw.

Q: What is most rewarding and/or challenging about your work?

Elizabeth: Most rewarding is establishing safety for children and then celebrating their return to their parents or permanency through adoption or guardianship. The most challenging is the volume of work and the misunderstandings of what we do.

Graham: I like getting justice for victims. I enjoy the challenge of jury trials.

Q: How has certification been helpful to your practice?

Elizabeth: Attaining the certification has given me a depth of knowledge and resources.

Graham: I am often asked legal questions by peers, so it keeps me mentally sharp.

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

Elizabeth: Whether findings as to unfit and acting inconsistently with parental rights are needed at a disposition hearing.

Q: How do you stay current in your field?

Elizabeth: By reading listserv, blogs, and caselaw.

Graham: By getting emails of recent decisions by the court of appeals and Supreme Court.

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

Elizabeth: Although it was a lot of work, and I was afraid of failing, it paid off because I learned more about my area of the law, challenged my assumptions, and came out with better skills to do my job.

Graham: It will make you a better attorney.

Q: What aspect of the daily job of being a lawyer most interests you?

Elizabeth: It’s always a new challenge every day to apply what you know to new situations to help people.

Graham: Meeting new people and preparing their case.

Q: What career accomplishment makes you most proud?

Elizabeth: I am particularly proud of some of my appellate work. It feels great to see some of my cases make a difference statewide. Two examples are: In re M.T., 285 N.C. App. 305, 2022-NCCOA-593, 877 S.E. 2d, 732. This case affirmed the termination of parental rights of a seriously injured child and his sibling. Additionally, In re J.T., 363 N.C. 1, 672 S.E. 2d 17, 2009 N.C. LEXIS 113 (2009). This case established that summons related deficiencies implicate personal jurisdiction rather than subject matter jurisdiction in juvenile cases.

Graham and I actually worked together early in our careers on a NC Supreme Court case, Nourse v. Food Lion. He argued the case, and I worked on the brief. I understand the case is still taught with regard to its negligence holding (active vs. passive), even though we have not practiced in that area for many years.

Graham: Successfully arguing before the NC Supreme Court.

Q: What activities/volunteer groups are you involved in?

Elizabeth: I’m currently serving as president of DSS Attorneys Association.

Graham: Spending time with family and friends.

Q: What is the single best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Elizabeth: Strive to become better and never bitter. (Superior Court Judge Shamieka Rhinehart, Durham County)

Graham: Send flowers to your wife for no reason.

Q: What do you most look forward to in the rest of your lives together?

Elizabeth: Traveling and basically spending time together not working.

Graham: Having grandkids and traveling after retirement.

Q: What piece of art (book, music, movie, etc.) has most influenced the person you are today?

Elizabeth: The book called The Four Agreements which are: Be impeccable with your word, don’t take anything personally, don’t make assumptions, and always do your best.

Graham: I often quote My Cousin Vinny during closing argument, “Does the defense case hold water? No!” 

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