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Legal Specialization

State-regulated legal certification programs allow attorneys to be recognized as "board certified" experts in their practice areas. The certification process is overseen either by state bar associations or state supreme courts and is designed to prevent the public from being misled by unscrupulous attorneys who claim they are specialists without having bona fide credentials to back up the claim. As of the early 2000s, 18 states had adopted legal certification programs.

Legal specialization certification had been debated for decades, but the argument heated up in the 1970s and early 1980s, when federal and state courts struck down rules that prohibited attorneys from advertising in the media and in telephone books. As phone companies began to sell advertising in different fields of law, national bodies such as the National Board of Trial Advocacy (NBTA) began certifying specialists in civil and criminal litigation, and lawyers continued to become more specialized in their practices. By the mid-1980s certified legal specialist programs gained momentum. The AMERICAN BAR ASSOCIATION (ABA) set up a Standing Committee on Specialization and, in 1993, adopted a set of voluntary standards. In addition, the ABA agreed to accredit private national certification programs that met the ABA standards. By 2000, more than 25,000 U.S. lawyers had been accredited as legal specialists.

Certification rules vary from state to state, but each lawyer must fulfill four major requirements to be deemed a certified specialist. He or she must provide evidence of substantial involvement in the specialty area and references from lawyers and judges. He must have completed 36 credit hours of specialty CONTINUING LEGAL EDUCATION (CLE) in the three years preceding the application. He must have been admitted to practice and be a member in good standing in one or more states. And, finally, he must be recertified at least every five years and be subject to revocation of the certification for failure to meet the program's requirements.

State legal certification boards accredit independent agencies to perform the actual testing and certification. This process minimizes the costs incurred by the certification boards and places the cost of the programs on the lawyers who wish to be certified and who must pay application fees to the independent agencies. National organizations authorized to certify specialists include the NBTA, the American Board of Certification, and the National Elder Law Foundation. In addition, many state bar associations are authorized to certify specialists. Eleven certification programs that have been accredited. The specialties include civil trial practice; CRIMINAL LAW; FAMILY LAW trial advocacy; business and consumer BANKRUPTCY; creditor's rights; legal, medical, and accounting professional liability; elder law; and estate planning law.


American Bar Association. Standing Committee on Specialization. Available online at <www.abanet.org/legalservices/specialization/home.html> (accessed June 30, 2003.)

Hobson, Wayne K. 1986. The American Legal Profession and the Organizational Society, 1890–1930. New York: Garland.

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