I recently met with Jeri Whitfield, a board certified specialist practicing in Greensboro, to talk about her certification in workers’ compensation law as well as her recent appointment as chair of the Board of Legal Specialization. Jeri attended Cornell for her undergraduate degree in Design and Environmental Analysis, and attended George Washington University for her law degree, finishing her last year at Duke to accommodate her husband’s residency program. Following law school she went to work in Greensboro for Smith Moore Smith Schell and Hunter (now Smith Moore Leatherwood), handling general litigation cases. She became a board certified specialist in workers’ compensation law in 2000.
Jeri served on the inaugural specialty committee that drafted and graded the first specialization exam for workers’ compensation law. She served on the committee from 1997–2003. Jeri was to the board in 2006 and was recently appointed chair of the board at the State Bar Council meeting in July 2011. Following are some of Jeri’s comments about the specialization program, the impact it has had on her career, and her thoughts about leading the board.
Q: Why did you pursue certification?
I had served on an earlier committee that focused on exploring the possibility of creating a specialty in civil litigation. We ultimately determined that litigation wasn’t a good fit at that time, but I learned a lot about specialty certification. Based on that experience, I was asked to join the initial committee for workers’ compensation law. We wrote the standards for the specialty and once it was approved, began to draft the initial examination. It was a very interesting and challenging process! We spent a good deal of time drafting questions, writing model answers, and debating about open book options. I felt honored to be a part of the group and very proud of what we created.
Q: Was the certification process valuable to you in any way?
Yes, it was. As we spent time developing exam questions, I learned a tremendous amount about areas of the law in which I did not practice. I found it to be really valuable to learn about the differences in each attorney’s practice. As a group, we realized that no one practice had depth in all areas. Even within workers’ compensation law, our practices had specialized further. We were able to use that information to help us tailor the exam questions and to give us a reasonable expectation for how examinees would handle the variety of questions.
Q: Has certification been helpful to your practice?
It has been helpful to my practice overall. I know that when I need to make a referral, I look for board certified specialists throughout the state and in other states. I am a real believer in credentialing. Beyond the legal field, I look for professionals with the most initials behind their names. I know that this person takes his or her profession seriously and wants to achieve the highest level of knowledge and recognition. I know that my certification shows potential clients and other lawyers that I am highly dedicated to this practice and value the knowledge and skill that I’ve gained.
Q: What have your clients said about your certification?
One of my largest corporate clients interviewed many attorneys before selecting me. It turned out that I was the only board certified attorney being considered. I think that clients appreciate the additional evidence of competence and expertise.
Q: How does your certification benefit your clients?
I have dedicated my career to workers’ compensation law, and the defense side in particular. In North Carolina, we have an excellent plaintiff’s bar—well organized and with great leadership. They have often been able to move the law in a particular direction through an organized effort over the years. As a defense lawyer, I need to be aware of how the law is changing and the plaintiffs’ bars agenda to move the law in a new direction. My years of experience and commitment to a more narrow practice area allow me to have a depth of knowledge about not only the practice, but also the history of case law and why certain changes were made. That aids my ability to analyze the public policy considerations and see the bigger picture. All of this helps me to develop a strategy for the representation of my client’s interest, which benefits my clients.
Q: Is certification important in your practice area?
Board certification is incredibly important in workers’ compensation law for plaintiffs’ work. The directory of board certified specialists and the online listings are tremendously valuable for the public. For the defense side, it hasn’t traditionally been as popular. I do think it’s becoming more popular and that we’ll get there someday. I think about the path that certification has followed in the medical field and think that’s where we’re headed as well.
Q: Does certification benefit the public?
Absolutely. One of the main reasons for the existence of legal specialization is service to the public. The board takes that mission very seriously and it is one of the main areas of focus. Providing objective information to potential clients is a reliable yet easy way for them to locate a qualified attorney. The program also encourages lawyers to deepen their knowledge of their practice area. This promotes competence among the members of the bar as well.
Q: What would you say to encourage other lawyers to pursue certification?
I would encourage lawyers to look beyond the marketing aspect of certification; to take their careers seriously and gain all of the credentials they can. Yes, it is hard to take another exam, but it should be just another part of a strong career plan. Board certification provides an excellent way to be recognized in your area of expertise and an excellent personal achievement goal.
Q: How has your experience been serving on the Board of Legal Specialization?
I have really enjoyed working with the staff and the other lawyers and public members of the board. It’s a great group of dedicated professionals. I have enjoyed being a part of the group, learning about the different practice areas and being involved in some great discussions and plans. There have been opportunities to consider some challenging issues and I’ve been proud of our ability to think deeply about a situation and find a creative solution.
Q: How do envision your leadership of the board?
I am most proud of the work we’ve done over the past years with making our examinations stronger and even more valid and reliable. I want to continue those efforts and also move forward on working with other state programs and national programs to establish some common ways to identify board certified lawyers, including initials. I think that would only enhance the program for both lawyers and potential clients. I take the responsibility of leading the program very seriously and am honored to have the opportunity.
For more information on the State Bar’s specialization programs, please visit us on the web at nclawspecialists.gov.