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I recently had an opportunity to talk with Robert (Bert) C. Kemp III, a board certified specialist in state criminal law practicing in Pitt County. Bert attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, earning an undergraduate degree in economics, and subsequently received his law degree from Wake Forest University. Following graduation he spent several years practicing both general litigation and criminal defense before accepting a position as an assistant public defender in Pitt County. He was appointed chief public defender in June 2007 and currently supervises 13 attorneys in that office. Bert is also a judge advocate, holding the rank of lieutenant colonel in the NC National Guard. Bert became a board certified specialist in 2005, and was appointed to the Criminal Law Specialty Committee in 2013. His comments about the specialization program and its impact on his career follow.

Q: Why did you pursue certification?

I had been in private practice as a criminal defense attorney when I accepted the position of assistant public defender in Pitt County. At the time, several of my clients viewed that change as a demotion, akin to a resident doctor or some kind of training position. They expressed concern for me and were hopeful that I would get myself out of trouble and back to being a "real" lawyer. I had to explain that I was a "real" lawyer and that I took this position very seriously. I wanted to prove to clients, colleagues, and mainly to myself that I could accomplish this goal. I also knew it would be a good opportunity to refresh my knowledge about criminal law as well.

Q: How did you prepare for the examination?

I read Chapters 14, 15, 15A, and 20 of the North Carolina General Statutes. I also reviewed materials from several continuing legal education courses. The School of Government has a wealth of outstanding information available online, and I certainly took advantage of those resources. As an assistant public defender I worked mainly on high-level felonies, including robberies and sex offense cases. I viewed having to study as a great opportunity to re-learn some items I had forgotten. I especially reviewed recent case law and spent time examining subjects I did not routinely encounter in my daily work.

Q: Has certification been helpful to your practice?

The certification has shown others that this is a target that can be achieved. One of my personal goals moving forward is to promote certification within the public service arena. I believe that it is critical to our judicial system to retain qualified lawyers in both public defender and prosecutorial positions, as well as those working for Legal Aid. Many of the lawyers that I work with are [de facto] specialists in their area and deserve, not only a monetary raise, but a high level of recognition for their dedication. Board certification is one way to provide this recognition, and hopefully to encourage and inspire them to continue their public service.

I am so pleased to learn that the Board of Legal Specialization recently launched a new program with NC LEAF [Lawyers Education Assistance Foundation,] to provide financial scholarships to cover the certification application fees for state prosecutors, public defenders, and non-profit public service attorneys. I think this type of program and the John R. Justice program [] are critical components to retaining quality public defenders and prosecutors. For the past few years, pay increases have been few and far between for these lawyers. Therefore, every little bit helps to recognize their dedication.

Q: How does certification benefit your clients?

Few ways exist to distinguish yourself as a dedicated and competent lawyer. Certification is one way that I can demonstrate to my clients what this practice means to me, and give them the comfort that they have been assigned a "real" lawyer. As the public defender for Pitt County, I have built an office of good and knowledgeable employees who have a calling for this work. I want all of our clients to recognize the quality and commitment of their attorneys.

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

One of the biggest issues in criminal law right now involves the collateral consequences associated with a conviction, such as in domestic violence cases, DWIs, and sex offenses. Our work as public defenders encompasses all of these areas. DWI law has become so complicated—with the consequences for clients being so serious—that it really takes a specialist’s depth of knowledge and experience to be able to understand and properly manage all of the issues involved. Other hot topics include immigration ramifications and the possible upcoming change in juvenile delinquency laws. If the juvenile age is indeed raised in certain cases, more proceedings will be handled in juvenile court, which will significantly increase the demand for specialists in juvenile delinquency law.

Q: Is certification important in your practice area?

Certification is extremely important in criminal law. The more information made available to the public, the better. In general, clients today have greater access to information, thereby enabling them to make informed choices. However, I, as a public defender, am appointed to represent my client. Therefore, the client has no choice in their attorney, which makes certification even more important in developing a high level of trust and comfort between the attorney and client.

Q: How does certification benefit the profession?

Certification builds trust and credibility with the clients, which in turn benefits the profession. It also creates a collegiality among peers, including adversaries, as it promotes a focus on professional practice rather than monetary gain. Anything we can do as lawyers to further our knowledge and hone our skills will also improve the practice of criminal law for all involved.

Q: How do you see the future of specialization?

I think the program will continue to expand as more attorneys will see it becoming almost a necessity. Providing a legal specialty certification program is one way that the State Bar shows the public that it is making an investment in the continuing education and growth of attorneys.

For more information on the State Bar’s specialization program, visit us online at To donate to the NC Leaf Scholarship Fund, please send a check to: NC LEAF - Specialization Scholarship, 217 E. Edenton Street, Raleigh, NC 27601.