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Eleven specialty committees make up the lifeblood of the lawyer certification program in North Carolina. Much like the State Bar, the program is governed by lawyers who volunteer their time. Each committee is made up of seven lawyers who are board certified and provide oversight of the certification process for their specific practice area. This includes tasks ranging from evaluating applications for certification and recertification to drafting and grading exam questions. The program would not exist without their devotion and hard work.

Robert Ponton, a board certified specialist in family law since 1993, recently completed a six-year term on the family law specialty committee and was selected by the Board of Legal Specialization to receive the 2013 Howard L. Gum Service Award in recognition of his dedication to and leadership of the family law committee as chair for the past year. Robert’s comments on committee service follow, along with comments from some of the other members of the Family Law Specialty Committee. Also serving on the committee are family law specialists: Eugene M. Carr, Hendersonville; Dallas C. Clark, Greenville; Elizabeth G. Hodges, Charlotte; Jill S. Jackson, Raleigh; Jon B. Kurtz, incoming chair, Winston-Salem; Barbara R. Morgenstern, Greensboro; and Charles (Whit) Clanton, Raleigh.

Q: How much time do you spend on committee work each year?

Jon Kurtz: Our committee typically spends one full day revising the exam, one full day grading the exam, and several additional hours reviewing applications for certification and for recertification. This year, as the committee chair, I also spent two days in psychometric training and in meetings with the Board of Legal Specialization and other committee chairs. Each year we also spend several hours dealing with exam regrading issues.

Q: Which committee responsibility takes up the most time or energy?

Jill Jackson: I believe that the most challenging part of committee work is the process of updating the exam. We try to keep track of questions that were problematic from the prior year or that might need updating, and then we write new questions to replace those. The process of writing new questions is the most difficult because we need to be sure that we are testing substantive law and that the questions are clear.

Q: What is your most favorite and/or least favorite committee responsibility?

Dallas Clark: Most favorite—writing the exams, trying to make the questions as close to perfect as possible; least favorite—vetting the applications, as to whether CLE should be approved, or as to whether the peer evaluations are up to muster.

Robert Ponton: Writing the exam questions and working with the other members of the committee is my favorite responsibility. The dedication of the committee members is inspirational and the breadth of knowledge is amazing.

Q: How does your committee function as a group? How do you discuss difficult application or exam scoring issues?

Dallas Clark: To a large extent, some of the process is very collaborative, and I have learned a great deal just from listening to the observations of fellow committee members.

Robert Ponton: This process has been the most gratifying. We grade the questions that we write, meeting shortly after the exam to grade. This year we had over 20 applicants. We worked together and followed up via email on various exam issues. The dedication of the committee and the seriousness with which they approach the task is great.

Q: How do you view the committee’s role in the specialization program as a whole?

Jill Jackson: The committees are absolutely vital to the specialization program. We take our role very seriously and work hard to be sure we prepare a challenging but fair exam.

Whit Clanton: The committees in each specialty are the gatekeepers of the program. Because they are responsible for applying the standards for certification, they are ultimately responsible for what certification means to the public.

Barbara Morgenstern: The committee’s role is vital to the process. If we don’t do our job well in testing applicants for their knowledge of family law or ensuring proper credit is given for an exam question, the specialization accreditation becomes meaningless.

Q: How does your committee evaluate peer review responses?

Jon Kurtz: Peer responses are important. We want to see evidence that an applicant is well respected in their field and that other attorneys consider the applicant as qualified for status as a specialist.

Robert Ponton: We divide up the applications and individual recommendations. This is a difficult process requiring judgment.

Barbara Morgenstern: We read them and if questions arise, follow up with a telephone call to the reference or to other judges or specialists in the applicant’s geographical area of practice for additional information or clarification.

Q: What have you learned about the study of psychometrics (exam statistics)?

Jill Jackson: We (the committee) have given careful thought to whether we are testing what we intend to test with each question. We think about psychometrics [in order to understand] people’s responses to the exam questions, and we try to revise/update the exam each year if it seems as though people are answering our questions differently than what we intended. We made considerable revisions to our exam several years ago—because of what we learned about psychometrics—to really focus the exam on what we want to test for family law specialization.

Q: How does your committee write exam questions?

Jon Kurtz: We attempt to prepare a broad based exam that covers the major issues that a specialist would encounter in a family law practice. We want to make certain that an applicant understands the basics of family law, but that they can also recognize how to apply those foundations to complex legal issues. One common source for questions is the various appellate decisions that are published for several years prior. These can provide fact patterns that are important for practitioners to recognize. We each submit new questions every year and everyone on the committee reviews those together. We want to be sure that the question (and the model answer) is correct, and make sure that the question is fair and tests an important concept. We will frequently go through several drafts before finalizing a question for the exam.

Q: How does your committee select topics for exam questions?

Jill Jackson: We focus more of the questions on the “big” topics of family law and try to cover the range of “big” issues in each topic; but we also look to the list of topics provided to applicants by the Bar and include questions from a range of other “minor” topics. For example, we may not include as many questions about domestic violence (DV) as about equitable distribution (ED), because DV is less prevalent in family law than ED. But we do include some questions about DV because we feel a specialist should be knowledgeable about all possible areas of family law.

Barbara Morgenstern: We try to test areas where the law has recently changed, either statutorily or by case law, and to reach a nice balance of questions on the areas tested.

Q: Has membership on the committee made you a better specialist?

Dallas Clark: It certainly has. It has kept me on my toes.

Jill Jackson: Absolutely. I learn something new or think about something in a different way every time we get together.

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

Jill Jackson: I say go for it—the exam is thorough but fair, and you will be a better lawyer for having done even a modest amount of preparation. Simply rereading the statutes to prepare for the exam will make you a better, more knowledgeable lawyer.

Barbara Morgenstern: The preparation I did for the specialization exam was extremely thorough and, therefore, helpful to me in my practice. It is a great review of the law. Being able to represent to your peers, to the judges, and to the public that you have been certified as a specialist means you have achieved the highest level of expertise and gives the public and judiciary confidence in your ability and knowledge of the area of practice certification.

Whit Clanton: It is both professionally and personally very rewarding to be able to call yourself a board certified specialist in your field. Having the certification is of course beneficial in terms of what it means to potential clients and referring lawyers. Passing the test gave me a great sense of personal accomplishment, and the process of studying for the test undoubtedly made me a better family lawyer.