Choosing a Lawyer Based on Specialty

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The task of choosing a lawyer is daunting. An internet search can result in countless pages of lawyer results for one city alone. Even more, many clients look for lawyers who specialize in the specific area of law they are seeking counsel for. But how important are specialties and what does a legal specialty really mean?

Why We’re Asking:

Lawyer websites can be confusing to their clients. Some claim to specialize in certain areas of law, while some lawyers boast of specific certifications they have received. We want to know what to look for when choosing a lawyer, what specialties mean and if they hold any validity. To find out, we’re turning to our panel of lawyers, many of whom are proud to carry their own specialties.

Share your thoughts below:

What should Clients Consider when Choosing a Specialty Lawyer?

How important are specialties?

Are some specialties more valuable than others?

Are there specific certifications that potential clients should look for?

How does a lawyer become a specialist in something?

Are certificates or special education more important than raw experience?

What questions should clients ask to determine if their lawyer has enough specific experience?

Check back throughout the week to see our lawyer’s comments!

Please post your answers in the comment field below!

19 COMMENTS

  1. Clients should exercise some due diligence when selecting their lawyer. You want to see how the lawyer markets him/herself. If the lawyer’s marketing focus is personal injury, you scrutinize the value of using that attorney for a real estate matter. Also, inquire if the attorney teaches seminars on the area of law and if they frequently contribute scholarly articles or writings on the area of law. And don’t feel bad about asking your attorney questions about their experience, you are entrusting a serious matter to them and you are entitled to vet their qualifications.

  2. Over the past 20 years, the legal profession has seen an increase in lawyers holding themselves out as “specialists” in an area of law. Traditionally, legal rules of ethics did not allow lawyers to use the term “specialist”-it was too prone to improper marketing of legal services. Most states today abide by this rule: To be a certified “specialist,” a lawyer must meet criteria either set in place by the state board of legal certification, or by an practice group of lawyers in a certain field, before they can truly be called “specialists.” For example, most states recognize “certified civil trial specialists”-trial lawyers who have actually tried to completion a given number of civil cases. These civil trial specialists usually complete an additional background check, take ongoing legal education in civil trial law, and complete a written examination specifically testing on the specialist’s knowledge of procedural and evidentiary rules used in civil litigation. Today, many states also recognize specialists in real estate law, criminal law, and family law. Specialties that are recognized by state bar associations help the client recognize those lawyers who have committed themselves professionally to the practice of a particular area. While this is no guarantee of success, the designation of “specialist” is one more tool for the client to use in making their selection of the right lawyer for the particular dispute or task. Prospective clients should feel comfortable asking a lawyer who holds himself or herself out as a “specialist” what they did to achieve that designation.

  3. It is very important that a client investigate potential attorneys, doctors, contractors, etc before deciding who to hire. In the field of law there are hundreds of “specialties”. Each field of law has sub-fields. Take the time to investigate the lawyers reputation, ask for client references, determine how long that lawyer has done the type of work you require, ask the lawyer for a summary of their office procedures – how they return calls, answer correspondence, etc. Lastly, make certain you like the lawyer and that he or she treats you with respect. You are hiring that lawyer and have every right to feel comfortable with your choice.

  4. I truly believe that the single most important factor business should consider when selecting an attorney is the focus area of prospective attorney’s business.

    Because of my focus in the construction industry, I bring value to the clients I work with that they wouldn’t receive from attorneys who practice in other areas of the law. In other words, one of my clients who are a construction company get more of a benefit out of paying a higher hourly rate to me then they would by paying half my hourly rate to an attorney who is a jack of all trades, but master of none.

    Selecting an attorney is similar to selecting a doctor – you wouldn’t want a proctologist performing your brain surgery; would you? The more specific the focus of your prospective attorney’s practice, the better work product, attention, and responsiveness you will receive.

  5. What should Clients Consider when Choosing a Specialty Lawyer?

    When choosing a lawyer, a client should find someone they trust to
    represent their interests. This will be based on different criteria for
    different clients. Some will focus on how much experience an attorney has,
    some will focus on cost, etc. Really, a lawyer is the person who represents
    you in whatever your legal matter is, so finding someone you trust to act
    in your best interests is the most important decision to make.

    How important are specialties?

    Lawyers don’t have “specialties” as such. Most lawyers pick an area or a
    few areas that interest them and focus their time on learning about those
    areas of the law. Some areas don’t require a lot of focus to learn while
    others take time and experience to master.

    Are some specialties more valuable than others?

    No one area of the law is more valuable than any other. They all have pros
    and cons in terms of prevalence, income levels, amount of drama, etc. but
    no one specialty is more valuable to have than any other. It really depends
    on what the attorney is interested in and what they’d like to do with their
    time.

    Are there specific certifications that potential clients should look for?

    Certifications will vary by field. In family law, clients should look to
    see if the lawyer is certified in forms of alternative dispute resolution,
    like mediation and collaborative family law, and also if they are certified
    as a Guardian Ad Lien, who represents the best interests of children in
    family court. These certifications are not necessary to be a good family
    law attorney, but it will show where an attorney puts their priorities and
    how dynamic they are in their practice.

