One look at James Angell’s history with the NC State Bar specialization program and it is clear that he is dedicated.
Jim has been an integral part of the specialization program since he became certified in 1993. He began by serving on the Bankruptcy Law Specialty Committee in 2002, became chair of the committee in 2004, and remained as chair until his term expired in 2008.
Jim was appointed to the Board of Legal Specialization in 2008 and served as chair of the board from July 2014 to July 2015, his last year on the board.
Jim is currently on the Specialization Long Range Planning Committee.
I recently had the pleasure of talking with Jim about his experiences and views on the specialization program.
Q: What originally motivated you to become a specialist?
Practicing law is a competitive business. There are hundreds of lawyers who seek the same type of work across the state. I have always believed that it is important to find something that distinguishes you from other lawyers in your field—to raise your head up above the crowd. As a young lawyer trying to earn a reputation (which I was then), specialization was a means of demonstrating my proficiency as a business bankruptcy lawyer to my colleagues and to potential clients who needed to confidently choose a lawyer equipped to represent them.
Q: You recently finished your term as chair and as a member of the Board of Legal Specialization. What will you miss most? What will you miss the least?
What I will miss the most is the camaraderie of the volunteers and State Bar staff that make the program function. Although the board members sometimes disagree, the dedication that each member has to the goals of the program frequently results in consensus in decision making. The staff—comprised of Alice Mine, Denise Mullen, and Lanice Heidbrink—is a dedicated and well-oiled machine that is able to routinely process a large number of applications, and oversee writing, grading, and appeals of examinations, while constantly implementing improvements to the program. Through the efforts of its volunteers, it has been gratifying to see the program develop in its scope and its sophistication.
I will miss the least the task of fudging parliamentary procedure at board meetings, of which I admittedly had a weak grasp.
Q: What was your focus or initiative during your term as chair of the board?
Bringing the program into the future. Through Alice Mine’s leadership, we have been able to implement better procedures and avoid mistakes based on the experiences of larger programs in our sister states, such as Texas and California. As we approach 1,000 specialists, it is more and more important to ensure fair testing, peer review, and determinations of substantial compliance in evaluating applicants.
Q: What piece of advice would you give lawyers who are interested in pursuing certification?
Go for it. You will learn a lot about your chosen field of practice by preparing to sit for the exam. You will have the honor of holding yourself out as a specialist in your field. You will be recognized for your achievement in having attained the specialist designation. You will be part of a great program with the opportunity to engage with other specialists.
Q: What would you tell someone who is intimidated by the thought of sitting for a certification exam?
Get over it. The exam tests proficiency and, except for publishing the list of newly admitted specialists (who passed the exam), the results are confidential. You will learn a lot by studying for the exam, and you will see that the exam tests things that you already know due to your substantial involvement in the field. Like anything else in life, “no guts, no glory.”
Q: How would you explain the benefits of specialization to someone who says, “I’ve been practicing for years in my area of practice, why do I need to get certified now? Certification is for new lawyers.”?
The specialization program is at a tipping point. It has been in effect over 25 years. At this point, most experienced lawyers who devote a substantial amount of their time to a field of practice are specialists—this was not the case 20 years ago. Specialization in some areas of practice is a considered a normal step in developing the practice, and it shows dedication and competency. I have seen experienced lawyers apply and obtain specialization because they are aware that this is something they are missing on their resumes. The potential client may weigh having a less experienced certified specialist against a more experienced uncertified practitioner—you don’t want them to have to make that choice.
Q: Are there any hot topics in bankruptcy law right now?
The Supreme Court issued a series of decisions that question whether bankruptcy judges, who are Article I judges, can enter final orders in determining state law issues. Both the bankruptcy judges and the appellate courts have been struggling to address the impact of these decisions. Also, there are new official forms that are being implemented in the next few months and others under discussion that will dramatically change the practice. Practitioners will need to learn to use them.
As long as I have been practicing, I run across bankruptcy statutes or rules that take on a new light under different circumstances. Although much of bankruptcy practice is applying existing standards to facts, there are vast areas of bankruptcy law that rely on tradition that may not even be the subject of a reported decision. Application of the bankruptcy law as written, or as it applies to different federal and state laws, is always a fertile ground for argument.
Q: How does certification benefit the public?
Most people only encounter lawyers when they draw up a will, get a traffic ticket, have a traffic accident, get a divorce, or administer an estate. Even in those instances, they do not know which lawyers are competent to handle their particular legal needs. Specialization provides a series of standards administered by the State Bar to show that the specialist has been substantially involved in the area of practice for a number of years, has taken a focused curriculum of continuing legal education over time, has the endorsement of his or her peers, and has passed an examination designed to test his or her proficiency. A law license is one “shingle,” but the specialization certificate is a second “shingle” for the lawyer to hang out to show that the lawyer has met these standards.
Q: How has specialization changed in your 22 years as a specialist?
It has become more accepted and it has grown. The testing process is more sophisticated thanks to the assistance of Dr. Terry Ackerman, a psychometrician (a five-syllable word that means a guy who knows a lot about tests) from UNC-Greensboro, who has generously donated his time to assist the specialty committees with writing and grading examinations that will fairly test applicants. The State Bar has implemented procedures and standards for the board to follow so that its implementation of the program is consistent despite changes on the board or in the committees.
Q: Finish this sentence—”I’m excited about the future of legal specialization because...”
...specialization is the future of the profession. As lawyers are under siege from cookie cutter quasi-legal service firms that provide form documents in lieu of documents designed for a client’s specific needs, the profession will need to designate amongst itself lawyers who can handle sophisticated cases in every legal field. Young lawyers who concentrate their practices in a particular area recognize this and view specialization as a part of maturing as a lawyer and developing a career. The board is now asked to approve new specialties on a constant basis, so lawyers see the benefit of it. The learning curve for the public regarding specialization is a short one, in light of the use of specialties in the medical profession. Specialization is firmly rooted in North Carolina and is just beginning to take off.
Q: Name the top three benefits you’ve experienced as a result of becoming a specialist.
1. Assurance to prospective clients that I am proficient in my field;
2. Respect among my peers and judges because certification demonstrates that I am knowledgeable about my area of practice;
3. Particularly when I was younger, self-confidence that I could stand my ground against more experienced practitioners.
Lanice Heidbrink is executive assistant to Alice Mine and administrative assistant to the specialization board.
For more information on the State Bar’s specialization programs, visit us online at nclawspecialists.gov.