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“Neill’s soft-spoken manner belies the depth at which he thinks about workers’ compensation issues. Don’t let his quietness pull you off guard. Neill is a top-notch lawyer, an exceptional mediator, and a great person.”
—Vernon R. Sumwalt, The Sumwalt Law Group, Board Certified Specialist in Workers’ Compensation Law

Neill S. Fuleihan has a calm demeanor and warm personality that instantly puts people at ease. Even with all he has accomplished in his 34 years of practice, he remains humble, kind, and thoughtful. It is easy to understand why he is so beloved and respected by his colleagues. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with him and I quickly learned that behind his unassuming, composed exterior, there is a strong-willed lawyer with an undying dedication to fairness, equality, and treating all people with dignity and respect.

Fuleihan was born in the small, mountain town of Brevard, North Carolina. Located in the western part of the state in Transylvania County, it has a population of just over 8,000 residents. Brevard is known as the “Land of Waterfalls” as it features more than 250 picturesque waterfalls. 

Fuleihan earned his Juris Doctor in 1986 from Mercer University-Walter F. George School of Law in Macon, Georgia. Founded in 1873, Mercer University has the distinction of being one of the oldest law schools in the United States, and the first law school in the state of Georgia accredited by the American Bar Association.

Fuleihan was one of the first lawyers to become board certified in workers’ compensation law. He was certified in 2000, and was subsequently appointed to the Workers’ Compensation Law Specialty Committee in 2003. He served on the committee for six years, volunteering his time helping to evaluate applications as well as writing and grading exams. Fuleihan, along with his colleagues certified in that first group, played a fundamental part in setting the stage to ensure the success of future workers’ compensation specialists. During his 21 years as a specialist, he has remained an advocate of the specialization program.

Fuleihan started his career in 1989, serving as legal counsel during North Carolina Governor James G. Martin’s administration. He has served as counsel to the North Carolina Department of Transportation, deputy commissioner with the North Carolina Industrial Commission, and a partner with Ganly, Ramer, Finger, Strom and Fuleihan before he started his solo practice in Brevard. Fuleihan’s current practice consists exclusively of workers’ compensation plaintiff representation before the North Carolina Industrial Commission (NCIC) and appellate courts, and mediation of disputed workers’ compensation claims. He became a North Carolina Dispute Resolution Commission Certified Mediator in 2006 and has mediated several workers’ compensation claims for professional sports players and teams.

Q: What originally motivated you to become a specialist?

I wanted to perform at the highest level of practice I could achieve in workers’ compensation law. My workers’ compensation career began in 1993 as a deputy commissioner with the North Carolina Industrial Commission. Several high level practitioners, from both sides of the bar who appeared before me, educated me in the law as well as professionalism in practice. This inspired me to want to achieve that same level of expertise. Specialization is the NC State Bar’s highest certification of expertise.

Q: In your opinion, how does certification benefit the public?

The public’s perception of a specialist is that they are getting the very best level of representation in that particular area of the law. Because of the periodic recertification process after becoming a specialist, the public continues to have access to an attorney who is proficient with current trends in practice.

Q: How would you explain the benefits of specialization to someone who says, “I’ve been practicing for years in my area of practice, why do I need to get certified now? Certification is for new lawyers.”?

It is always positive to seek a new challenge. Sitting on your laurels for too long becomes dry and prickly. Certification is for any attorney who wants to distinguish themselves in an area of practice and provide to the consuming public the best level of service. This is due, in large part, to the fact that the minimum requirements of becoming certified and for maintaining certification require at least six hours of continued legal education per year in the specialty area and periodic peer review. Your sense of self confidence will rise naturally as a result of certification.

Q: Name the top three benefits you have experienced as a result of becoming a specialist.

1. I have had unique opportunities to become associated with other attorneys in complex workers’ compensation claims.

2. The opportunity to speak and present manuscripts for over 35 legal education seminars in workers’ compensation law since 1996.

3. Development of a statewide mediation practice.

Q: How has your experience as a deputy commissioner at the Industrial Commission helped you as a mediator?

My experience as a deputy commissioner at the NCIC is invaluable in my practice as a mediator. As a deputy commissioner would allow—and as a mediator should allow—the parties educate you regarding the factual and legal issues in the claim. Having previously adjudicated workers’ compensation claims, when I serve as a mediator, I know what evidence is probative regarding a party’s burden of proof and can conduct a meaningful risk analysis in that context for the parties.

Q: Are there any hot topics in workers’ compensation law right now?

Always, the current hot topic is, “What is the legal burden of proof under Extended Benefits for Total Incapacity under NCGS 97-29(c).” The deputy commissioners’ opinions are just now being issued (May 2021) as of the time of this interview and hopefully there will be Full Commission opinions by the time this article is printed.

Q: Tell me something most people would be surprised to learn about you?

My friends all know me as a quiet and introspective person…but given my reputation as a super talker while I am mediating or speaking at a legal seminar, most folks would be surprised to know that I prefer to listen. My lifestyle is indicative of my true nature. My wife and I live in a low-density conservation easement community situated on over 400 acres from mountaintops to riverbed, including over one mile of the West Fork of the French Broad River. The joy of listening to nature’s symphony in our peaceful part of the world is what I am really all about, not being the center of attention.

Q: What are you happiest doing when you are not working?

Spending time outdoors enjoying nature on our property with my wife, relieving stress by riding my Triumph Bonneville along the curvy mountain back-roads and the Parkway, and listening to live music with family and friends.

Q: How has specialization changed in your 21 years as a specialist?

With regard to the core requirements of becoming a specialist, it really hasn’t changed…the fundamentals are the same. Initially when I applied to become a specialist, the requirements consisted of a certain number of cases tried to a final award of the NCIC. In the intervening years, mediations have become a greater part of our workers’ compensation practice, thus broadening the requirement of the number of cases tried to final award by allowing successful mediations to count.

Q: Finish this sentence: “I’m excited about the future of legal specialization because...”

Many new emerging fields involving technological advancements are creating new areas of legal practice that will require highly specialized attorneys in these areas of law. This will in turn increase the number and types of areas of specialty in the years ahead.

Q: What piece of advice would you give lawyers who are interested in pursuing certification?

For a workers’ compensation specialty applicant, I would advise beginning the process six to nine months in advance. Make sure you meet the requirements. Set aside at least an hour every other day to read the Workers’ Compensation Act, N.C.G.S. § 97-1 et seq. from front to rear, read all major cases in the annotations to the statutes, and all of the most recent appellate cases.

Q: What would you tell someone who is intimidated by the thought of sitting for a certification exam?

Don’t be intimidated. Read, do your research, and most importantly, reach out to your fellow colleagues who have successfully taken the exam. We are here for support, guidance, and want you to succeed.

Fuleihan lives in Lake Toxaway with his wife of 35 years, Miranda.

For more information on board certification for lawyers, visit us online at nclawspecialists. gov.