What Does It Mean When a Lawyer Says She is Board Certified?

What does it mean when a lawyer is “board certified?”

A.  Just like doctors can be “board certified” in surgery or pediatrics or a large number of other specialties, lawyers can choose to seek board certification in several different areas in the law.

There are several civil trial certifications available in Tennessee – civil trial specialist, medical malpractice, legal malpractice and family. A civil trial specialist must (a) have a demonstrated level of experience in trying civil cases; (b) pass a written examination  that covers certain aspects of civil law, evidence, and ethics; (c) receive positive recommendations from judges and attorneys that he or she has tried cases against; (d) have a good  disciplinary history.  The attorney applies for civil trial and family trial certification with the National Board of Trial  Advocacy, a division of the National Board of Legal Specialty Certification.  Medical and legal trial certification is available from another group.

If a Tennessee attorney is certified by this group, the attorney must then apply to the Tennessee Commission on Continuing Legal Education and Specialization Commission for certification in Tennessee.   The Tennessee Commission imposes additional requirements, including professional liability insurance and client recommendations. 

Lawyers certified in civil trial practice must be re-certified every five years.

A lawyer who has attained board certification has demonstrated that they meet or exceed the requirements for certification.  Many lawyers do not have sufficient trial experience to become certified as civil trial specialists.  Others may not be able to pass the examination or gain appropriate recommendations.   Others may have had past ethics complaints that prohibit them from becoming certified.  

In short, board certification is one way a consumer can get a solid idea of the lawyer’s experience, competence, and standing in the legal community. There are other ways to learn this information, as explained in this Legal Guide.

I am very proud of the fact that I earned my certification as a civil trial specialist almost 20 years ago and, in fact, have served as President of the National Board of Trial Advocacy,  the national organization that administers the certification program used in Tennessee.  I have also served as Chairman of the Tennessee commission that monitors board certification in our state. 

I think you will find that most board-certified lawyers actually charge the same fees as non-certified lawyers and, indeed, some of us charge even less than some non-certified lawyers.  Why pay more – or even the same amount – for someone who does not have the demonstrated knowledge, experience and ethical principles as is required for a certified civil trial specialist?