Martha Milam, a Board Certified Specialist in family law, recently sat down with Denise Mullen, assistant director of specialization, to talk about her decision to pursue certification and the impact it has had on her career. Milam received her law degree from Wake Forest in 1987 and currently practices with the Reinhardt Milam Law Group, PLLC, in Durham. Here are a few of her comments.
Q: Why did you pursue certification?
I believe that when the consuming public looks to hire a lawyer, there really is a difference in those who are substantially involved in a practice area and those who just practice a bit in that area. I didn’t want to do a disservice to my clients by not really dedicating myself to family law. I had good continuing education courses in family law, was active in the bar association’s family law section, and it just made sense given my commitment to the field. I knew it would be a learning experience and I also admit there was a little bit of my ego involved.
Q: How did you prepare for the examination?
I took some time off from work and went through the various statutes including Chapter 50 and 50B. I read all of the case annotations, and for those cases that seemed confusing, I pulled more information. Although I had represented children in juvenile delinquency matters I had not been involved in any abuse and neglect cases so I spent some time familiarizing myself with those issues before sitting for the certification exam.
Q: Was the certification process (exam, references, application) valuable to you in any way?
The exam was. I found it to be a comprehensive exam, not super difficult. It didn’t include trick questions, just a thorough testing of general knowledge. I found reviewing for the exam to be very helpful. I really believe that it’s important to sit down about once a year to read the rules. It’s easy to assume you have stored all of the necessary information, but changes do occur and it’s important to keep yourself informed. Studying for the exam is a great refresher, especially for someone who’s been in practice 5-7 years. There’s no time wasted because you’re doing something that’s going to have a positive effect on your practice, even if you decide not to take the exam.
Q: Has certification been helpful to your practice?
Yes, it’s been helpful on two levels. First, I know I get referrals as a result of my certification. Second, in family law, we have a CLE course just for specialists that is truly excellent. I’ve gained a good amount of knowledge from that course over the years. It’s also nice to have colleagues with the same level of commitment to family law. I feel comfortable calling other specialists when I have questions. I’ve learned so much from the group, especially those with more experience.
Q: What do your clients say about your certification?
They often ask what it means. I explain the process and it appears to give them comfort that I’ve achieved this standard in my field.
Q: How does your certification benefit your clients?
Specialists have increased requirements for continuing legal education courses in their field. Not a year goes by that I don’t have a substantial amount of family law CLE. I love education and find CLE courses a real pleasure. I justify the time and expense because it’s necessary to maintain my certification. I also have a network of fabulous attorneys throughout the state. I can find a lawyer anywhere in the US, when necessary, to help a client or myself.
Q: Are there any hot topics in your specialty area right now?
Right now the state legislature is looking at the issue of so-called embedded taxes and the implication of their existence on both the value and the division of certain martial property in equitable distribution. It’s challenging to look at the tax effects of transferring property incident to divorce, particularly if the spouse who will be awarded the asset/business isn’t planning to sell it. There seems to be a major split of opinion among the family law bar as to whether embedded taxes are too speculative and, therefore, should not be considered by a court in an equitable distribution trial.
There are also excellent changes to promote working with families to minimize conflict. These include engaging a parenting coordinator to assist parents in high conflict custody cases and using the collaborative process as a dispute resolution technique. Parenting coordinators work with high conflict parents to model good communication and resolve disputes between them in child custody cases and in so doing, keep the parents from repeatedly running back to court. Collaborative family law is a dispute resolution process wherein all parties, including attorneys, sign an agreement to keep their issues out of court and to proceed in negotiations with complete candor. Agreements arrived at through the use of the collaborative process are many times more durable than agreements/resolutions arrived at through the use of other methods of dispute resolution. Also, the collaborative process more than any other permits the divorcing parties to have control over their decision making. These new developments can work for a broad spectrum of people and typically lead to more lasting resolutions for all involved.
Q: How do you stay current in your field?
Mainly through taking continuing legal education courses, staying involved with the list-serves, and by reading the cases from the court of appeals and the Supreme Court as they are announced.
Q: Is certification important in your practice area?
So many people experience divorce and/or are affected by divorce that I cannot think of another area of legal practice where expertise is more important. Further, so much of what is decided at trial in family law cases is within the discretion of the trial judge. The result is that the trial level really is the court of last resort for most family law litigants. Additionally, few people can afford to litigate and the best way to avoid litigation is to retain a lawyer who has the expertise to properly analyze a case to see whether litigation is in the client’s best interest. For all of these reasons, engaging a family law specialist is most helpful. Unfortunately, I think that more needs to be done to educate the public as to why it is to their benefit to retain specialists to represent them.
Q: How does specialization benefit the profession?
It helps us to think about quality of service. Participating in the program raises the standard of professionalism. The more you know about family law, the more inclined you are to do a better job.
Q: How do you see the future of specialization?
I think the program is here to stay, and that’s a good thing. Consumers have better access to information and are demanding more. It really serves to help them make informed decisions when seeking a lawyer. I would like to see the State Bar do more to publicize the program with the public. Folks need to know that board certified legal specialists are experts in their field just as board certified surgeons or CPA’s are. I believe that with more publicity and support from the State Bar more practitioners would be interested in becoming certified specialists and that would be superb for our profession and beneficial to the clients we serve.
Q: In what other areas would you like to see certification offered?
Perhaps healthcare law, education law, or social security/disability law.
Q: What would you say to encourage other lawyers to pursue certification?
If you’re feeling a little stale, certification is a good way to breathe some life into your career. We all need challenges—let this be your next challenge. Take your practice up a notch, and at least in family law, you get to be a part of a fine group of specialists.