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Recently, I had an opportunity to talk with Mike Colombo, a board certified specialist in estate planning and probate law, about his experiences with the State Bar’s specialization program. Colombo earned his undergraduate degree in nuclear engineering from NC State University in 1970, worked for a brief period on nuclear submarines in Charleston, SC, then served five years in the US Air Force. Colombo was on active duty in Southeast Asia as an F-4 fighter pilot, flying 58 missions. After returning stateside, Colombo decided to pursue a legal career, earning his law degree from the University of South Carolina in 1979. He became a board certified specialist in estate planning and probate law in 1987. He is currently a partner in the firm of Colombo, Kitchin, Dunn, Ball and Porter, which he formed in 1983 with W. Walt Kitchin Jr.

Q: Why did you pursue certification?

At the time, I had worked in estate planning and tax law for about eight years in a small firm in the small town of Greenville. I saw board certification as an opportunity to earn a recognizable credential. I wanted to demonstrate to others that I knew what I was doing in this field.

Q: How did you prepare for the examination?

Right after I graduated from law school, I began to take a lot of continuing legal education (CLE) courses in both tax and estate planning. I always had more than enough CLE for certification, even before I thought at all about it. I think that my focus on CLE in general, in addition to the advanced survey course that I completed through the North Carolina Bar Association just before the exam, really helped me to be prepared.

[The North Carolina Bar Association is currently planning to hold the estate planning review course, tentatively set for Thursday, September 27, 2007, in Greensboro. Please visit their website at for more information on this CLE program.]

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

It was, primarily in that it forced me to increase the depth and breadth of what I knew about estate planning law. I felt good about my CLE background, but I had to stretch to learn broader areas and dig deeper into familiar issues to prepare for the exam. I have always thought that fear of failure is a strong motivator, and I do think it helped me!

Q: Has certification been helpful to your practice?

Yes, the things that I hoped would come with achieving board certification have happened. I was a young lawyer with a small firm in a small town. My certification made a statement to other lawyers, bank officers, the local community, and even the wider community of lawyers statewide and I began to see a difference in the way they related to me. I had a credential that others could see as an objective validation of my knowledge and experience.

The certification also gave me better opportunities to get to know others, and to get involved in the NCBA and other groups. I was honored to serve as the chair of the NCBA Estate Planning Section, which led more recently to becoming the NCBA President. I’ve had similar opportunities in my local community that have also been very rewarding.

Q: Who are your best referral sources?

I receive a good portion of referrals from satisfied clients, and also quite a few from trust officers, accountants, and other lawyers. I use my annual directory of board certified specialists to make many referrals, and I’m sure other specialists do the same.

Q: How does your certification benefit your clients?

One big benefit to the public is the increased amount of CLE courses that we take. A lawyer who has gone through the process of becoming certified, including being recommended by peers and passing an exam, has demonstrated that he or she is very knowledgeable. The stringent CLE requirements ensure that the lawyer stays at that level.

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

The main issue in estate planning and related tax law these days is a global one, the scheduled repeal of the death tax and the reinstatement of carry over income tax basis in 2010, followed by repeal of the repeal in 2011. More change is likely, but no matter what happens, this is a big deal for lawyers doing this type of work and their clients. We’ve had many proposals in Congress to deal with this, but no decisions as of yet.

Q: How do you stay current in your field?

Mainly through CLE courses and reading. I generally take tax or estate planning courses through the NCBA. I also attend courses by others such as the Southern Federal Tax Institute and American College of Trusts and Estate Counsel.

Q: Is certification important in your practice area? How?

I think it’s particularly important in estate planning. Many lawyers can easily draft a basic will, but complicated situations require much more detailed documents and planning. In my experience, the majority of disputes occur because documents were not well drafted.

Q: Is certification important in your region?

Eastern North Carolina has a relatively low density of lawyers certified in my practice area. I hope to see more from our area getting involved in the program.

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

Board certification provides an opportunity for the public to learn who specializes in a particular practice area. It also gives lawyers, even younger lawyers, the chance to make a statement. You put in a lot of hard work and a lot of time learning a practice area in depth, and this is a good way to let others recognize those efforts.

Q: Is there a recent case you’ve had where your specialization came in handy?

Recently I was able to help a corporate trustee, with multiple trusts for one family with over 60 beneficiaries in some of the trusts, to use the new Uniform Trust Code to modify, merge, and terminate the various trusts, providing substantial benefits to the family. It’s rewarding to be able to use specialized knowledge to provide that kind of help.

Q: How do you see the future of specialization?

I hope that the program continues to prosper. I wouldn’t mind seeing a specialty in tax law. I think it’s important for clients to know that a potential lawyer has taken these steps and accomplished this goal.

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

This is a very positive program. The exam is doable, and certification is a great opportunity to increase the level of your practice, while providing valuable information to the public.