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Recently, I had an opportunity to talk with Kate Dreher, a senior assistant district attorney in the 28th Prosecutorial District in Buncombe County and a certified specialist in state criminal law. Kate graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and from the Catholic University School of Law in Washington, DC. Her comments on specializing in criminal law follow.

Q: Why did you pursue certification?

I felt like victims of crime should have lawyers that could demonstrate the high level of skill that the defendants’ lawyers have. I wanted to provide comfort that their state appointed lawyer had achieved that level of competence recognized by the State Bar.

Q: How did you prepare for the examination?

At that point in my career I had an extremely heavy felony schedule that required me to be up to date on the law. I didn’t have current misdemeanor experience, though. So I brushed up on Chapter 20 and some of the laws and procedures regarding drivers’ licenses.

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

It was. When I looked at my application and the list of trials I’d completed, it gave me a sense of accomplishment to see it all in one place. Over time, I have developed a sense of camaraderie with the defense bar, and in this situation, I had to rely on them to serve as references for me. I remember one reference telling me later that he wanted to answer the question about referring clients to the applicant by saying he would not want his clients anywhere near this particular applicant!

Q: Has certification been helpful to your practice?

I think so. Having a sense of pride in maintaining the board’s standard of competence motivates you to take extra care in keeping up to date, particularly on things you don’t see every day. I can say to victims that our office has three board certified specialists and I hope it helps.

Q: What do your constituents say about your certification?

I consider the victims of crime to be my clients. In the cases that I handle, murder and sexual offense cases, the victims are suffering from the trauma of the crime. In many instances, victims express concern about the office, typically stemming from something they saw on television or an experience someone told them about. I tell them about my certification so they can relax a bit and feel that they’re in good hands. It does seem to provide comfort.

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

Crawford v. Washington is still a hot topic in criminal law these days. (Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36 (2004), is a United States Supreme Court decision that reformulated the standard for determining when the admission of hearsay statements in criminal cases was permitted under the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution.)
We all watch for the case-by-case developments. Part of being a criminal law specialist is keeping up, and trying to determine how the courts will apply the law to different fact scenarios.

Q: How do you stay current in your field?

I have the luxury of attending the Bob Farb seminars at the Institute of Government. (Robert L. Farb is a professor of public law and government at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Government. Bob is responsible for conducting educational programs for North Carolina prosecutors and regularly teaches judges, magistrates, police attorneys, law enforcement officers, and others who work in the criminal justice system.)The institute also sends regular updates so that with a quick click on email, I have access to a wide variety of information. In our office we also have weekly staff meetings that are well attended (we serve pizza) at which we go over different areas of the law and focus on something new or on someone’s recent experience.

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

It helps to keep the level of enthusiasm up. It keeps practitioners remembering that they are professionals. And it helps people to enjoy their work, to know that it is not simply a job. I believe that this is a profession and I came here to help. I learned this well and I am comfortable with my work.

Q: How do you see the future of specialization?

I would like to see more prosecutors and more public defenders join the program. I think they should be certified specialists. It’s one way to tell the public, who often worry about their lawyers, that we take this very seriously and we are committed to this work. Public defenders really know this area of the law.

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

It is enriching to be motivated by the image of yourself as a counselor of law, meeting your responsibility to the people who entrust themselves to your care. Board certification reinforces your role as such, not just someone who views this as a 9 to 5 day, but as a counselor of law and a professional.