I recently met with Michelle Connell, a board certified specialist practicing in Winston-Salem and Raleigh, and talked with her about certification in family law and the recent addition to her credentials of a second certification in appellate practice. Michelle attended the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill for her undergraduate degree—a Bachelor of Arts in English and Psychology—and Wake Forest Law School. Following law school she worked for Womble Carlyle handling a variety of cases. After a short break to start a family, Michelle worked with Legal Aid, and then began a full-time family law practice with Robinson and Lawing. She is now leading Cranfill, Sumner and Hartzog’s venture into family law as a new practice area for the firm. Michelle became a board certified specialist in family law in 2009, and added a certification in appellate practice in 2011.
Q: Why did you pursue certification?
By that time (2009) my practice was entirely comprised of family law and family law appeals. I was chair of the Family Law Section of the Bar Association and felt that, particularly in that role, I needed the certification. For family lawyers, board certification is an expected part of your legal career, so I knew I was headed in that direction. This past year when the appellate practice certification became available, I was excited. Appellate work is really my passion, and to have the chance to become certified in both of my practice areas was such a great opportunity that I didn’t hesitate.
Q: How did you prepare for the examinations?
For both exams I studied a lot. For the family law exam, I see most of those issues every day; however, there are some, like adoption, that I don’t typically handle, so I made sure to focus some of my study time specifically on those statutes. For the appellate practice exam, I completed the continuing legal education (CLE) course entitled “Improving Your Appellate Practice: Gateway to Specialization” and used the content covered to guide my study. The program was excellent and really reinforced my dedication to appellate practice. Beyond that, I focused on the Fourth Circuit Rules since I hadn’t handled one of those cases in years.
Q: Was the certification process valuable to you in any way?
The preparation was invaluable. As I read the statutes and rules, I had many moments of insight when I read something that enabled me to connect information in a new way. It was a very enlightening process. I also enjoyed pulling together the information about previous cases, oral arguments and briefs for my application. I enjoyed reliving some of those cases and seeing how my career had taken shape over time. I did make a point of contacting each of my references before I turned in my application to make sure they felt comfortable recommending me. It was gratifying to hear that they did!
Q: Has certification been helpful to your practice?
Certification has helped my family law practice in quite a few ways. I’ve noticed that other lawyers and judges expect the specialists to be knowledgeable, prepared, and reasonable. That shared expectation helps everything run more smoothly. The appellate practice certification is new, so I’ve only just begun to see its impact. I have already gotten several calls from prospective clients who saw that I am now certified. Clients are quite savvy now and do their research before making contact.
Q: Who are your best referral sources?
Definitely other attorneys. We all use the directory of certified specialists (nclawspecialists.gov/search.asp) to make referrals. It’s the first thing I pull up when I need to refer a client. Certification is a shorthand way of showing your experience; a way to signal to others “this is what I do.” The directory is a great resource and a very useful client development tool.
Q: How does your certification benefit your clients?
The CLE requirements to maintain certification include taking courses specifically in your specialty area. Meeting those requirements ensures that I am up to date on case law and other changes and trends. This has been a real benefit to my clients and helps them know that they can count on my knowledge and legal advice.
Q: Are there any hot topics in family law now?
Family law is relatively calm right now. We do have some proposed legislation concerning family law appeals that should address issues we’ve had with interlocutory appeals in the past. Jonathan McGirt (who is the only other North Carolina lawyer to be board certified in both family law and appellate practice) and I were able to play a large role in leading this effort. We hope to see the changes in 2013.
Q: How do you stay current in your field?
I read all of the appellate opinions and participate in a wealth of communication among family law specialists in North Carolina. The family law bar is an extremely knowledgeable and generous group of lawyers. I can send a message to a colleague asking a question or expressing a concern and receive a quick, thoughtful, and helpful response. It’s nice to be able to count on each other, and that helps keep us all up to date.
Q: Is certification important in your practice area?
Certification is a step past important in family law now. If your goal is to practice family law and you want to handle complex cases, you need to seek board certification. It has become an important expectation of judges, and has really helped raise the level of our practice throughout the state.
Q: How does certification benefit the public?
It provides a great way for prospective clients to know our credentials. If a client is contacting a certified specialist, he or she knows that the lawyer has a great deal of experience handling similar matters. The rates may be higher, but it can take half the time to complete the work and save money for the client in the long run. In family law and criminal law particularly, clients are paying out of pocket for these services, so it is in their best interest to work with a lawyer who can be both expedient and accurate.
Q: How does certification benefit the profession?
The certification program benefits lawyers in a couple of ways. First, it makes the public aware that the State Bar is providing additional oversight in this particular area of the law. That gives the public some comfort in selecting a lawyer, particularly a board certified lawyer. The program also offers lawyers the luxury of limiting our practices. And it’s really nice to have the perceived “ok” from the State Bar as well. Once I became a board certified specialist in family law, I noticed that people stopped asking me questions about their real estate closings and wills. I enjoy the lack of pressure to handle matters about which I am unfamiliar.
Q: How do you see the future of legal specialization?
Similar to the medical profession, it’s the way of the future. It’s great to have a primary physician, but sometimes you need a specialist. That’s true within the legal profession as well. There are many instances where the legal issues are so complex that the client really needs a specialist.
Q: What would you say to encourage other lawyers to pursue certification?
I would definitely encourage other lawyers to specialize and to become board certified. It’s important to take the time to assess your practice and focus on what you really want to do. Make the effort, prepare for the exam, sharpen your knowledge, and prove to yourself that you are a specialist.
For more information on the State Bar’s specialization programs, please visit us on the web at nclawspecialists.gov.