I recently had an opportunity to talk with Jan Pritchett, a board certified specialist in criminal law from Greensboro. Pritchett earned his undergraduate degree at Winston-Salem State University and his law degree at the Southern University Law Center in Baton Rouge, LA, in 1994. After working in the Guilford County District Attorney's office, he joined Schlosser and Pritchett, representing criminal defendants. He became a board certified specialist in state and federal criminal law in 2006. Here are his comments about the specialization program and the impact it has had on his career.
Q: Why did you pursue certification?
I talked to a few local board certified specialists about what the program entailed and thought they were encouraging and that the program sounded interesting, so I decided to apply. After my work as a prosecutor and a defense attorney, it seemed to be a good next step in my legal career.
Q: How did you prepare for the examination?
I read Chapters 15 and 15A of the General Statutes, looked at previous exam questions in the online exam guide, read all of the recent criminal law cases that I could find, and reviewed all of my recent continuing legal education (CLE) course material.
Q: Was the certification process (exam, references, application) valuable to you in any way?
The process was definitely valuable, particularly studying for the exam. I hadn't had the opportunity to just sit and read so much in a long time. While I was studying, I ran across a few obscure rules that were interesting. I made some inquiries and researched a bit more and found that I was able to use the information, with good results, in a couple of my cases!
Q: Has certification been helpful to your practice?
Yes, it has been helpful to my practice in many ways, but interestingly the CLE requirements have had a big impact. I used to occasionally take courses in other subject areas just to fit something in, but I now take all of my required CLE courses in criminal law. This focus has changed the way I think about CLE and how much I listen, pay attention, and learn. The in-depth knowledge that I've gained is beneficial for both my practice and, more importantly, my clients.
Q: What do your clients say about your certification?
Some clients identify me as a result of my certification, more often they find me through word of mouth and other satisfied clients. I've noticed that clients accused of the more white-collar crimes are more likely to know about the certification.
I also get referrals from other certified specialists who are using the Directory of Legal Specialists that the State Bar publishes each year. I use the directory quite a bit to make referrals in other parts of the state as well.
Q: How does your certification benefit your clients?
Because of the specialist designation, I find myself studying more. I think many lawyers get into the habit of practicing law, but not studying law. With this increased focus on criminal law, I find a stronger desire to keep my knowledge both current and comprehensive.
Q: Are there any hot topics in your specialty area right now?
One hot topic involves changes in sentencing guidelines. Some federal inmates will receive a two-level reduction as a result of the United States Sentencing Commission's recent amendment to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines to lessen the disparity between sentencing on crack and powder cocaine cases.
Q: How do you stay current in your field?
I read the Advance Sheets from the United States Supreme Court, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, the North Carolina Supreme Court, and the North Carolina Court of Appeals. The Advance Sheets contain preliminary information about decisions from those courts or jurisdictions. I typically see a direct relationship to cases that I'm currently handling.
Q: How is certification important in your practice area?
Becoming a board certified specialist really pushes you to focus on your specialty area and helps you to easily identify issues that you'll need assistance in handling. For example, in a few cases, my clients have had immigration issues and I've been very appreciative to get help from board certified specialists in immigration law.
Q: How does specialization benefit the public or the profession?
Having more education and training in your practice area means that your clients can have a higher degree of confidence in your abilities. In general, I think clients are less likely to run into issues of distrust or mishandling of cases when lawyers concentrate on a smaller number of practice areas. Specialization leads to more competent representation, which benefits both the public and the profession.
Q: Is there a recent case you've had where your specialization came in handy?
Yes, because of my certification I focus all of my CLE hours on criminal law and have started to take courses that before I would not have chosen. I completed a course offered by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers that included a couple of new trial techniques that sounded interesting. I was able to use one of them, with success, in a recent criminal trial.
Q: How do you see the future of specialization?
I think more and more lawyers will seek certification as they talk to those who have already become certified specialists and see the benefits of becoming involved in the program.
Q: In what other areas would you like to see certification offered?
I still think that personal injury would be a good fit and meet the needs of many consumers.
Q: What would you say to encourage other lawyers to pursue certification?
Certification is an important goal to pursue. It is the ultimate measure of personal competence in your field.
For more information on the State Bar's specialization program, please visit us on the web at www.nclawspecialists.gov.