    How does a lawyer become a specialist in something?

    A lawyer becomes an expert through experience. Some law schools have
    certificate programs in different areas of the law, but that is a
    relatively new thing and does not necessarily label someone as a specialist
    in that field. Really, a lawyer becomes an expert through doing the work,
    attending seminars, and taking the initiative to learn about different
    aspects of the law.

    Are certificates or special education more important than raw experience?

    Education is important and certifications are helpful, but experience is
    the only thing that teaches a lawyer how to be a lawyer. no amount of
    reading and listening to lectures compares to the experience of actually
    going to court and learning how to make things happen.

    What questions should clients ask to determine if their lawyer has enough
    specific experience?

    Find out how long the lawyer has been practicing and why they chose the
    focus areas they are in. Try to gauge the attorney’s level of confidence in
    their ability to represent you diligently. The confidence they project onto
    you will also be projected into the courtroom, which is where it really
    counts.

  6. So the single most important questions I would ask are:
    1. Have you handled a case like this before
    2. If so, how many
    3. What were the cases about
    4. Did you recover
    5. What was the recovery
    6. How much time did it take start to finish

    If they have “badges” like Superlawyers, Ratings, Memberships, etc. you can
    simply Google that type of credential and “requirements” and see what it
    takes to be considered. Many of these monikers are frankly paid for. And
    the lawyers know it. But the population doesn’t. So you can also ask an
    impartial lawyer to look at the “resume” of the lawyer you’re considering
    and weigh in on whether or not this person looks like they are qualified to
    handle a particular type of matter. You can also look at how a rating is
    put together (i.e. is it by clients who aren’t lawyers and have a tough time
    judging the quality of lawyer – or is it by peers or judges who know
    better). Is the voting public or private? Does the company that provides
    the ratings get paid anything by the lawyer? Most sites lawyers pay for a
    base listing before they can get a rating or be recommended. And some are
    elected but if they or their firm doesn’t pay for large ads in that
    particular issue, they are out the next year. You can always go to sites
    and look under “lawyers’ and see what it costs to join/be considered.

    I could go on and on – it’s taken me years to develop the resume that I
    provide for lawyers to fill out so clients on our platform can ‘see lawyers
    through the eyes of a lawyer.’ But it’s a very important and critical
    decision and I am really so glad you’re writing this article. I’ve had
    judges tell me how happy they are that I’m tackling this issue because when
    a client comes into their courtroom with poor representation, they are not
    allowed to do anything to let the client know they are being very poorly
    represented. The only thing they can do, if the client sues that lawyer for
    malpractice, is to rule in their favor. But it’s very frustrating for many
    Judges because their hands are tied.

    I’d also mention that, as they say, the wheel that squeaks the loudest gets
    oiled first. Not too squeaky but enough to get feedback. Lawyers take on
    many cases and they don’t like to be pushed – but setting clear concise
    time frames for things to be accomplished are very important. And always,
    always have everything in writing. If they do something wrong, it’s your
    word against theirs and chances are you will have a very tough time trying
    to prove that you’re in the right.

  7. It can be very important. Like a doctor, it is impossible to know
    everything about everything. Therefore, you need a specialist who knows
    your issue. The largest source of business we get is from other lawyers who
    refer us cases because it is not something they do.. So here is a line by
    line on your questions:

    1. What should Clients Consider when Choosing a Specialty Lawyer?

    Depends on the specialty, depends on the state. Some states allow you to
    “specialize” others you just indicate that as an area of expertise. In our
    case, the states we practice in do not allow “specialties, ” but we do
    Consumer protection exclusively.

    2. How important are specialties?

    depends on the topic. Taxes? It’s a must. Traffic tickets? Not so much I
    guess. Consumer protection? It really helps.

    3. Are some specialties more valuable than others?

    yes. See above.

    4. Are there specific certifications that potential clients should
    look for?

    Depends on the state. One question to ask is if the lawyer is part of an
    organization that is dedicated to that topic. ACLU for Civil rights, or a
    trial lawyer association for Personal injury, or in our case: National
    Association for Consumer Advocates.

    5. How does a lawyer become a specialist in something?

    Depends on the state. But mostly, it is just making it the focus of your
    practice.

    6. Are certificates or special education more important than raw
    experience?

    Education is the foundation of knowledge. However, there is no substitute
    for experience.

    7. What questions should clients ask to determine if their lawyer
    has enough specific experience?

    There is no silver bullet. Ask questions about previous cases, length of
    time, references form previous clients and other attorneys.

  8. How important are specialties?
    Choosing an attorney who specializes in your field of need is extremely important. An attorney familiar with the aspects and dealings of a particular issue/case type provides the client the best possible representation.

    Are some specialties more valuable than others?
    I agree with many of the other attorney posts. It really depends on the specialty. If you are dealing with complex issues like taxes, personal injury, business law etc., then it does! Things like traffic tickets can usually be handled by pretty much any attorney.

