I recently had an opportunity to talk with Stewart Poisson, a board certified specialist practicing in Wadesboro and Wilmington. Stewart received both her undergraduate and law degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Following graduation, she joined her father, Fred Poisson Jr., and grandfather, Fred Poisson Sr., in practice. Stewart focused her practice on workers' compensation law and personal injury law, planning to sit for the certification exam in workers' compensation when she became eligible. She achieved that goal in November 2009, following in her father's footsteps—he is also a specialist in workers' compensation law. Below are Stewart's comments about the specialization program and the impact she anticipates it will have on her career.
Q: Why did you pursue certification?
My father (Fred Poisson Jr.) encouraged me to pursue certification as soon as I was eligible. He serves as a State Bar Councilor and has always been a big supporter of the certification program.
Q: How did you prepare for the examination?
As I have been teased, I over-prepared, but that's my nature. I read Chapter 97 of the General Statutes, I used the study guide information online, and I read the Industrial Commission Rules and Mediated Settlement Rules. I talked to other board certified specialists and, based on their suggestions, I read the appellate case law for the previous three years. I devoted the better part of a three-day weekend to reading and studying.
Q: Was the certification process valuable to you in any way?
When I applied, I had been practicing just five years. Part of the application process involves gathering references and listing some basic information about your involvement in the practice area. I was really proud to look back over the five-year period and see what I had accomplished. I was glad to see that my success rate was good overall. I also really appreciated the opportunity to seek references who would recommend me for this program based on my work history and ability, not my father's. We collaborate a lot in our work, but for this I needed to reach out on my own.
Q: How do you envision certification being helpful to your practice?
I know that I look young and am relatively young in my profession, so I imagine that this will help instill my clients with additional confidence in my abilities. I have had a lot of experience, and I know the practice area well. It will be really nice to have gone through this vetting process, to have this distinction that shows my dedication to this practice area.
Q: What have your clients, staff, and colleagues said about your certification?
Many of my clients were aware that I was taking an exam, so they have been really excited for me. The staff has been so supportive and very complimentary. I heard from others that my father was beaming!
Q: How do you think your certification will benefit your clients?
The studying that I did for the exam has already been a benefit to my clients. On a daily basis, in a busy practice, you don't have an opportunity to do a really comprehensive review of the law. Making the time for this review was a great refresher for me, and I ran across a few special cases that had direct implications for matters I was currently handling. I also think the certification will give clients more confidence in my work and help with building trust and long-term relationships.
Q: How do you stay current in your field?
I read Lawyers Weekly, appellate court decisions, and my practice area listservs. The NC Advocates for Justice offer really great continuing legal education courses, including a particularly good one on workplace torts each year in December.
Q: Is certification important in your practice area?
It is. We have very complex options for handling cases. We have to be familiar with the law to get our clients the best result. Dabbling in workers' compensation law can be dangerous. The certification program identifies those who focus on this area, have passed an examination, and really know this area of the law.
Q: How does specialization benefit the public?
I think it is most helpful in educating the public. I think it must be quite daunting to have to choose an attorney, particularly if you don't know someone in the legal profession. It is very helpful to have an objective process to vet attorneys that clients can use with confidence.
Q: Are there other areas in which you think certification could be offered?
I would love to see certification offered in personal injury law. I know that it would be a very difficult screening process to create, given the variety of factors that you could consider as qualifying someone in this practice area to take a certification exam, but think it would be a real benefit to the public. I would also be interested in seeing something for civil litigation, perhaps a specialization exam that covers the rules of evidence and civil procedure.
Q: What would you say to encourage other lawyers to pursue certification?
I would point out that taking three days to study is not a huge time commitment compared to the span of your career. You'll be amazed at all that you know and you will also see things that you need to review. If you're dedicated to your practice area, you want to continue improving. There are many personal and client benefits to becoming a board certified specialist.
For more information on the State Bar's specialization program, please visit us on the web at www.nclawspecialists.gov.