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I recently had an opportunity to talk with North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Edmunds, who is also a board certified specialist in state, federal, and appellate criminal law. Justice Edmunds was born in Danville, Virginia, and moved to Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1957. He received his bachelor of arts in English from Vassar College and subsequently his law degree from UNC-Chapel Hill. Following graduation, he served in the navy for a few years before becoming an assistant district attorney in Guilford County. In 1982 he joined the United States Attorney’s Office in the Middle District, first as an assistant US Attorney, later as a presidentially appointed US Attorney.

Edmunds became a board certified specialist in state and federal criminal law in 1993 and added the board certification in criminal appellate practice in 1994. He was a partner with the Greensboro firm of Stern & Klepfer, LLP, from 1993–1998, when he was elected to the North Carolina Court of Appeals. He was elected to the North Carolina Supreme Court in 2000. Following are some of Justice Edmunds’ comments about the specialization program and the impact it has had on his career.

Q: Why did you pursue board certification?

I had just left the US Attorney’s Office and was starting private practice in Greensboro. I was looking for a way to use my experience and to market my skills. I saw an advertisement about the certification program in Lawyers Weekly and contacted the State Bar to learn more. Although I had not been familiar with the program, I discovered that it was a great fit for my needs at that time.

Q: How did you prepare for the examination?

In studying for the criminal law exam, I felt I knew the federal portion well, since that’s what I had focused my work on for the previous few years. However, I needed to spend a good amount of study time on state law, particularly making sure I understood recent changes made while I was a federal prosecutor.

When I took the criminal appellate law exam the following year, I found it more difficult to prepare for because I was not terribly familiar with state appeals. In the state system, line prosecutors do not handle appeals, while in the federal system prosecutors both try cases and handle the appeals when there is a conviction. So in studying for the exam I focused heavily on the appellate rules and understanding the differences between state appeals and federal appeals. I was also handling both state and federal appeals at that time, and that practical experience was helpful.

Q: Was the certification process valuable to you in any way?

I found the studying quite valuable. Signing up for the exam was a strong incentive to make sure I was up to speed in areas that I wasn't seeing on a daily basis. I wanted to do well on the exam and I wanted to make sure I was qualified.

After I passed the exam, I found the certification to be very helpful because I was starting from scratch to build a reputation in private practice. The firm that I joined was able to use my certification in its marketing. At that time, I was handling many court-appointed criminal defense cases, and while the clients may not have understood all the implications of certification, I do believe it gave them some assurance. It gave them confidence that their lawyer knew this area of the law pretty well.

Q: Is your board certification recognized in your current position on the North Carolina Supreme Court?

The justices typically select which opinions to write. When I take on a criminal case, I am comfortable that I know what issues to look for and that my background and experience will be helpful to the Court as a whole. Each of the justices on the Supreme Court has a different legal background. We have been able to rely on each other’s knowledge from our various practice areas as we discuss and debate the cases before us.

Q: Is certification important to the legal community?

Board certification is an important option for lawyers who are experienced and well-trained in a particular area. It is also quite helpful to the public in identifying those attorneys with areas of expertise. Members of the public don’t have many objective ways to decide which lawyer to retain. Certification shows demonstrated skill, based on experience, peer review, and passing a rigorous exam. To paraphrase Dizzy Dean, lawyers who have chosen to pursue certification aren’t bragging, they have achieved something provable.

Q: How do you see the future of board certification for lawyers?

I think there’s a bright future ahead. Certification both provides a way to identify a cadre of capable lawyers and also compels those in the cadre to keep their skills intact and current.

Q: Tell us about your effort to add a certification in appellate law over the last couple of years.

I’ve really enjoyed handling appeals throughout my legal career. I find I thrive on the detail, the research, and the writing. As a Supreme Court justice I have had the opportunity to see firsthand how important it is for an appeal to be handled competently. When appellate briefs are carefully thought out and presented well by the lawyers, the Court can focus on the important issues. When we are deciding whether or not to exercise our discretion to take a case, one factor we consider is how the case is presented and how the issues are framed in the petition for review. If the issues are not presented in a way that allows us to grapple with them effectively, we may wait for another case to present the issues more accessibly.

My hope for the board certification in appellate law is that it will help lawyers develop the skills necessary to bring well-crafted cases to the appellate courts. As lawyers work toward the goal of certification, handling different types of appeals, taking continuing legal education (CLE) courses that focus on appellate law, and working with peers in this field, they will gain a deeper understanding of the appellate process that will benefit their clients and the court system. I hope that lawyers who enjoy appeals will value this opportunity and apply to become board certified.

I’ve been pleased to work with notable lawyers and judges (see above sidebar) as well as the members of the State Bar Board of Legal Specialization to offer this new certification. We plan to accept applications beginning in May 2011 and to offer the first examination in November 2011.

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

When you are among a group of lawyers, say, at a CLE or bar meeting, everyone there is qualified in that they have passed the bar. Certification can help you stand out. Becoming a board certified specialist can enhance your career in ways you never expected. For instance, I never expected to be where I am today, but I think being certified helped establish me as a credible candidate for judicial office. In my races, I was the candidate who had gone through the extra steps to be certified. This was a valid way of distinguishing myself. I encourage others to consider becoming board certified, as well.

For more information on the State Bar's specialization program, please visit us on the web at