    Are there specific certifications that potential clients should look for?
    The most important things for clients to look for would be a professional/quality reputation and experience in the specialty of need. Ask around and look for reviews!

    Are certificates or special education more important than raw experience?
    Together, a legal education and raw experience are great things to look for in an attorney. Again, choose an attorney that has a good reputation and will give your case personalized care and attention.

  9. As someone who has practiced in employment law for over 25 years, I’d like
    to weigh in on my particular area of practice. It’s very important if you
    have an employment law issue to hire someone with experience in employment
    law. But it’s not enough to search for “employment law” in Google or a
    lawyer’s directory. You need to make sure you get someone on the right side.
    If you’re an employee looking to have an employment contract reviewed,
    thinking about suing for discrimination, or looking to find out about your
    rights as a whistle-blower, you need someone who handles the employee side.
    I’ve heard of nightmare scenarios where an employee finds a
    qualified-looking employment attorney and writes to them, only to find out
    they just wrote to their employer’s attorney. In general, employee-side
    attorneys will work for smaller firms. A great place to find employee-side
    attorneys is NELA , the National Employment Lawyers
    Association. NELA members must certify that most of their practice is on the
    employee side.

    If you’re looking for someone to defend your business against an employee
    lawsuit, draft an employment agreement for a new employee, or sue an
    employee for violating a non-compete agreement, make sure you hire a
    management-side attorney. Some attorneys do both, but you want someone who
    has experience representing employers.

    In order for an attorney to say they “specialize” they must be certified in
    many states. I personally don’t think certification makes much difference.
    Maybe in a less experienced attorney, a certification could demonstrate that
    they have the knowledge they need in their field. But I think experience
    trumps certifications. Look for someone who handles only one area of
    practice rather than a generalist if you need help with an employment law
    issue. There are too many minefields and too many things that can go wrong
    on either side to let someone dabble with your case.

    What to look for? I’d check out their website to see what’s there. Have they
    written articles or books in their field? How long have they practiced? Have
    they taught continuing education classes to other lawyers in their area of
    practice? Have they been quoted in any articles as an expert in their field?
    Have they handled your particular type of issue before? The answers to these
    questions will give you an indication as to whether you are dealing with
    someone who is knowledgeable in their area of practice.

  10. In most states, including my state of North Carolina, state bar ethics
    rules prohibit an attorney from communicating to the public anything that
    would suggest that they specialize, that they are “certified”, or that
    they have particular expertise beyond that implied by passing the bar
    exam. As with most legal rules, there are a few exceptions. For example,
    most state bars now have a procedure for certifying specialists in
    particular practice areas, usually requiring substantial experience (for
    example, an average of 500 hours of estate planning work each year for the
    past 5 years for the estate planning specialization in North Carolina),
    participation in extensive continuing legal education (CLE) in the practice
    area (72 hours during the 3 years preceding the application for estate
    planning in North Carolina, as compared to the bar minimum of 12 hours per
    year to maintain licensure), peer review by at least 5 peers in the
    field, and passage of an exam administered by the bar. Attorneys admitted
    to the patent bar (open only to lawyers with significant science or
    engineering backgrounds) are permitted to designate themselves as “Patent
    Attorneys” (as patent attorneys are the only attorneys allowed to prosecute
    patents, there really is no choice whether or not to hire a specialist for
    that particular legal task).

    Some states also allow the lawyer to communicate certifications that have
    specifically been approved by the state bar or by the ABA. Every approved
    certification that I have seen carries similar experience requirements to
    those required by the bar. As an example of a disallowed
    certification from my field, there is a certification known as the CEP, or
    Certified Estate Planner designation, which requires minor coursework and
    passage of a standardized exam. Many financial planners and accountants
    also hold themselves out as CEPs. In most states, an attorney, even one
    who completes the course, passes the exam, and earns the certification, can
    not “communicate” that fact to the public.

    The idea is that an attorney who designates himself as a specialist or as
    being certified in a practice area should truly demonstrate mastery of the
    subject matter as well as have enough experience that he has seen a broad
    variety of the legal issues facing clients within that practice area.

    The underlying concern is one that is at the top of the bar’s list of
    reasons for existing: the public needs to be able to trust that attorneys
    are being absolutely forthright and honest, that they are not misleading
    the public in any way. The bar takes this concern extremely seriously, as
    demonstrated by how strictly it polices misleading statements, going beyond
    the literal, necessary meaning of a statement and determining whether any
    inferences taken from the statement might mislead. Thus, allowing
    attorneys to call themselves “Certified Estate Planners” after taking a
    relatively basic course and passing a relatively basic test, although
    honest and not in the least untrue, is disallowed because the public might
    infer that the attorney has substantial experience with and mastery of the
    subject matter of the estate planning practice area. Therefore, it is the
    fact that the public might make inferences about the statement rather than
    the truth of the statement itself that is of primary concern.

