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Denise Mullen, the assistant director of Legal Specialization at the North Carolina State Bar, recently sat down with James W. Narron, a Board Certified Specialist in Estate Planning and Probate Law, to ask him about specialization and the impact it has had on his career. Narron is a partner at the Narron, O’Hale and Whittington in Smithfield. Here are a few of his answers.

Q: Why did you pursue certification?

I received my LLM from New York University about seven years after passing the bar exam. When I returned to North Carolina from New York, the first call I got was a traffic ticket. I knew that board certification was a way for me to create my niche, and an easy way for the public to identify me with that niche. I wanted to help define my practice in the eyes of the people I deal with.

Q: How did you prepare for the examination?

I was in the first certification class in 1987. I completed a Bar Association review course and then spent Friday, Saturday, Sunday reading that material and going through income tax of trusts and estates, Chapters 11, 12, and 13 of the Internal Revenue Code, as well as subchapter J of Chapter 1. I studied hard. You’ve heard the saying that ‘showing up is half the battle’? Well, confidence is 80%.

Q: Was the certification process (exam, references, application) valuable to you in any way?

The exam was. The regimen of studying was important, mainly as a confidence builder, not necessarily as a pedagogical tool. I was out of tax school for four years at that time, but I had an active estate planning practice. The issues on the exam were issues I was seeing daily in my work.

Q: Has certification been helpful to your practice? In what ways?

Yes it has. I think it’s given other lawyers the confidence to refer large cases to me. Also, CPA’s, life insurance underwriters, financial planners, and even brokers have confidence in referring cases my way, even if I don’t know them personally.

I have also been fortunate to develop a relationship with the American Bankers’ Association. I have been on the faculty of the Southeastern Trust School for years now, and I’m on the faculty of the National Trust School as well. My board certification led to those relationships. I am frequently invited to speak at various tax and estate planning institutes sponsored by bar groups in this and other states. Board certification allows me to project my practice beyond the walls of the office. It opens doors that would not otherwise be opened.

Q: What do your clients say about your certification?

I have had a few clients ask about my board certification. By and large, my experience with clients is that they have already checked or reviewed my credentials with whoever has referred them.

Q: How does your certification benefit your clients?

I am constantly aware of the need to keep up with changes in the case law, and to schedule my continuing legal education courses. We’re all so busy that it’s hard to keep up. The requirements to maintain board certification are another incentive to stay current and get quality CLE courses, not just courses to fulfill the hours.

Q: Who are your best referral sources?

Other lawyers and certified public accountants.

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

In estate planning, the biggest challenge currently is valuation planning. A large percentage of the wealth in our area is in real estate. Limited partnerships and LLC’s are exceedingly popular as valuation planning tools. There are several recent cases in which the IRS has ignored the entity wrapper. These cases require a much greater level of care and skill now than even two years ago.

Q: How do you stay current in your field?

The listservs that the North Carolina Bar Association runs are most helpful. The American College of Trust and Estate Counsel has a very active listserv as does the Elder Law section of the Bar Association.

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

In some ways the legal community has lagged behind the medical community in helping the public to understand that quality legal services are available. A new mother asking about a pediatrician generally looks for board certification. A prospective client seeking an attorney doesn’t necessarily know to look for that credential. Throughout the history of the bar, lawyers have been in general practice. Particularly in the last 10-15 years, those days have gone by. I tried dozens of criminal cases to a jury in my early years, and would not even attempt it now. We can’t do it all.

Certification is very important in estate planning. I’ve seen two examples lately where another lawyer organized an LLC and conveyed real estate before the articles of organization were filed with the secretary of state. In one instance, the warehouse building put into the corporation was valued without thought to the tax consequences. In situations like this, where lawyers are doing business work without looking at the tax implications, clients can be hurt. Generally these situations can be fixed after the fact, with time, effort, and legal fees.

We also have to be aware of the public perception of the legal profession. A large part of our job is to foster in the minds of the public the perception that lawyers are good and capable people. That is the whole intent and purpose of the board certification program.

Q: Is certification important in your region? How?

Yes, board certification has done a lot to help the public realize that competent legal services are available in smaller communities, where access may be easier and overhead is smaller.

Q: How does specialization benefit the public? The profession?

Anytime there is an organized effort to improve the educational standing and technical background of the profession, the public is well served.

Q: How do you see the future of specialization?

There is a real need for it in the legal community. As long as there is that need, there will be board certification and lawyers who will see the incentives to participate.

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

I’ve always wondered why there’s not a specialty in taxation.

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

If you’re going to be a lawyer, be the best lawyer you can be. There’s more to it than the hope to get a business benefit from it. The exposure gets people to know you as a person, makes them comfortable referring neighbors to you. Getting board certified and keeping that certification gives the community at large and people who refer business to you a greater comfort level. There is also the benefit of personal satisfaction and that achievement brings you to another level in your profession.

For more information about the certification programs please visit our website at or contact Denise Mullen at 919-828-4620 x255. Applications are accepted every year during May and June. Exams are held during the first week of November.