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I recently had an opportunity to talk with Mark E. Sullivan, a board certified specialist in Raleigh. Sullivan earned his undergraduate degree at Kenyon College in Ohio and his law degree at the University of Virginia. He is a principal of the Law Offices of Mark E. Sullivan, PA.. He became a board certified specialist in family law in 1989. Following are some of his comments about the specialization program and the impact it’s had on his career.

Q: Why did you pursue certification?

In 1987, when the specialization program began, I was vice chair of the Family Law Section with Howard Gum of Asheville as chair. We had extensive discussions about whether or not family law was a good fit for the program and the impact it would have on lawyers throughout the state. I felt strongly that offering a family law specialty would be beneficial to both lawyers and clients. I sat for the first exam in 1989 and have supported the program ever since.

Q: How did you prepare for the examinations?

I sat and read the family law chapters in the General Statutes. I had been practicing, at the time, for 18 years, but I was amazed at how much I learned from that process.

Q: What do your clients say about your certification?

I don’t typically discuss the certification with clients, unless they bring it up. Some have sought me out because they’ve learned about the certification, typically through some type of web search.

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

The impact of taxes on equitable distribution is under a lot of scrutiny. We have a new statute which allows, but doesn’t require, the court to factor in potential taxes. Also, we are an increasingly mobile society with spouses/parents moving because of health, jobs, new spouses, and other family obligations. This leads to even greater challenges in the area of custody relocation decisions. Finally, the issues of custody and visitation for military personnel are at the forefront of family law discussions while so many members of the military are stationed out of the country.

Q: How do you stay current in your field?

I remember noticing a few years ago when I looked at my annual continuing legal education (CLE) form that I had 80 plus hours in one year. I thought that was a lot and wondered about the time spent in classes as that’s two weeks worth of otherwise billable hours. Just last year I took even more courses, topping 100 hours of CLE annually. This is in addition to reading the ABA Journal, Litigation, and legal newspapers including NC Lawyers Weekly and Lawyers USA, as well as quite a few state, ABA, and military community listserves. The value of devoting so much time and energy to staying current in this field is immeasurable. I see the results and I know my clients benefit from the knowledge I gain.

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

The certification program serves as a consumer protection device. It provides a way for clients to say that they’re more likely to get value and competence by knowing their lawyer has achieved the required level of experience, training, practice, and CLE. The client can look at his/her situation and think that if anyone should know how to handle this, his/her specialized lawyer should.

Participating in the program raises the benchmark for all family lawyers. Becoming a certified specialist can play a key role in a successful practice, but in family law, the most important things to the clients are still that you listen to their story, actively manage their case, and are able to provide to them a dispassionate analysis of the pros and cons in their situation. You owe the client not the “best” or “most optimistic” case review, but an honest review and a solid understanding of what to expect and how to prepare.

Q: Who are your best referral sources?

The majority of my clients come from other attorney referrals, word of mouth from satisfied clients, and internet searches. I have quite a few published articles, particularly on military issues, which prospective clients find and read online. Because of that, I get calls from lawyers and prospective clients in other states on a regular basis.

Q: How has becoming a specialist shaped your practice?

My practice has become very focused on some of the more complicated family law issues, including how members of the military are impacted by divorce, custody, and equitable distribution. I’ve been affiliated with the NC State Bar Legal Assistance for Military Personnel (LAMP) Program for many years now and have written many articles for both prospective clients and other lawyers. In 2006, I wrote The Military Divorce Handbook for the American Bar Association and recently authored a new statute, G.S. 50-13.7A, dealing with protection for military personnel who are serving out of the country. I also teach regularly at the naval JAG school in Charlottesville and the Army Justice School in Rhode Island. Being a board certified specialist has contributed to success of my practice and enabled me to focus on helping other professionals learn and understand the laws that affect those dealing with divorce and custody issues, both inside and outside of the military.

For more information on programs and resources for members of the military, please visit the Legal Assistance for Military Personnel (LAMP) website at For more information about the specialization program, contact Denise Mullen at 919-828-4620 x255 or, or visit us on the web at