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Q&A: Legal specialization a boon for consumers

J Scott BovitzLos Angeles-based bankruptcy attorney J. Scott Bovitz served on the State Bar’s Board of Legal Specialization and is currently on the American Board of Certification, the national legal specialty certification organization. He recently spoke with the California Bar Journal about the benefits of becoming a certified legal specialist and what it has meant for his practice.

Tell us why becoming a certified legal specialist is a good thing.

One of the things it does from a personal standpoint is it tells the client that you know your substantive law.  That kind of gives the client a sense of comfort. They can get right down to the facts without worrying about whether you have marginal qualifications in that field. The other thing it does is it helps you as a lawyer find other people you can refer cases to, perhaps in a jurisdiction where you don’t know someone very well. You can be comfortable you are not just handing it off to some person who is marginally qualified in that area. It helps identify people who are leaders within this community. It also helps in a meeting with someone whom you don’t know. Sometimes there’s some sumo wrestling and chest thumping: “Gee, does this person know their stuff?” It kind of makes that unnecessary. If they are a legal specialist you can kind of presume they do and get down to the merits.

You’ve been certified [with the State Bar’s Board of Legal Specialization] since 1994. Can you just talk a little bit about what went into your decision?
What led to my choice is I always wanted to be on my own, like [the television attorney] Perry Mason with [his secretary] Della Street. I was able to convince my spouse, lawyer Susan Spitzer, to join me. We needed a way to tell people that as a small law firm of two lawyers and one assistant, we were capable of doing work at a high level. I am a bankruptcy litigator, and I get work primarily from other lawyers and occasionally from corporations and wanted a way to tell general counsel in just a snapshot that I was qualified.

Even now, there are not that many more than 100 certified bankruptcy specialists in the state. Many, many more people are qualified to be bankruptcy specialists. It’s an easy mark of distinction, and I knew that if legal specialization was available in my field, I would do it. Here’s one of the funny things about it. One of the reasons people do not get certified is they are afraid of taking another test. What I found to be true when I took [the test] and what I found to be true when I was writing these various exams or contributing to the questions  …  is they were drafted for people who work in the field every day. They were not drafted as a law professor’s theoretical examination. It’s not a difficult test for a regular practitioner. It is usually a horse race because there is a lot to say in a short period of time but it is not an examination that requires deep theoretical study or a semester-long class at law school to do it. It requires practice, regular practice in the field.

What would you say to someone who is considering becoming certified but, perhaps doesn’t want to take another test?

Fine, I’ll take all the clients. Let’s [explore] some of the reasons to do it. First and foremost, probably a sense of pride. Second, you will find yourself on the referral list for people you don’t even know who are looking for a lawyer in your jurisdiction. Third, you will give confidence to your prospective clients that you can get the job done and will do it well. With bankruptcy [certification], when you are applying for fees in bankruptcy court, the court is entitled to take into account the fact that you are a certified specialist in fixing your rate. That doesn’t cover every legal specialization field.

I have also had many cold calls from the press, people looking for small tidbits about this development or that development. I have been on television maybe 15 or 16 times talking about different bankruptcy things. And I’m sure, in part, the press feels more comfortable knowing they are talking to a certified specialist. I think that it’s a wonderful way to meet your colleagues. I think occasionally you hear people say in response to becoming a certified specialist, “I don’t want to take another test. There’s a fee for doing this. Well, I don’t want to pay a fee.” It’s not a significant fee for a lawyer who’s in active practice.

I think people are [also] afraid they are going to fail an examination, and it’s going to be public. It is not.

So you’ve had clients contact you saying, “I found you, I am calling you because I saw that you were certified?”

Yes, many times.

Did your clients and colleagues treat you differently after you became certified?

I don’t know if they treated me differently after I became certified, but when I became certified as a young lawyer a lot of people asked me about the program and what it meant to me. If it’s someone in passing who has not read my biography or resume, one of the things I tell them during that initial meeting or conversation is, "Yes I am a certified specialist in that field.”

Another key part of the legal specialization program is consumer protection, allowing consumers to find lawyers who have been vetted. Is that something you thought about when you decided to become certified?

Well, from a personal standpoint, how I protect consumers is by doing a good job, taking only those matters that I think that I can handle. Everyone has a duty to do that. But from an institutional standpoint, yes, consumers are absolutely the reason behind our very difficult bar examination in California. Consumer protection is the reason behind the current discussion about whether we need to have more practical skills experience for our young lawyers, either immediately after law school or perhaps in the early part of their practice.

But going forward it is absolutely a great thing from a consumer protection standpoint if we can tell consumers who call the State Bar looking for a lawyer or go online looking for a lawyer that, yes, within the field of the problem that you have there’s a group of people who can do this job or will at least get you to someone who can do this job, so go to them. And I think that’s a great service for the State Bar to do that. We don’t cover the whole gamut ... but within the fields that we have, it absolutely helps consumers to know that they can pick someone from the list. A consumer may not have regular contact or any contact with a lawyer before this event; bankruptcy is like that, divorce is like that, some tax issues are like that, and it’s very intimidating for those folks to find a lawyer. I would like them to be able to go to a vetted list and feel comfortable that the State Bar has given them a resource to find someone who is compatible and whom they can afford. I think that is really the most important reason behind the national trend toward legal specialization.

Among the legal certification group I think the lawyers that I know who are certified specialists are amazingly diverse and accomplished. I am very, very impressed with the quality of the leadership group within the various certification groups. These are lawyers who are standing up ... and all of them have interesting side lives. They’re authors, speakers they are people who are leaders in the church and the community, and many of them have oddball hobbies. I happen to have ham radio, music writing and photography. One of the things I find in common about certified specialists is they are truly diverse and talented with a lot of interests beyond the law.

Editor’s note: The next Legal Specialist Examination is scheduled for Oct. 22, 2013. The early-bird (discounted fee) registration deadline is Sept. 10 and the final deadline is Oct. 15. The application for the test can be found on the State Bar’s Legal Specialist page.