Recently, I had an opportunity to talk with Vernon Sumwalt, a board certified specialist in both workers’ compensation law and appellate practice. Vernon graduated from the University of Miami in 1994 and the University of South Carolina School of Law in 1998. He and his wife, Christa, are the owners of the firm The Sumwalt Group, practicing in Charlotte. Vernon is currently the president of the North Carolina Advocates for Justice (formerly the North Carolina Academy of Trial Lawyers), and has taught almost 140 state and national classes for lawyers and other professionals. He has also written over 45 books, chapters, and other articles on different aspects of workers’ compensation and trial law.
Q: In 2011 you were selected to receive the James E. Cross Jr. Leadership Award. What did that award convey to you about your achievements in practicing law?
“Wow! They got the wrong person!” was my first thought. Then it sunk in that maybe someone noticed that I was having a lot of fun doing what I do.
I’m scared to collect this fun under the word “achievements.” I don’t practice law to see how many certificates I can get framed on my office walls. (In case you were wondering, there are no certificates on my walls. Just pictures that my three kids painted for me.) People run into difficult situations. Sometimes, people get hurt. Some reach out to lawyers when someone else breaks the safety rules and puts them at risk. I’m just happy to have a skill set that, I think, fits their need for someone to walk them through the process to get back on their feet again. To get a remedy that our Constitution and Seventh Amendment guarantees.
Of course, it is fun for others to see this happening. When I found out about the James E. Cross Jr. Leadership Award, it was a surprise. But it was a good surprise. And it made me want to keep up what I was doing.
Q: Why did you pursue certification in both workers’ compensation law and in appellate law?
Being an appellate lawyer was never on my radar. If you’re on appeal, you either won at trial and are fighting to keep the result you got, or you lost at trial and are, unfortunately, trying to get a different result. Neither puts me in my happy place.
My true love is trying cases—telling the stories of how my clients ended up at the mercy of our courts. Most of what I do is workers’ compensation and third-party actions coming from unsafe work conditions, because those are the clients who found their way to my door over the years. I went for the workers’ compensation specialist certification just to say, hey, I know this area of law. I’ve been there before. This level of experience comes from trying a lot of cases and telling the stories of an awful lot of clients who trusted me to bring closure for them. Along the way, I hope I’ve also taught them a little about our Constitution and our justice system.
The more cases you try, the more often you find yourself in an appeal. Funny how that happens. So, I counted from 25 appeals to 50, and the number just kept growing. Of course, some cases settle after the notice of appeal is filed. Others fly all the way to the Supreme Court. This past January I argued a case before our Supreme Court. It was the 100th appeal I’ve worked on, by my count. I know there are other appellate lawyers with a lot more to their credit. I still have a hard time believing I’ve reached 100.
So, in 2014 I took the appellate specialization exam. I took it for the same reasons I once took the workers’ compensation exam—to say, hey, I’ve done appeals before. I’ve been there. As luck would have it, I passed.
Q: How did you prepare for the exams?
In very different ways. For the workers’ compensation exam in 2005, I didn’t really do anything that I wasn’t already doing in my daily grind, at least in terms of academic preparation. I’ve always been one of those geeks who tries to look at every possible facet of an issue before I go try it. That means I read a lot on the front end, to see how other folks have tried issues, and I’ve organized my research meticulously since I was a baby lawyer. At the same time, I wrote a lot and taught a lot of CLEs. I felt these efforts were a good foundation for the workers’ compensation exam.
My preparation for the appellate exam in 2014 took a different approach. Again, being an appellate lawyer wasn’t my aspiration, and I felt out of place thinking I could pass a test like this. It tested some areas—for example, federal appeals—in which I had very little experience. I had enough appeals and oral arguments. I just needed to pass. So, I studied hard. I studied areas that my day-to-day practice didn’t touch. The exam was still one of the hardest tests I’ve taken.
Q: Was it easier taking the exam for appellate after having already taken the workers’ compensation exam?