    With that background in mind, clients should consider a few factors when
    choosing a specialist lawyer. They should consider whether they truly need
    a specialist. Most attorneys are not “specialists” in the sense of
    carrying a bar certification in a practice area, yet most attorneys limit
    their practices to 2-4 practice areas. An attorney with 30 years of
    experience practicing probate, estate planning, family law, and civil
    litigation is likely to perform just as well as a specialist in any one of
    those areas. Clients should also remember that every licensed attorney has
    demonstrated legal expertise by passing the bar exam in the first
    place. They should also consider the cost of a specialist. While not
    universally true, specialists generally charge higher fees than
    non-specialists. A client with a matter that is fairly run-of-the-mill may
    well come out better in the end with the less expensive attorney. On the
    other hand, a specialist attorney who charges $500 per hour may, within
    some practice areas at least, be five times more productive with his
    time than a less experienced attorney charging $100 per hour.

    One certainty is that the importance of specialties increases as the matter
    grows more complex. If a client’s case involves a novel question of law, a
    fact pattern that will be particularly difficult or complicated to prove, a
    complex business arrangement involving substantial assets, or a vast estate
    that can save millions in estate taxes through proper planning, it
    absolutely makes sense to seek a specialist. One way to look at a
    specialty certification is that it at least guarantees a minimum level of
    knowledge and experience. The quality of an attorney’s work is largely up
    to the attorney’s work ethic, willingness to invest time and effort in the
    matter, thoroughness, and sheer intelligence and creativity with
    problem-solving–all factors that the bar can’t measure. So it is entirely
    possible that a client could find a non-specialist, even a young and
    relatively inexperience attorney, who could achieve the same results on
    their behalf as a very experienced specialist. Conversely, it is possible
    (though unlikely) for a lazy lawyer to achieve certification as a
    specialist. The certification at least guarantees that the attorney’s
    practice is focused on the area of law that you need help with, that they
    have at least five years of substantial experience in that area, and that
    they have a deep level of knowledge about the law in that area. The value
    of those factors is, in the end, up for the client to decide. A
    specialization designation alone is almost certainly not reason enough to
    choose an attorney. I would highly recommend that anyone considering
    hiring an attorney, specialist or no, should seek out reviews of an
    attorney’s work and try to get a reference from someone who may have had a
    similar legal issue and was pleased with the work their attorney did.

    The issue of whether some specialties are more valuable than others would
    be hard for any attorney to answer with a great deal of accuracy because no
    attorney is an expert in all of the different practice areas in which an
    attorney might be certified. Some practice areas involve a great breadth
    of knowledge. For example, a family lawyer obviously needs to know the
    laws pertaining to marriage, divorce, child support and custody, alimony,
    adoption, domestic violence, etc. But he also needs to master the rules of
    evidence and civil procedure and the art of examining and cross-examining
    witnesses. He must know tax law, business law, retirement law, property
    law . . . the list goes on.

    On the other hand, some practice areas require a great depth of knowledge.
    For example, a specialist in social security disability law must master
    title II and XVI of the Social Security Act, federal practice and procedure
    in Social Security disability cases, the proving of medical conditions, and
    all of the various interactions between Social Security Disability and
    other benefits, including Workers’ Compensation, Retirement, Medicare, and
    Medicaid. This specialist’s expertise does not cut across a broad swath of
    the legal landscape but rather delves deeply into state and federal
    statutory and regulatory law that is closely tied to Social Security
    Disability. The various specializations fall somewhere along the continuum
    whose extremes are marked by these two practice areas, but who is to say
    whether bredth or depth is more in need of specialization? At the end of
    the day, it again comes down to considering what exactly the specialization
    signifies: experience and knowledge.

    If a client has considered all of this and concludes that he needs a
    specialist, the go-to certification to look for is one by the state bar
    itself. For some practice areas, this may be the only recognized
    certification that the lawyer can ethically communicate to the public. In
    other areas, clients may see additional designations. The client should
    always look up the designation to find out what it means. An especially
    thorough client might check online or even with the state bar to make sure
    that the designation is permitted by the bar. If you find an attorney
    using a certification that is not allowed, you may want to steer clear. If
    an attorney doesn’t bother to stay within the ethics rules when it’s his
    own licensure and reputation on the line, how much do you trust him to look
    after you?

