I recently had an opportunity to talk with Jill Raspet, a board-certified specialist in Wilmington. Jill graduated from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington with a degree in accounting and is a certified public accountant (CPA). She received her JD from Wake Forest Law School in 2002 and practiced in Greensboro until 2007, when she joined Smith Moore Leatherwood and relocated to Wilmington. Jill achieved her board certification in estate planning and probate law in 2008. Following are some of her comments about the specialization program and the early impact it has had on her career as well as her expectations for the future.
Q: Why did you pursue certification?
My view of lawyers was shaped by what I saw on television, so I thought they were always in the courtroom. When I figured out that you could be a lawyer without litigation, I knew that was something I wanted to do. I knew I enjoyed finances and tax, and the summer before law school I worked with an estate planning attorney, Kent Schenkel, and fell in love with the practice. I'm glad that it worked out that way, because being both a lawyer and a CPA has been a really good fit for me. Adding the board certification in estate planning and probate law benefited my career path.
Q: Why did you pursue certification?
When I began working as a lawyer in Greensboro, it was an expectation to pursue certification at the firm where I was. All of the attorneys practicing there in my area were board-certified specialists and I saw what it did for their practices. I knew it was a goal that I was working towards, following the path of my mentors.
Q: How did you prepare for the examination?
I completed the North Carolina Bar Association Estate Planning and Probate Survey Course and found that to be very helpful. I also reviewed prior continuing legal education (CLE) course materials. I took notes to condense chapters into outlines and then studied those on the weekends.
Q: Was the certification process (exam, references, application) valuable to you in any way?
Yes, in particular, the review for the exam. The exam was comprehensive and covered things I do every day as well as a few things that I rarely see in my practice. It was good to commit some of those items to memory rather than relying on looking them up as needed. The exam was challenging, but I took it on the computer and that worked well. I was able to cut, paste, and edit my answers, which made it much more efficient from a time standpoint than I imagine handwriting the exam would have been.
I also contacted the lawyers that I listed for peer review while I was completing the application process. I was able to make sure they could provide a reference and ask them about the certification program and for any study tips for the exam. When the whole process was complete and I found out that I had passed the exam, I wrote them each a thank you note, letting them know the results. That provided a great opportunity to deepen those professional relationships.
Q: How do you envision certification being helpful to your practice?
It already has been! Given my age, it has been very helpful in assuring clients and potential clients that I do know this practice area. I can say that the North Carolina State Bar says that I am a specialist in this field of the law. I know that gives my clients a lot of confidence in my work.
When I passed the specialization exam, my firm also sent out announcements to all of our referral sources and clients. My practice has really taken off since.
Q: Who are your best referral sources?
Other board-certified specialists, including Frank Martin, a specialist in real property law who practices with me, have referred quite a few clients to me for assistance. I also receive a lot of referrals from other local attorneys, bankers, and financial advisors as well as satisfied clients.
Q: How do you think your certification will benefit your clients?
In addition to the clients' increased confidence in my work, I believe that the higher number of CLE hours required provides a real benefit to clients. By completing more CLE courses each year, I learn about a variety of options that could work for different clients' needs. I am able to use that advanced knowledge to provide better counsel to my clients.
Q: Are there any hot topics in your specialty area right now?
We are all waiting to see what happens with the estate tax laws at the end of the year. The current law states that the estate tax is repealed in 2010 but returns in 2011 as it was in 2001. We anticipate a change, hopefully by year end. We are trying to be very flexible in drafting our documents so that we can accommodate any changes that are made.
Q: Is certification important in your practice area?
I definitely think so. In estate planning and administration, there are so many particular details that, if you're not heavily concentrated in the practice area, it would be very difficult to advise a client appropriately. I also use the directory of legal specialists quite a bit myself to make referrals. If I have a conflict with a potential client, or a client who needs assistance outside of my practice area, I always use the directory to find a referral.
Q: Is certification important in your region?
Yes, there are not a lot of board-certified specialists in the Wilmington area, particularly in estate planning and probate law, and I think I am the only female. There are so many retirees here, including a lot of widows. In some cases it's easier for them to feel comfortable with a female attorney as they transition to full responsibility for their finances.
Q: How does specialization benefit the profession?
The certification program helps clients to make informed choices about selecting a lawyer, and it helps lawyers to market their practices and to stay current in their fields. I would imagine that the increased CLE requirements and focus on specific practice areas would lead to a much lower rate of malpractice problems for board-certified specialists.
Q: What would you say to encourage other lawyers to pursue certification?
Becoming a board-certified specialist provides so many benefits to your practice, it allows you to market yourself and gain a much deeper knowledge of your practice area. The process is not as daunting of a task as you may think, and the benefits to taking the classes and reviewing the material are well worth it.
For more information on the State Bar's specialization program, please visit us on the web at www.nclawspecialists.gov.