New Specialists in Juvenile Delinquency-Criminal Law
I recently had an opportunity to talk with the newest board certified specialists in juvenile delinquency - criminal law. The committee members who initiated the specialty and wrote and graded the first examination are John Cox, solo practitioner in Graham; Julie Boyer, solo practitioner in Roxboro; Mary Wilson, juvenile chief at the Wake County Public Defender’s Office; and Eric Zogry, the North Carolina juvenile defender. Two new specialists—Geeta Kapur, attorney and adjunct professor at UNC-Chapel Hill & Campbell Schools of Law, and Valerie Pearce, senior staff attorney, council for Children’s Rights—also provided responses. Following are some of their comments about the specialization program, and the anticipated impact specialty certification will have on their individual practices and on the practice of juvenile delinquency law in general.
Q: Why did you, the committee members, pursue a specialty designation for juvenile delinquency?
Eric Zogry – The idea actually incubated for a couple of years before we began to follow up on it. We set up an exploratory committee within the North Carolina Advocates for Justice (NCAJ) Juvenile Defense Section and completed the State Bar’s application process for a new specialty area, which involved assessing support among lawyers and then gathering signatures. The perception of juvenile delinquency law is that it is a practice area a young lawyer can start out in before transitioning to something else. Developing the specialty was one way to help legitimize the practice.
Mary Wilson – That was important to us. We wanted to build on the knowledge that kids are important and worth the time to develop the specialty, and then worth the investment in a long-term practice.
John Cox – In this practice area, we all know each other, but the public doesn’t know us. Having the specialty allows us to reach out to the public and give them better access to qualified representation.
Q: Why did you apply to take the examination?
Valerie Pearce – I pursued certification in order to raise the bar for representation in the juvenile court system. In order to practice well in juvenile court, you need to understand juvenile law, criminal law, federal law, child welfare, mental health, education law, benefits, and family law. I strongly advocated for recognition of this important practice area.
Q: How did you prepare for the examination?
Julie Boyer – As a committee member, I was part of the team that created the first exam. Writing the examination was certainly a group effort. Each of us developed questions for different topics, and when we met, we reviewed each other’s questions to determine the level of complexity and various other criteria to ensure the fairness of the examination. The process definitely increased my knowledge of the practice area.
Valerie Pearce – To prepare to take the exam I studied the Juvenile Defender Manual, website resources from the NC Office of Indigent Defense Services (IDS), and juvenile and criminal statutes.
Geeta Kapur – Using the topics that were outlined in the exam guide on the specialty website, I created a fairly in-depth study guide of my own. I reviewed criminal law and procedure as well as juvenile delinquency statutes, the entire evidence code, and reviewed recent appellate opinions on the topics outlined in the exam guide. I also reviewed trial strategies and motion practices for jury trials.
Q: Was the certification process valuable to you in any way?
Geeta Kapur – The certification process was extremely valuable to me. Since I began practicing law, I have not had the time or opportunity to study the entire criminal law, criminal procedure, and juvenile code in its entirety. As a result of studying and taking the exam, I feel much more confident about my practice of criminal and juvenile delinquency law, and I hope to deliver the highest quality representation to my clients.
Q: How do you envision certification being helpful to the practice of juvenile law in North Carolina?
Mary Wilson – This should help legitimize that juvenile court is difficult and it is important. There are kids’ futures at stake.
John Cox – We are on the verge of raising the age of jurisdiction, which would really increase the volume in the juvenile court system. Currently, North Carolina is the only state that automatically puts a 16 year-old into the adult court system forever. If and when this changes, 16 and 17 year-olds would move into the juvenile courts and more qualified attorneys will be needed.
Julie Boyer – All juveniles brought into delinquency court are assumed to be indigent, thus they receive court appointed counsel automatically. As more juveniles are being brought into court, their parents and guardians are seeking private attorneys much like in adult court matters. Certification has helped in that regard, identifying myself as one of the few specialists in the state.