    The issue of special education is related but somewhat different from the
    issue of certified specialists. The most common designation of special
    education for attorneys is the LLM, or master of laws degree. This is a
    one year degree that in most cases focuses on a specific practice area (the
    other main purpose of the LLM is to qualify a foreign attorney to join a
    state bar in the United States, in which case they would seek an LLM in
    American Law). Within the legal community itself, the LLM degree is often
    viewed as a sign that a lawyer wasn’t ready to leave school and join the
    real world of practicing law, with one exception– the tax LLM. The LLM in
    tax is highly regarded within the profession, and some firms will not hire
    a tax or estate planning attorney who does not hold an LLM in tax. The
    important thing to remember about the LLM is that it represents additional
    book learning. A lawyer who pursues a tax LLM will most improve his
    mastery of the tax code far more in his one year degree program than he
    would have if he spent that year practicing in a tax law firm. However,
    the degree itself can not substitute for years of experience. Indeed, a
    tax LLM can stand in place of one year of experience for a North Carolina
    attorney seeking certification as an Estate Planning specialist, but it
    does not make one a specialist by itself. The value of the additional
    coursework may especially shine when obscure issues arise–these are the
    kind of issues that are the favorites of law school professors but that
    practicing attorneys may not see more than once in a decade, or once in a
    career. When those kinds of issues arise, the LLM may have a significant
    head-start in getting to a solution. In the end, the fact that an attorney
    holds an advanced degree within a practice area is simply one more factor
    to consider when deciding who to hire.

    At the end of the day, the client has make a decision based on all of the
    available information, including presence or absence of specializations,
    amount of experience, number of different areas in which the attorney
    practices, whether an experienced partner will actually be the one handling
    your case or whether it will mostly be handled by less experienced
    associates and merely reviewed by the partner, whether the extra cost
    associated with a specialist is worth the investment, the complexity of the
    client’s issue, and more. There are some questions a client can ask to
    help determine whether the lawyer is sufficiently experienced. One
    commonly recommended technique is to do some basic homework about the
    practice area and subtly quiz the attorney to make sure he knows what he is
    talking about. This is a risky tactic given the fact that even a bad
    lawyer knows more law in his sleep than you are likely to learn in 10
    minutes on Google. Instead, be forthright with your questions. Tell your
    prospective attorney your situation in all its details and listen to his
    thoughts and analysis. Does he seem confident or does he look like he’s
    blowing smoke to try to distract you from that, at this point, he has no
    idea how to handle your situation? An attorney who tells you, “I honestly
    don’t know, but I can find out” or “That will take some research, so let me
    look into it,” may not have as high a level of expertise and experience as
    other attorneys, but he has demonstrated honesty and integrity as well as a
    willingness to put in extra work to do a good job, not to mention the fact
    that he will certainly be less expensive. Obviously, the attorney who
    knows all the answers right off the top of his head is likely to be worth
    his weight in gold. In the end, just beware the ones who will try to
    mislead you into believing they are more experienced and have a higher
    level of expertise than they really do. This is where some education
    before your consultation can come into play, but more valuable is to
    compare the statements of a couple of different attorneys.

  11. What should Clients Consider when Choosing a Specialty Lawyer?

    Experience. It is vital that clients understand that anyone can call themselves an expert in an area of law, and nearly every lawyer’s web page does so, but talk is cheap and only those lawyers who have truly practiced in an area of law are specialists. Taking courses, getting some type of certification, and claiming to be a specialist are all too common, but do not make a specialist. Only those who have practiced in an area of law for some time will know how best to proceed, what types of issues will arise, what types of hidden pitfalls must be avoided, and the like.

    How important are specialties?

    Very important. The days of the general practitioner are long gone. There are so many more areas of law now that it is impossible to master them all.. Plus, given the information explosion, it is impossible to be up to date on more than a few areas of law. Accordingly, avoid a “jack of all trades” or general practitioner, unless the matter is something they have substantial knowledge of and experience with.

    Are some specialties more valuable than others?

    Not necessarily. A tax specialist is as important to someone needing tax help as a personal injury attorney is to someone who has been in an accident.. The key points are to find someone who specializes in the correct area of law and to ensure that they have actual experience and are not simply calling themselves specialists based on taking classes or as a marketing tool.

    Are there specific certifications that potential clients should look for?

    Possibly. Each area may have certifications available to practicing attorneys. They can be helpful, but the best indicator is someone who has substantial experience in the field. In law, there is simply no better teacher than experience.

    How does a lawyer become a specialist in something?

    By working in that practice area repeatedly for years. Only be seeing a large number of cases in that area will an attorney develop the insight to know how best to proceed and what risks may await. A lawyer must pay dues by working in an area for someone else and then gradually develop the experience to handle cases themselves. Then, once they obtain that experience, they must stay on top of the changes in the field.

    Are certificates or special education more important than raw experience?

    As you can probably guess from my answers above, definitely not. Law schools generally do not have majors. Moreover, what you learn in a class room setting is completely different than the actual practice of law. In the real world, you have to face things that do not exist in a classroom, including client relations, judicial temperaments, financial considerations. There are seminars available on every area of law, but – most tellingly – they are all taught by someone who has actual experience in that area.

    What questions should clients ask to determine if their lawyer has enough specific experience?

    A client should look beyond the marketing slogans and claims of experience and aggressiveness on the lawyer’s web page and other marketing materials, and determine the areas of law in which a lawyer practices. If there are a lot, the lawyer is not a specialist. Then, ask about prior experience with similar cases. Finally, when speaking to the lawyer, ask all the questions you have and then judge the lawyer’s confidence and ease of answering. Those are the best indicators of whether someone truly is an expert in a field or a generalist.