No! After passing the workers’ compensation exam, everyone would know if I didn’t pass the appellate practice exam. That’s a lot of pressure!
As I mentioned earlier, they were two different tests. The workers’ compensation exam tested things I worked on every day at work. The appellate practice exam tested things I worked on most days, but not daily, and things I’ve never seen in my practice. I expected it to test issues unique to appellate practice, as opposed to the run-of-the-mill issues that I did every week in my own cases. This required a different preparation than my approach to the workers’ compensation exam.
Q: Tell me your biggest success story related to your workers’ compensation or appellate law practice.
Every new client is the biggest honor. I don’t advertise like many of my friends in the plaintiffs’ bar do. Instead, all of my clients come to me by word of mouth. When someone calls or reaches out to me for help in their case, even if it’s a case I decide not to get involved in or one that’s outside my wheelhouse, I realize that this person is calling because a friend or family member told them about me and they thought I could help.
That means I made someone happy with the help I gave them, and they thought highly enough about it to tell another person to come to me. That’s the biggest “thank you” a trial lawyer can get because it validates my efforts to walk them through some of the toughest times of their lives.
Q: What career accomplishment makes you most proud?
This past year I served as president of the North Carolina Advocates for Justice. It’s an honor to lead my colleagues whom I’ve looked up to since I was a baby lawyer, just taking my first steps in our profession. It’s given me the chance to meet a lot of great people. It also encourages me about the future of trial lawyers, because we have so much talent here in North Carolina and so much to offer to improve safety in our community.
Q: What piece of art (book, music, movie, etc.) most influenced who you are today?
A college friend, who is a well-known drummer in a band you would recognize, asked me what being a lawyer was like the last time we had dinner. “It’s like being a musician,” I said. “Same science. Different art.”
One of my college majors was music. For a while, it was studio music and jazz, until I changed from performance to a more academic tract. My music education taught me more about trial lawyering than law school did. No matter if it’s how to improvise on your feet, the importance of getting along with everyone, the value of brushing up your chops until you can play something effortlessly, the truth of “just keep playing,” the bottom line is that it’s just another performance. Professional performers study, train, and rehearse to perfect their skills. Trial lawyers do the same thing. It’s all the same.
So, there’s not a single piece I can point to as an influence. Rather, the whole experience of music makes me who I am.
Q: What is the single best piece of advice you ever received?
Do not be afraid of who you are.
Q: Who is your hero and why?
My wife, Christa, is my favorite person on Earth. I wish I could be more like her.
We met in the same small section our first year of law school and, somehow, we survived those three years and she’s tolerated me for 25 years now. Christa is infinitely patient, kind, selfless, authentic—all the things I struggle to be. All the qualities that great lawyers have, she’s got. Christa treasures experiences over things, and inspires me, as a parent of three active kids—yes, we play zone defense now—to bring our “A game” every day and every time. Last year she finished her first full Ironman competition after doing a dozen of the half ones, and she keeps challenging herself. She’s always doing things for other people. I still don’t know how she does it all and stays so balanced and inspirational.
Oh, and did I mention she’s a great lawyer, too? She’s got well over 125 jury trials under her belt.
One day, I’ll be able to make it all look easy. Until then, she’s the bomb.
Q: Has certification been helpful to your practice?
Yes. Certification validates our experience and knowledge in the areas in which we practice. More now than ever, potential clients are comparing us and our qualifications online, because the information is public and available. Certification is high on their list. Certification also signals to our professional colleagues—at least the ones we haven’t met before—that we’re not “newer” kids on the block, that we’ve been around, and we know better ways of bringing closure for our clients. In the end, it’s all about better serving our communities and our clients, and certification pushes this forward.
Q: What would you say to encourage other lawyers to pursue certification?
Be yourself. Do it, but only if you love it. Study hard. Work hard. Prepare. Always prepare. And, best of luck!
For more information on board certification for lawyers, visit us online at nclawspecialists.gov.