I recently met with Shelby Benton, a board certified specialist practicing in Goldsboro, to talk about her certification in family law and the impact it has had on her career. Shelby attended North Carolina State University for her undergraduate degree, a Bachelor of Arts in criminal justice and political science, and Campbell University for law school. Following law school, she began working in Goldsboro for Braswell and Taylor handling a variety of litigation cases including criminal, personal injury, and medical malpractice. She began to focus on family law cases when she established a new firm, Hollowell and Benton, PA, in 1991. Shelby became a board certified specialist in family law in 1995.
Q: Why did you pursue certification?
Early in my career I handled other types of cases and decided that I wanted to focus on family law for a number of reasons. With the large military presence in Goldsboro, I felt that there would always be a need for experienced family law practitioners, particularly for someone with basic knowledge of military law. I had practiced enough to know that I could not be effective as a general practitioner, and I wanted a practice area that would enable me to have a family life as well. When I applied for certification I took about three months to study, working half days and studying half days. I had a lot of encouragement from my colleagues and I was really optimistic that this was the right direction for my career.
Q: Was the certification process valuable to you in any way?
It was in that it really helped me make the decision to commit myself to this practice area. I wanted to set that standard high for myself and commit to maintaining it. Studying for the exam reinforced that decision.
Q: Has certification been helpful to your practice?
Absolutely. It has been helpful to both my practice and my quality of life. I have built a solid network of family law specialist colleagues across the state who are helpful and who understand this practice area. I truly feel that we care about each other and care about representing our clients to the best of our abilities.
Q: What do your clients say about your certification?
I have clients who come in just for that reason—they’ve read that I am a board certified specialist in family law. This happens more often for out-of-state referrals and military personnel. I have my certification listed on my website, so my clients are typically aware that I’ve achieved this extra credential.
Q: How does your certification benefit your clients?
It gives more credibility to the work that I do and gives my clients faith in my abilities. It also saves my clients money—because these are issues that I deal with every day, my clients are not paying me to research basic family law questions. My experience and knowledge base allow me to work through the case issues fairly quickly and determine the best course of action to follow. My clients are able to trust in my advice.
Q: Are there any hot topics in family law now?
There are a few hot issues currently, mostly involving equitable distribution and divisible debt. There are also some changes needed in the alimony statutes that I think will be addressed in the next short session.
Q: How does your certification relate to those?
As a family law specialist, I have had an opportunity to be deeply involved in emerging issues. I served as chair of the North Carolina Bar Association’s Family Law Section in 2009- 2010 and currently serve on its Board of Governors. While on the Family Law Council, I have been able to assist in drafting family law legislation and to respond to family law legislation drafted by others. I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to be a part of shaping the legislation that I work with so closely.
Q: How do you stay current in your field?
After I studied for the specialization exam and realized how valuable that was, I decided to read Chapter 50 each year around my birthday. That was 16 years ago and I still do it every year! I also read all of the cases that come out and attend a good number of continuing legal education courses. The family law specialists’ seminar—planned and put on by specialists—has been invaluable over the years.
Q: Is certification important in your practice area?
Absolutely. There are only two board certified specialists in family law in my county and only three in my judicial district. We are the lawyers that people turn to for complex family law matters including business valuations or high conflict custody cases.
Q: How does certification benefit the profession?
When lawyers specialize they are much more focused and involved in their practice area. That focus allows them to be better prepared and to save their clients money. They can easily identify cases where they will need outside assistance and know who to associate for help.
Q: How do you see the future of legal specialization?
I think the program will continue to grow. Lawyers really can’t be effective these days accepting all types of cases. We need to specialize and limit what we handle so that we can represent our clients well. I was glad to see that an appellate practice specialty has been added to the list. I think it will be a real benefit to the profession.
Q: What would you say to encourage other lawyers to pursue certification?
I would tell them to find an area of the law that they enjoy and immerse themselves in it. Go to all of the seminars offered, talk to other specialists, and really gain a depth of knowledge that can set you on a successful career path, both for your clients and for your own benefit.
For more information on the State Bar’s specialization programs please find us on the web at www.nclawspecialists.gov.