  12. If you need brain surgery, would you go to a doctor that does has a general practice? No, you would go to the doctor that has performed brain surgery hundreds of times before and is up to date on all of the latest technologies and methods. You should follow the same practice when hiring a lawyer.

    What should Clients Consider when Choosing a Specialty Lawyer?

    A client should consider whether the attorney practices any other types of law and/or if the firm does. If the areas are related, then it is less of a worry than if the areas have no overlap. For example, I would rather hire a trusts and estates attorney that may do some prenuptial agreements than a trust and estate attorney who also dapples in patent law.

    How important are specialties?

    It is hard to know everything about everything. I give credit to a general practice attorney who feels that he or she can do a murder trial one day and a corporate litigation the next. Attorneys who specialize are more likely to know the nuances in their area of the law, to know the judges that handles the cases that they cover and to be up to date on the current case law.

    Are some specialties more valuable than others?

    Being that I specialize solely in matrimonial law and have not practiced in any other type of law in my entire legal career (I also only interned for matrimonial attorneys and a judge during college and law school), I can only speak from the vantage point of matrimonial law. I think that in the area of divorce, much of the law is subjective and therefore it is very important in this area of law to work with an attorney who knows the judges and has a better sense of how a certain fact pattern has played out in the past. Furthermore, due to the emotional nature of divorce and divorcing parties, I need to have a certain amount of compassion that probably would not have to exist for attorneys practicing in corporate law. You gain that type of compassion and perspective from experience with these types of cases.

    Are there specific certifications that potential clients should look for?

    Most fields do not have special certifications attached to them. A potential client could see what groups and organizations the attorney is part of and if they are particular to their field. There are recognitions that could be reviewed such as a Martindale Hubbel ratings, Super Lawyers or Best Lawyers recognition, etc. For matrimonial law, I think one of the most important things is that you feel comfortable with your attorney. This is not something that you would necessarily be able to ascertain by just reading someone’s resume.

    How does a lawyer become a specialist in something?

    A lawyer, like anyone else, becomes a specialist by experience and education. By practicing in only one field of law and having numerous cases in that type of field and keeping aware of the changes in that field of the law can make someone a specialist.
    Are certificates or special education more important than raw experience?

    Raw experience is more important than special education. I rarely use the actual knowledge I gained in law school in practice, but it did give me the base to be able to properly learn how to practice in the real world. In matrimonial law, the more cases you have, the better you are at spotting issues and handling emotional clients because you become a better predictor of outcomes. Books do not always tell the real story.

    What questions should clients ask to determine if their lawyer has enough specific experience?

    A client can ask how many cases that attorney has handled in the specific area of law. They can give the attorney specific scenarios and ask how the attorney may handle that issue and what options would be available to the client. It is acceptable to interview your lawyer and really press the attorney to see if she/he knows what she/he is doing.

  13. There really are very few officially recognized legal specialties, i.e, an area of law in which the practitioner is required to obtain additional certification to practice. One such area is patent law and specifically being authorized to handle patent applications on behalf of clients in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. In fact, practitioners who desire to represent clients before the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office must pass an exam administered by that agency that has a historically low rate of passage due to its difficulty. Patent law is an extremely nuanced, complex area of law, so requiring additional training is not surprising. And as a result, clients seeking to protect their technology via patents are well advised to engage a competent patent attorney as opposed to, for example, going the self-help, LegalZoom-type route.

    As far as how to vet prospective patent or any other types of attorneys, experience counts. You do not want to be the attorney’s test case for a particular area of law. A client should sit down with the attorney to discuss the client’s particular issue and at minimum obtain the attorney’s initial thoughts. With that in hand — taken in conjunction with the attorney’s experience — a client will be able to make an informed decision as to whether a particular attorney is appropriate for the case.

  14. Specialties have become very important in many areas of the country, where fewer lawyers are general practitioners. Most areas of law have become such a specialty here in New Jersey that a client would be best served by focusing their attorney search on lawyers who specialize in that particular area of law, whether they are literally a specialist certified by the state or whether they focus their entire practice on that area of law.

    I practice family law and matrimonial law. The laws are constantly evolving and attorneys who focus their practice in this area need to keep current on these changes. Furthermore, court procedures, trials and even the application of evidence rules are often handled much differently in family court than in other courts.

    In New Jersey, an attorney cannot call themselves a specialist of family law unless they undergo a rigorous application process and take a comprehensive exam.

    Certificates are not more important than raw experience. But certain certificates, such as the designation of being certified by the NJ Supreme Court as a Certified Matrimonial Law Attorney, does indicate that the particular attorney is fully experienced and well versed in various areas of family law. If they were not, they never would have gotten through the application process.

    The client should ask a potential attorney how many years they have practiced in their area of law and whether they practice in any other areas of law. Questions about results, recoveries or success rates do not typically apply to family law, as it is an extremely fact sensitive area of law in which black and white “results” cannot be easily quantified.

