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I recently had an opportunity to talk with Kimberly R. Coward, a board certified specialist in residential real property law, who practices in Cashiers. Kim grew up in Iowa and attended Iowa State University, earning an undergraduate degree in political science. A last-minute decision to consider law school led her to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She received her law degree in 1988 and, shortly after, married a fellow student, William H. Coward (Bill). Bill now serves as resident superior court judge in the Judicial District 30A. Kim joined the firm of Coward, Hicks and Siler, PA, working almost exclusively in real property law in the Cashiers office. The firm has two other office locations, in Franklin and Sylva. Kim became board certified in residential real property law in 2006. Following are some of her comments about the specialization program and the impact it has had on her career.

Q: Why did you pursue certification?

Two of the lawyers with whom I worked closely at the time were board certified, Tom Crawford and Monty Beck. They spoke highly of the program and I thought that becoming certified would provide a good tagline to follow my name, and may also make me a better lawyer as well. I’ve always believed that if you are going to do something, you should work to be the best. I felt like I’d been in boot camp since beginning my work as a lawyer. I worked long hours in a demanding environment, learning all that I could about real property law. By the time I applied to take the certification exam, I felt that I was a specialist and that receiving the certification would validate that.

Q: How did you prepare for the examination?

I had a pretty serious schedule to prepare for the exam. I read through three years of continuing legal education (CLE) publications from the NC Bar Association’s Real Property Section. I read the Hornbook on the Law of Property from cover to cover, including the statute citations. I focused some additional study time on the practice routines that I didn’t see much in my daily work. I studied leases and some of the other real property forms. I studied something each day for about three months. I felt prepared to take the exam when the time came.

Q: Was that process valuable to you in any way?

Yes, the process of studying for the exam confirmed for me what I already knew. Studying allowed me to hone my skills and improve on the things I didn’t know.

Q: Has certification been helpful to your career?

Becoming a board certified specialist has certainly had a positive impact on my career. Many clients see it as a source of comfort, knowing that they are in good hands. For many years Cashiers and the Highlands have been known as a summer vacation playground for the wealthy. The clients that I work with are very sophisticated consumers who have high expectations. My certification helps them to understand my dedication to this practice area as well as my level of expertise. I work with great clients and my goal is always to provide a very high level of service to them.

I have also been blessed with opportunities to become deeply involved in my community. I served on the founding board of the Summit Charter School, launching the first charter school in our area. Currently I serve on the Highlands Cashiers Hospital Board with a diverse and accomplished panel of mostly retired executives from all over the country. I truly enjoy my work and treasure the role that specialty certification has played.

Q: Who are your best referral sources?

I receive many referrals from local real estate brokers and also from former satisfied clients. We have a small number of lawyers here in Cashiers and I think I may be the only board certified specialist in real property law west of Asheville.* I have many professional contacts and a strong determination to prove that I am the best lawyer I can be.

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

All real property lawyers are still working to incorporate directives from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) into our practices. In 2013 the CFPB implemented a process by which third party providers must be “vetted” in order to handle residential loan transactions, which vetting includes satisfactorily meeting “Seven Pillars of a Sound Practice.” These new regulations have made us all take a very close look at our policies and procedures to make any necessary changes. The goal is a better client experience, and in my opinion it’s better to comply early.

Q: Does your certification relate to that in any way?

It gave me the confidence to know that I could deal with new regulations. I do have the skills necessary to review the requirements and incorporate changes into my practice. At this point, I’m the only lawyer in the Cashiers office, working with a staff of nine dedicated employees. It’s up to me to set the tone and provide the leadership to my staff. My recognition as a specialist bolsters that confidence and assists me to lead effectively.

Q: How do you stay current in your field?

I attend CLE programs in real property law through the NC Bar Foundation as well as through other entities offering continuing legal education. I read as often as I can and I stay connected to the other real property specialists. I have excellent law partners as resources and I never feel that I’m on my own. I know when to reach out and seek guidance from those I trust.

Q: Is certification important in your practice area?

Certification is absolutely important in real property law. Unfortunately, there are still lawyers who don’t understand the depth of knowledge required in real estate law and don’t realize that mistakes aren’t easily corrected. You can’t amend a deed. It’s important for consumers to be able to locate a qualified attorney, and the specialization directory is one good resource for them to use.

Q: How does certification benefit the profession?

I think that the more educated a lawyer is, the more confident he/she will be. The practice of law is becoming more and more specialized. It’s too vast to handle all client needs anymore. It’s important for lawyers to focus their practice and become deeply knowledgeable about one area.

Q: How do you see the future of specialization?

I think that lawyers will begin to focus their practices earlier, so that when they graduate from law school they will know that they are going to specialize in a specific area. Law school teaches you to think, how to identify issues. In order to be good at something, you have to make that choice and work toward your goal of providing excellent legal service.

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

I would tell them to just do it! If you’ve dedicated your career to a practice area, and know it well, then you are a specialist. The certification is the recognition of what already exists. Achieving it is an enriching reward!

*Specialization staff checked the records and confirmed that Kim is the only board certified specialist in real property west of Asheville.

For more information on the State Bar’s specialization programs, visit us online at