Q: What have your clients, staff, and colleagues said about your certification?
Eric Zogry – I told the IDS Commission and they were pleased. They are able to recognize the movement in this practice area over the last ten years. In some ways we are ahead of the rest of the country.
Geeta Kapur – My mentors were proud of me, which meant the world to me. My colleagues have offered their congratulatory remarks. I told one of my clients who was in jail at the time that I was studying for the exam. Later he asked me about the exam and when I told him I was a specialist, he was very happy for me.
Q: How do you think your certification will benefit your clients?
Mary Wilson – Having this certification and recognition among the bar of this practice area should raise awareness and maintain increasing standards for the quality of representation.
Eric Zogry – Additionally, having the increased requirements for continuing legal education courses should really ensure that the lawyers who are certified have the most up-to-date knowledge, which will benefit clients tremendously.
Q: Are there any hot topics in your specialty area right now?
Valerie Pearce – The topic of raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction in North Carolina is a big one right now. Some of the underlying issues that need to be addressed include capacity, brain development, and reform of the NC mental health system.
John Cox – I often remind people (juveniles, parents, judges) that any 16 year-old would be diverted to teen court in any other state. The stakes are high in North Carolina, and juveniles desperately need a qualified attorney.
Geeta Kapur – The “school to prison pipeline” that disproportionately affects black and Latino children is an epidemic in North Carolina that must be addressed by high quality, zealous representation. Being certified as a criminal law juvenile delinquency specialist directly relates to these two issues.
Q: How does specialization benefit the public or the profession?
Julie Boyer – In the years I have practiced, the profession in general has become very specialized. It is far more difficult to be a general practitioner nowadays. With clients expecting more and becoming more knowledgeable about their legal options, board certification is one way to tell the public that you have committed to that particular practice area. It helps the public decide what attorney they may want to contact for a certain problem. Certification also benefits the profession by recognizing those attorneys who have put in the time and effort to achieve that level of expertise in their respective practice areas.
John Cox – It provides a good way to let other lawyers, potential clients, and members of the public know that we exist. Lawyers are slowly but surely taking juvenile cases more seriously. We used to see new lawyers working in juvenile law for a short time and then leaving the practice. Now we are seeing more lawyers choose to stay in this practice area. They are gaining skill and a level of expertise that is critical to strong representation. We are seeing a passionate few encouraging others and raising awareness. This benefits both clients and the profession.
Q: How do you stay current in your field?
Julie Boyer – I keep up with the ever-changing court opinions differentiating juvenile and adult offenders. Juvenile delinquency matters require vast knowledge of the juvenile code as well as adult criminal law and procedure. Keeping up with changes in both areas is very important.
Mary Wilson – I think we all review a lot of case law, talk with the other specialists, and read the listserves, including the one hosted by the NCAJ Juvenile Defense Section.
John Cox – We also attend excellent continuing legal education programs including ones that the UNC School of Government and the NC Bar Association sponsor on a regular basis.
Q: How do you see the future of board certification for lawyers?
Geeta Kapur – I hope that more lawyers who focus on indigent defense will become board certified because it conveys to the poor and disadvantaged client that they also deserve to be represented by specialists of the law despite their social and political position in our society.
Eric Zogry – I hope to see certification grow for more specialties in indigent defense, as those who most need quality representation are often the least able to afford it.
Q: What would you say to encourage other lawyers to pursue certification?
Valerie Pearce – Certification is a public recognition of achievement and expertise in a very specialized area of the law, including juvenile delinquency law.
John Cox – Find an area of the law that excites you and focus on it. The practice of law as a whole is moving away from the general practice and toward specialization. It’s risky to spread yourself too thin, and highly beneficial to find your passion and pursue it for a better quality of life and for the benefit of the public.
For more information on the State Bar’s specialization programs, visit us on the web at nclawspecialists.gov.