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I recently had an opportunity to talk with Janet M. Lyles, a board certified specialist in Morehead City. Lyles earned her undergraduate degree as well as her law degree at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. She is a partner with the firm of Davis, Murrelle, Lyles and Huber, PA. She became a board certified specialist in workers’ compensation law in 2004, and in November 2006, she added board certification in Social Security disability law to her resume becoming one of only a handful of lawyers who hold dual certifications. Here are her comments about the specialization program and the impact it’s had on her career.

Q: Why did you pursue certification?

I wanted to go through the certification program to gain more knowledge about my practice areas. I believed that studying for the exams would add to my knowledge base in these areas, and signing up for the exam served as an incentive to accomplish that goal.

Q: How did you prepare for the examinations?

In both cases, I contacted some of the lawyers who were serving on the State Bar specialty committees and asked for some general direction. They were very nice, cordial, and seemed to welcome the call. They were able to give me general advice and study recommendations, which were helpful in guiding my preparation for the exams. I read statutes, annotations, and rulings. For Social Security, I reviewed the study material on the specialization website and then planned and chaired a CLE to focus on exam preparation. Most of the lawyers who spoke at the CLE were also planning to sit for the exam, and I believe that the extra work really helped all of us.

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

The exams were helpful more than anything else. I gained a tremendous amount of additional knowledge. Like any exam, I had moments during the preparation that I thought to myself “huh, I didn’t know that” or finally found an answer to something I had wondered about for a long time, but hadn’t had the opportunity to research.

Q: Has certification been helpful to your practice?

Absolutely, and in both areas. The service that I’m giving to clients has only gotten better. I am the only lawyer in Carteret County and the surrounding counties to be certified in Social Security law. I have seen an increase in the calls I get from within both my own county and the neighboring counties.

Q: What do your clients say about your certification?

I have it listed on my business cards and have my framed certificates hanging on a wall that all of the lawyers in our firm use for display space. Clients have noted the number of frames hanging on the wall for me.

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

Our main hot topic is the incredible back-log at the Social Security offices. The average wait from the time a claimant requests a hearing to when the hearing is held in Raleigh is 18-20 months. After the initial filing for benefits, it takes about two to three months to get the first denial, then another two to three months to be denied at the request for reconsideration, so the total time from application to hearing can be more than two years. Statistics show that approximately 65% of applications are denied at the first level. We’ve seen clients who’ve lost everything while waiting, relying on family or agencies for the most basic level of support. The main problem seems to be the budgetary crisis facing SSA and the short-fall for administrative costs to run the agency.

Q: How do you stay current in your field?

We have an amazing list-serve through the North Carolina Academy of Trial Lawyers’ disability advocacy and workers’ compensation sections. Many of us rely heavily on that for updates and advice. I also take a good amount of continuing legal education courses in both workers’ compensation and Social Security disability.

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

Certification and the publication of the directory of certified specialists, make it easier for the members of the public to identify the best lawyers who can address their needs.

The program raises the quality of the work we do for our clients. It also appears to raise the level of respect for our work. We are all trying to improve our knowledge base and the service that we provide. It’s nice to see some recognition for the work and for our commitment to the practice of law.

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

This is a very good program to pursue. It’s a wonderful way to increase your knowledge and improve the service you provide to clients. Other lawyers do notice and recognize the accomplishment. Board certification improves the practice of law for lawyers and clients alike, and increases the respect for the work that we do. Plus, you get a fantastic lapel pin!