  15. As the Clinic Coordinator for one of the Largest Legal Aid Firms in the Country, I can say there is no easy answer to any of these questions. However, like the old saying goes; “There is no substitute for experience.” Here in Chicago, I’ve worked with Big Law to Individual Practitioners and it can be difficult for a client to find a balance when seeking a legal remedy-even if it’s Pro Bono.

    What should Clients Consider when Choosing a Specialty Lawyer?
    Client’s are sometimes surprised to find out their issue is a multifaceted one or needs to be addressed in a court venue different from their original claim. Moving from Chancery to Probate can require a completely different tact, which must be met by the appropriately skilled attorney.

    How important are specialties?
    Specialties are important, but I’ll also say current or relevant experience with the particular case law is equally important. Just because an attorney specializes in one area, does not preclude them from being a zealous advocate in another area. I run mostly General Service clinics (and a few specific issue clinics) that see all case types and you would be surprised to find out that the great representation you had in your Family Law case was someone with Bio/Science Undergrad (or even PhD) degrees who specializes in IP/Patent Law.

    Are some specialties more valuable than others?
    Absolutely. We have some Immigration only clinics, that frankly can only be handled by Immigration attorney’s. These laws and procedures vary greatly and you need specific help for the minutia of detail that is usually required. Similarly, if there is a very contested Divorce case-you’ll want someone with expertise into the matters of; Custody, Visitation, Support or even getting to a spouses pension in Qualified Domestic Relations Orders and even Orders of Protection-just to name a few.

    Are there specific certifications that potential clients should look for?
    Yes. An LLM can be helpful, but I’ll also go one further for those seeking tax help-a combined CPA/JD is usually the best source for these types of matters, depending on the complexity.

    How does a lawyer become a specialist in something?
    Besides schools offering specialties, ask what kind of Continuing Education they are pursuing. Our organization is a provider of Continuing Legal Education (CLE/MCLE) that can bring up to speed many attorney’s on a variety of topics.

    Are certificates or special education more important than raw experience?
    While knowledge is great, the best experience is in the courtroom; however, this really depends on the legal situation.

    What questions should clients ask to determine if their lawyer has enough specific experience?
    As I’ve mentioned before, sometimes you’re case isn’t what you were thinking. If you’re on the receiving side of a summons-the caption and venue might clarify the picture, but not always so. Competency is a great qualifier. Some attorneys are even peer reviewed and can be searched on the internet. Even shopping around might get you some different approaches to your legal remedy. Sometimes it’s best to have the attorney ask you the questions regarding your case and you can glean from that line of questioning the experience level and gain trust in particular counsel.

    As I mentioned earlier, there are no easy answers and if you’re in a lawsuit you’re likely going to face some kind of binding resolution to the issue at hand (barring any appeals). No matter what the specialty, you want to seek someone who can address your problem in a way that the outcome is going to be beneficial to your interests.

  16. I have worked both as a practicing private attorney who specialized in commercial litigation and business/corporate law, and as a “client” (in-house counsel at a Fortune 200 company whose primary responsibility was the selection & oversight of the lawyers who represented our company). I currently work as a mediator who consults with both retained lawyers and their clients. Unfortunately, the cases we seek to resolve through mediation sometimes involve issues of counsel selection and whether the lawyer and the client are truly aligned, or at odds, with each other.

    Many of the prior posts have already identified most of the key elements that drive “value” in the attorney/client relationship and the role of specialization in the “value proposition” – does the lawyer have substantial experience in the particular area of law and/or underlying industry? does the lawyer have requisite education, training and certifications? does the lawyer have a professional office operation, including the appropriate use & supervision of other attorneys/associates, paralegals, and legal assistants?

    However, and in my experience, the most important determinant of whether the client and the attorney will be truly aligned in the representation is whether the attorney is an excellent communicator. Does the client feel like the attorney “gets” them? Will the attorney take the time during an initial (presumably free) consultation to listen to the client, ask follow up questions, and truly understand their interests? Will the attorney commit to return phone calls, emails and texts promptly? Does the attorney carefully explain the fee agreement, including any contingencies or exceptions, with the client? Does the attorney regularly provide the client with written and/or verbal update reports on the status of their work on the matter?

    Specialization is a fact of life. I would never consider hiring an attorney who does not have substantial experience in the type of matter under consideration. While some attorney websites may be a bit confusing on this topic, that would run afoul of my earlier comments about clear communication. In other words, if the client cannot understand the prospective attorney’s website, they should probably think twice before retaining that lawyer.

    The truly great lawyers are those who can easily relate to and communicate with sophisticated business clients as well as uneducated blue collar workers. They understand all sorts of people from all walks of life, and they can relate to them as fellow human beings.

