What Does it Mean to be a Certified Attorney?
The answer to that question is not generally well-known outside of legal circles in New Jersey. You may be familiar with the term “board certified” or “board certification” as it applies to physicians. For the past several years in the medical field, many medical specialties have established boards, (i.e., American Board of Orthopedic Surgery, or American Board of Neuro-Surgery), which are managed by physicians within the specialty. These organizations establish standards for the practice of their specific specialty, and set minimum qualifications for a practitioner to meet in order to sit for an examination which tests their knowledge and skills. Successful completion of the process conveys the title “diplomate” of the board on the physician, who is thereafter “board certified” in that specialty.
The Supreme Court of New Jersey adopted regulations forming a Board on Attorney Certification in 1979, and initially offered certification in two legal specialties: Civil Trial Law and Criminal Trial Law. The board now recognizes five (5) specialty areas, having added Workers Compensation Law and Matrimonial Law in 1996, and Municipal Court Trial Attorney in 2011.
Attorneys seeking to qualify for one or more of these designations must meet a number of requirements before they are approved to sit for the certification examination in their specialty. There is a five (5) year minimum practice requirement for all specialties. Extensive and substantial experience in the practice area, as set forth in requirements unique to each practice area embodied in regulations adopted by the Supreme Court, is required; and the applicant must demonstrate professional fitness and competence as an attorney within the designated practice area, based on peer references. Applicants must also demonstrate ongoing educational experience, based on Continuing Legal Education. Attorneys who meet these requirements, based on the Board’s evaluation, are eligible to sit for the certification examination in their specialty, and those who pass the exam will earn the designation specific to their specialty, i.e., Certified Civil Trial Attorney, Certified Criminal Trial Attorney.
The most recent statistic I have heard is that approximately 1% of all eligible attorneys have earned one or more certifications, making Certified Attorneys an elite group. Why would an attorney undertake the substantial effort required to obtain certification in a specialty? First, there is the obvious pride that comes with meeting a test of competence within your chosen area of endeavor. More importantly, attorneys in all certification specialties except Matrimonial Law are permitted to pay referral fees to attorneys who forward clients to a certified attorney, without the necessity of work participation by the referring attorney. The justification for this departure from settled New Jersey law forbidding referral fees between attorneys is that the client obtains the benefit of a qualified and experienced practitioner. The Supreme Court recognizes that society is better served when an attorney without experience in a practice area forwards work in that area to a more seasoned veteran attorney, and does not suffer financially for making a decision that is in their client’s best interests.
I am proud to be a Certified Civil Trial Attorney, having earned the designation in 1983 (the first year that I was eligible, based on the years in practice requirement), and I have been re-certified every seven (7) years since that time. I was honored to be appointed to the Board on Attorney Certification by the New Jersey Supreme Court, and I served in that capacity for four (4) years, participating in the process of approving attorneys to sit for the examination, and drafting and grading the Civil certification examination. I also served as the Chair of the New Jersey State Bar Association Certified Attorneys Section for two years.
Stark & Stark has 15 Certified Civil Trial Attorneys, 4 Certified Workers Compensation Attorneys and 1 Certified Matrimonial Law Attorney. (The first group of Municipal Court Trial Attorneys has not been certified yet, since the rule approving the specialty was only passed in September, 2011.) I am not aware of any law firm in New Jersey with more Certified Attorneys than Stark & Stark. I believe in the certification process, and I believe that it serves the interests of consumers of legal services in New Jersey.
In the event that you require legal counsel, I strongly recommend that you chose an attorney who has been certified in the practice area for which you seek representation.
John Sakson is a Shareholder and Co-Managing Direcotr of Stark & Stark’s in the firm's Lawrenceville, New Jersey office, specializing in Accident & Personal Injury Law. For more information, please contact Mr. Sakson.