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Denise Mullen, the Assistant Director of Legal Specialization, recently sat down with Valerie Johnson, certified legal specialist in workers' compensation, to ask her about specialization and the impact it has had on her career. Valerie is a partner at Patterson, Harkavy & Lawrence, LLP, in Raleigh. Here are a few of her answers.

1. Why did you pursue certification?

I saw it as a tool to help me help people in need of legal services. My personal mission has always been to serve people—and now, specifically to help injured workers—and this is a way to help them locate an attorney. Our senior partner, Hank Patterson, is a certified specialist as well, and serves on the State Bar's Workers' Compensation Specialty Committee, so my firm was supportive of my desire to become certified.

2. How did you prepare for the examination?
I read a lot! I found it very helpful to my practice. A lawyer doesn't sit down and read the entire general statutes in her daily practice, so it was an opportunity to concentrate on all of the statutory provisions that pertain to workers' compensation. I also studied with another partner in my firm, Leto Copeley, who is also certified as a specialist.

3. Was the certification process (exam, references, application) valuable to you in any way?

The process really made me assess where I was in my overall knowledge of workers' compensation law. I had to take time to focus on the obscure issues as well as the ones we see every day.

4. What do your clients say about your certification?

Many wonder what it means! But in general, they understand that I've done something extra, that I've gone to the trouble of getting an additional credential. Some have asked about it, and they are generally impressed.

5. Who are your best referral sources?

Other clients. Hank Patterson has been practicing in this area for so long that he is well known and the firm is well known. Other attorneys also are great referral sources.

6. How does certification benefit your clients?

It gives them a measure of confidence that I have tried to keep abreast of developments in my practice area.

7. Are there any hot topics in your specialty area right now?

Workers' compensation cases get a large percentage of the Court of Appeals' opinions every year, so the court is always contemplating questions on everything from the basics to very complicated issues. Right now the courts are looking at cases involving emotional distress and whether workers should be allowed to recover under the Workers' Compensation Act for such claims.

8. How does your certification relate to hot topics?

Specialization requires a higher number of CLE hours and many CLE programs are focused on current issues. As I meet those requirements, I keep myself updated. I also am co-chair of Basic Workers’ Compensation CLE for the Academy of Trial Lawyers, and putting that together each year keeps me up to date.

9. Is certification important in your region?

There are lots of attorneys in the Triangle area. Certification does help to differentiate between individual attorney’s areas of practice. It can be hard for consumers to know where to go when they need legal help. Certification also allows attorneys to be able to locate which lawyers concentrate on a specific area for referral purposes.

10. How do you see the future of specialization?

I hope to see more people considering it. I think the public will recognize what the different areas of specialization are and more readily use the information to their advantage. I hope knowing that specialization is an option will make the public have more confidence in lawyers in general.

11. What would you say to encourage other lawyers to pursue certification?

It requires some measure of commitment to decide that you are going to go through the certification process, but it's not that onerous of a commitment. Some lawyers probably already meet most of the certification standards and haven't pursued it just because of the exam. Yet the exam isn't nearly as bad as I thought it would be. In sum, the certification is readily achievable and, in general, a positive experience.

For more information about the certification programs please visit our website at or contact Denise Mullen at 919.828.4620 x255. Applications are accepted every year during May and June. Exams are held during the first week of November.