Specialization-What's So Special about Being a Specialist?

My grandfather used to tell me that it was important to pick a career where you can have a particular focus-a specialty. Initially, he was intent on guiding me towards plumbing. After watching my handy work abilities in my early teenage years, he eventually thought that computers might be a better direction for me. Ultimately, I worked my way to law school. As fate would have it, I found a focus within the confines of a particular legal subject matter-workers' compensation law.

Thanks to an incredible effort spearheaded by esteemed members of the Workers' Compensation Section, an outline for certification was established for attorneys to "specialize" in this area of law. Consistent with the Standing Committee's Guidelines, attorneys who have attained the designation "Board Certified Workers' Compensation Specialist" have satisfied the following requirements:

  • demonstrated that no less than 25 percent of their total practice has been in the area of workers' compensation law;
  • engaged in the practice of law in Connecticut for at least five years and been a member in good standing of each bar in which the attorney is admitted;
  • maintained a malpractice policy with minimum limits of $300,000 per occurrence;
  • have a satisfactory disciplinary and malpractice history;
  • participated in a minimum of 36 hours of continuing legal education activities in the area of workers' compensation law in the three years prior to filing the application;
  • have a minimum of five references from other attorneys knowledgeable regarding the applicant's practice and competence; and
  • have passed a one-day written examination.

Once I was eligible to submit an application for specialization, I considered whether I was going to follow through with what at first glance appeared to be an agonizing process. Was there any tangible benefit to being a "specialist" in what has been deemed in some circles an arcane area of the law?

The first major drawback was the most obvious-an examination. One of the most relieving thoughts I can recall post-law school was that I would never have to sit down for an examination ever again. Now, to become a specialist, I would have to get back into study mode and actually sit down and relearn that TRAC rule for my essays. How the heck was I supposed to remember how to take an exam after so many years had passed since I last sat for one?

Another potential drawback was all of those continuing legal education (CLE) courses I would have to attend before the examination in order to qualify. The fine print revealed that board certified specialists had to reapply in five years to maintain certification and demonstrate a minimum of CLE credits per year. Did I have the time to continue attending these seminars and listening to tapes about legal and medical issues in the field of workers' compensation? Was all of this worth the effort?

There were many questions about whether to become a specialist. Selfishly, I thought that the label of "SPECIALIST" would look nice in the advertisements or on my business card. I also had some incentive to proceed as my partner had satisfied the requirements a few years prior and my certification would mean that both attorneys in the firm were specialists. I was also getting tired of him pointing toward this imaginary "B.C." (Board Certified) button on his lapel every time we wrestled with legal issues together.

What I didn't see amongst these queries was the importance of taking this opportunity to make myself a better lawyer. Before I was certified, I admittedly wasn't attending as many seminars or studying case law to the extent I was when preparing for the certification process. Once I committed myself to taking the examination, which was a big hurdle, my mind was literally rewired for a better understanding of the statutes contained in the Workers Compensation Act (Connecticut General Statutes § 31-275 through § 31-355b and related statues to my practice).

The process enabled me to understand that I needed balance as a lawyer. Educating myself concerning the relevant statutes, regulations and case law within my practice area proved vital toward this end. I was even able to learn a few tricks of the trade from another perspective by studying for the examination with a couple of unnamed defense attorneys.

It is hard to measure whether there has been a tangible benefit to the firm based on my certification. I don't have many potential clients walk through the door and tell me that they are in my office because I am considered a specialist by the Connecticut Bar Association (CBA). The most I hear about it is when my mother announces how "special" I am before the extended family during our reunion each summer. You can imagine how she goes on about my brother, a recently board certified pulmonologist-"I am very proud of you, Lawrence, that you are a lawyer, but your brother is a doctor! He saves lives."

Maybe I haven't saved lives as a result of this process. But I have been able to better advocate for my clients as a result. That is a benefit that makes it worth your consideration should your practice area decide to take the steps taken by the Workers' Compensation Section. It is my understanding that the Real Estate Section has gone down this road of certification and I commend those individuals responsible.

The reality is that a vast majority of sections will not have certification programs. You don't have to be a specialist to be special. Dedication to your craft is paramount to better advocacy. As an attorney, you are never done with the bar examination. You may not have to sit down and write essays or complete a multiple-choice examination, but you are dealing with legal issues moment to moment and with clients' legal interests at stake. Becoming a board certified specialist is one way to keep you focused on the task at hand. Taking a few minutes on Casemaker® to find a statute or reading the Law Tribune for releases of cases in your area of practice is another way to keep yourself educated and better advise your client.

Regardless of whether you are in a position to become a specialist or not, CLE is a great way to keep yourself in the loop. Take a moment to look at what the CBA has to offer in this department. And if you're really feeling frisky, I would urge you to gather support for a certification program in your practice area. At least debate it. You probably have a knack at that skill if you're reading this article. What are the pros and cons for your section? What parameters are appropriate? It may take significant time to develop, but there is already precedent for the process in at least two of our sections.

With that, I may not be a plumber and I do not plan on submitting an application to Apple or Microsoft anytime soon. I am, however, a Board Certified Workers' Compensation Specialist and I am sure my grandfather would have been satisfied with that result.