I recently met with George Oliver, a board certified specialist practicing in New Bern, to talk about his law practice and his board certification in business bankruptcy law. George grew up in North Carolina, attending the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, for both his bachelors in Communications and his law degree. Following law school, he worked in Asheville handling primarily criminal defense and civil litigation. In 2000, George welcomed his first daughter and decided to return home to New Bern to be close to his family. George joined the firm Stubbs and Perdue in 2001 and began to handle bankruptcy cases. He became a board certified specialist in business bankruptcy law in 2006. Following are some of George’s comments about the specialization program and the impact it has had on his career.
Q: Why did you pursue certification?
At that point in my career, I had been practicing bankruptcy law for five years and I saw it as a way to advance in the profession. I knew it was a great program for a young lawyer. In my practice, I handle Chapter 11 Debtor cases, and there are very few of us who do that work. In a niche practice like this, becoming a board certified specialist was a great way to show other lawyers and clients that I am committed to this practice area.
Q: How did you prepare for the examination?
Around that same time I was working to edit the North Carolina Bankruptcy Practice Manual (along with Pam McAfee), so I was immersed in reading and editing writings by some of the state’s best lawyers. The timing was really helpful. I also read the bankruptcy code and focused on the consumer portion, since that’s not something I was exposed to in my practice at that time.
Q: Was the certification process valuable to you in any way?
It was valuable, it was also difficult. I applied during the first year of the joint certification program with the American Board of Certification (ABC), and compiling the case information was time-consuming. I was lucky to have a great paralegal—Christy Weiss—to assist me. Once the application was complete, I could enjoy reviewing the record of my work for the past five years. That provided a real sense of accomplishment.
I also found the exam challenging. Since the ABC exam is a national one, there were some issues reflected that just don’t apply in North Carolina local practice. I answered the questions by providing information about the local customs and that must have been acceptable since I achieved a passing score!
Q: Has the certification been helpful to your practice?
It definitely has. I get most of my referrals from other lawyers, accountants, and previous clients. The certification lets them know that I don’t dabble in bankruptcy. The requirements to be a certified specialist are stringent and give a lawyer credibility from the get-go. Particularly for out-of-state referrals, it tells them my experience level. There is also a section of the bankruptcy code that addresses hourly rates and allows board certified specialists to charge higher fees for their services. The courts recognize the certification and place a value on it.
Q: What have your clients said about your certification?
Typically my clients understand that I am a board certified specialist and see the significance of that accomplishment. The information is easily found on my website and in my office materials.
Q: How does your certification benefit your clients?
My certification provides a real benefit to my clients through my commitment to this practice area. I recently had a groundbreaking case approved in our district that was a direct result of my specialization in business bankruptcy law. Through case research, I found some information on a 1993 case where Judge Leonard ruled against a “Dirt for Debt” Plan of Reorganization. With the current economic and real property situation, I decided to try the idea again. In September 2010, Judge Humrickhouse approved a similar plan in the Bannerman case. This allows clients who file Chapter 11 bankruptcy to essentially establish a fair market value for their property, take the appraisal to the judge, and use the property to satisfy the debt. The end result is that the bank retains enough property to satisfy the debt, and the client is able to move forward with no debt owed to the bank. In the right circumstances, this is really beneficial for many people who have been caught “underwater” with their property loans. It provides a workable solution in this economy, which is fair to everyone involved.
Q: How does certification benefit the practice?
In my work, I like it when the attorney on the other side is a board certified specialist. I want him/her to know the law as well or better than I do. I have had clients ask about opposing counsel and initially react negatively when I tell them that the other attorney is board certified as well. I can reassure my client by telling them that that’s actually a good thing. I know if opposing counsel is board certified, we will have a greater chance at working things out by consent. We are a very collegial group in the eastern district bankruptcy bar, and the judges encourage us to work together. I appreciate knowing that the other side will be fair, smart, and experienced.
Q: How do you stay current in your field?
I participate in a couple of great listserves, through the NC Bar Association Bankruptcy Section and the National Association of Bankruptcy Trustees. I also read American Bankruptcy Institute and Lexology articles, and keep up with E-bar and other legal update emails. I attend numerous continuing legal education (CLE) courses throughout the year, including The Bar Foundation’s Annual Bankruptcy Institute, the Eastern Bankruptcy Institute, and the National Association of Bankruptcy Trustees seminars. Because the bankruptcy bar is so collegial, I really love attending the CLEs. I always discover something new and enjoy the company of the other attorneys as well as the opportunity to learn from and help each other.
Q: Is certification important in your practice area?
Certification is very important in the bankruptcy practice today. It’s a tricky practice area and a bankruptcy lawyer has to do more than just know the basics of the bankruptcy code. To be effective, you really have to delve in and understand the nuances.
Because bankruptcy is a hot area right now, many lawyers want to handle those cases. I think the five-year minimum experience requirement for certification is critical. In this economy, it’s really important to identify lawyers who are experienced in these cases from those who are just dabbling.
Q: How does certification benefit the public?
Certification provides an objective way for potential clients to see which lawyers are active in the profession. I see many company owners and corporate attorneys who have worked with a particular business for years. They are deeply invested in the success or failure of the company and it is sometimes difficult to hand it off to me, trusting that I will know how to best handle the situation. The certification provides some comfort to them that they’re making the right decision.
Q: What would you say to encourage other lawyers to pursue certification?
Becoming board certified is definitely worth the effort. I encourage those who may qualify to seriously consider applying this year.
For more information on the State Bar’s specialization program, please us on the web at http://www.nclawspecialists.gov.