Laurie Burch, Robert Joneth, and Kevin Rodgers
I recently had an opportunity to talk with law partners Laurie Burch, Robert Joneth, and Kevin Rodgers, all board certified specialists practicing in Raleigh. Burch attended Campbell University School of Law, Joneth attended the University of Wisconsin Law School, and Rodgers received his law degree from Wake Forest University School of Law. Each began their legal career in Social Security disability law, Joneth working for the Social Security Administration, Rodgers as a Hyatt lawyer,1 and Burch in private practice. They formed Burch, Joneth and Rodgers in 2000 after working together at a larger firm for nearly a decade. In 2006 when the Board of Legal Specialization launched the new certification in Social Security disability law, they quickly signed up for the exam. Their firm is one of the few in the state in which all of the lawyers are board certified specialists. Following are some of their comments about the specialization program and the impact it has had on their firm.
Q: When you established Burch, Joneth and Rodgers, what was your vision for the firm?
Burch – We knew that the firm would specialize in Social Security disability law. We knew that we worked well together and that we shared the common goal of doing our absolute best for clients with Social Security and disability problems.
Joneth - Our common vision was to reach out to this segment of the population that has traditionally had a great deal of difficulty finding qualified legal assistance.
Rodgers – The reality is that the work has become much more difficult in recent years as procedures are changing and the Social Security Administration has faced budget problems. Our firm’s vision, however, remains the same—to provide our clients with the best representation and counsel possible.
Q: Does certification help the firm and your clients?
Rodgers – Yes, it does. We’ve all had extensive training in Social Security law and have attained a depth of knowledge in that one practice area. We don’t handle a mix of cases—we handle this one type of case and we are committed to doing it well. Clients are better educated now than even ten years ago; they know what to look for in a lawyer.
Joneth - They come in with a list of questions about how long we’ve been handling these types of cases, what our success rate has been, the other types of cases we handle, etc. They are typically happy to find a lawyer with substantial expertise in the practice area.
Q: What do your clients say about the certification?
Burch – Some come in to the office having done a lot of research beforehand and already knowing that we are board certified. They see it as a good thing. They appreciate the extra effort that we’ve made and our commitment to Social Security disability law.
Joneth – Social Security law is unique in that there are also non-lawyer representatives that handle these cases. Some of them are good at what they do, but some of them are misleading about their ability to handle a complicated case in its entirety—through an appeal. Some clients come to us confused and dissatisfied with their former non-lawyer representation. We can assure our clients that we are able to handle their case through an appeal at the highest level—to federal court.
Rodgers – Clients can now file their own forms with the Social Security Administration. There are so many different types of claims to choose from that it can be very confusing. In many cases there are also peripheral issues, like retirement or unemployment benefits or workers’ compensation claims that really require a sophisticated understanding of the law. Our clients look to us to help them figure out what’s best for their particular situation.
Q: How do clients find you? What are your best referral sources?
Burch – Most of our referrals come from former, satisfied clients.
Rodgers – We also get a fair number from workers’ compensation attorneys.
Joneth – Also television advertising, other attorneys, and doctors. We have satellite offices in Rocky Mount, Fayetteville, Smithfield, and Goldsboro. In those smaller towns, the television advertising is really the most effective way of reaching individuals facing these types of problems.
Q: Are there any hot topics in your practice area?
Joneth – One issue that’s really having an impact on the practice of Social Security law is the distancing of the client from the judges and even from the lawyers.
Rodgers – There are a few very large, out-of-state law firms handling cases here in North Carolina. They send forms to clients through the mail and don’t actually meet their clients or appear in person at the hearings. In addition, many of the hearings are now handled through video conferencing rather than in person.
Joneth – This places even greater barriers between the judge and the client. Barriers in terms of education and socioeconomic status already exist. When you add to that, it makes it even more difficult for a client to be heard, understood, and believed.
Burch – That’s why it’s so important to us that we meet our clients before and at the hearing. We view our clients’ credibility as a very important part of the case that we’re handling.
Q: Does certification benefit the legal profession?
Rodgers – Attorneys do a better job, in general, when they focus on learning one area well. When we studied for the specialization exam, we all learned something new that then helped us in our practice.
Joneth – Just like in the medical profession, if you choose a board certified specialist you can safely assume that you will be getting a more sophisticated level of service.
Q: Any tips for other lawyers preparing to take the exam?
Burch – There are many resources available to help with studying, including the NOSSCR (National Organization of Social Security Claimant’s Representatives) monthly newsletters and the North Carolina Advocates for Justice list-serve.
Rodgers – It is a challenging test, so I would recommend taking a review course, talking with other lawyers who took the exam, and to start memorizing numbers—things like limits, dates, and exceptions. Having some of those things memorized will help answer some of the questions quickly and leave additional time for thought on the more complicated questions.
Q: How do you see the future of specialization?
Rodgers – These days you can’t be competitive unless you specialize, particularly in a city like Raleigh where there are so many attorneys. It’s more and more difficult to have a general practice and do good work. And you have to do good work—clients figure out which attorneys are good at handling complex cases.
Joneth – I think that the program will continue to expand. As the law gets more and more complex, you have to have a way of denoting which lawyers are really up to speed in different practice areas.
For more information on the State Bar’s specialization program, please visit us on the web at nclawspecialists.gov.
1. Hyatt was a class action brought in the 1980s on behalf of NC claimants who were denied benefits due to failure of the Social Security Administration (SSA) to consider complaints regarding pain, hypertension, and diabetes. The federal courts required the SSA to readjudicate thousands of cases that were improperly decided.