  17. I am not a big believer in specialists and expert designations. There has been a big movement toward “Board Certification” for lawyers. These certifications tend to be more self-promotion/advertising vehicles by organizations that are created by lawyers outside of traditional bar associations like ABA or State Bar authorities. The real measure of a lawyer are results obtained in the Courtroom and not in the boardroom or classroom. The best way to judge a lawyer is to ask about recent successes in matters similar to the one the legal consumer seeks assistance, client reviews and professional ratings such as Martindale Hubbell and Avvo.com that measure experience and ability based on objective and universally recognized metrics. Georgia Bar Rule 7.4 allows lawyers to truthfully communicate the fact that they are a specialist or are certified in a particular field of law by experience or as a result of having been certified as a “specialist” by successfully completing a particular program of legal specialization. An example of a proper use of the term would be “Certified as a Civil Trial Specialist by XYZ Institute” provided such was in fact the case, such statement would not be false or misleading and provided further that the Civil Trial Specialist program of XYZ Institute is a recognized and bona fide professional entity. The real question becomes what exactly is a bona fide professional entity? Bona fide can sometimes be in the eye of beholder.

  18. Choosing a lawyer, especially one in a “specialty” is harder than it used to be for a couple of reasons. First, it’s about the relationship between the judge and the attorney, not the law, at least in State Court. Federal Court seems to have a higher standard.

    Also, the public generally doesn’t understand the “specialty” such as a “certified family law specialist” for the most used most often court, family court: is ridiculously easy to obtain. I mentioned this because of the ruling in Papazian vs. Papazian where certified family law specialist Samantha Bley DeJean floated the idea her wealthy client was broke and “shouldn’t have to pay child support.” Duh.

    Many attorneys recommend their buddies. The person in need of an attorney should check bar records and above all avoid Yelp. A little about Yelp, here. Use Yelp to find a good restaurant, not an attorney.

    Consider the attorney’s record. In the old days people considered Martindale. But Martindale lost their market share by missing the internet boat. Then there was Best Lawyers. Now there’s Super Lawyer. I can’t blame the public for not knowing what to do. This is partly why I founded Familylawcourts.com.

  19. What should Clients Consider when Choosing a Specialty Lawyer? First,
    clients should make sure they know for certain which area of law they need
    assistance in. For example, some issues can easily be focused in more than
    one area of law (i.e. veterans benefits, elder law and estate planning or
    housing matters as compared to small claims matters). Second, the clients
    should decide if they truly want a “specialist” and if so, what that term
    means to them. In some states, Connecticut being one of them, it is
    ethically unsound for an attorney to call themselves a “specialist.” Rather,
    an attorney can focus in a specific area of law. That being said, just
    because someone calls themselves a family law practitioner, it does not mean
    that they have experience in that field. Therefore, clients should look at
    an attorney’s background, experience, and case list (if available) as well
    as peer and client recommendations.

    How important are specialties? In my opinion “specialties” are important
    for finite areas of the law and for ones in which unique topic knowledge is
    necessary. For example, patent attorneys are allowed to “specialize” in
    patent law because they actually take a separate bar exam and have focused
    and learned not only about the law, but about the technicalities of patents
    and applicable issues. Therefore, while one should probably not choose a
    general practitioner for a patent issue, a general practitioner may be the
    best option for something like a divorce or a foreclosure because that
    attorney will likely have knowledge in the related practice areas (i.e.
    after a divorce, there are often foreclosures, closings, revisions of wills,
    creations of trusts, tax issues, etc., and a general practice office can
    offer more of that “full service” concept).

    Are some specialties more valuable than others? Similarly to my response
    above, I think the only true specialties are valuable because no other
    attorney is qualified to do them and there is a completely different basis
    of knowledge needed.

    Are there specific certifications that potential clients should look for?
    If a client is looking for an attorney in a state that offers
    certifications, yes, they should absolutely see if that attorney is
    certified in that area, especially if the attorney holds themselves out as a
    specialist in that area. For example, after a lengthy amount of time, one
    can become certified in juvenile law and if that is an important factor to a
    client, they should seek that certification. That being said, if the client
    is looking for an attorney in a state that does not offer certifications for
    specialties, or specialties at all, they should again look more to the
    attorney’s recommendations and experience.

    How does a lawyer become a specialist in something? It depends on the
    “specialty.” For patent attorneys, as stated above, they have to take a
    different bar exam, to practice in federal court as opposed to state court,
    you have to apply to do so, for other areas of law, it is dependent upon the
    amount of time one has been practicing.

    Are certificates or special education more important than raw experience?
    Absolutely not. Certificates and special education look great on resumes,
    but if the attorney cannot apply they knowledge they have learned, they will
    not be a good attorney and the best way to become better at anything is to
    continue working at it and get the most exposure to it as possible, which is
    why raw experience outweighs any certificates or special education.

    What questions should clients ask to determine if their lawyer has enough
    specific experience? It depends on the practice areas, but the client can
    ask how many similar cases they have had, what the verdicts were, what their
    strategy is, if they are familiar with the particular court or judge, etc.
    Most importantly, each client has a unique case and a unique personality and
    they should seek an attorney that they can trust and work hand-in-hand with
    throughout the duration of their matter.

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