The Importance of Board Certification for Attorneys

Like the practice of medicine, a law practice is usually focused on a particular area where it has developed expertise. Whether it's personal injury trial law, criminal defense trial law, bankruptcy or family law, most lawyers focus their practice on serving clients in a core area, just as doctors typically focus on helping people who have a particular illness or bodily problem. This concept of specialization improves a profession's ability to best serve the public.

Board certification is an important aspect of specialization; it provides additional education, evaluation and expertise to practitioners so that they can better serve their clients or patients. The medical profession has long recognized the value of board certification, as roughly 90 percent of all physicians in the U.S. are certified by an accredited medical board. Yet surprisingly, board certification of attorneys has lagged far behind: less than four percent of all practicing lawyers are certified by either a board accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA) or a state-sponsored certification board.

Why Are So Few Lawyers Board-Certified?

There are many reasons that so few attorneys have a recognized certification, but one key factor is that the formal establishment of specialty certification in the legal realm did not begin until the mid-1970s and ABA accreditation of attorney board certification boards did not start until 1993. The first ABA accredited attorney certification board was the National Board of Trial Advocacy — still the largest ABA accredited legal certification board — which is now known as the National Board of Trial Advocacy (NBTA) Division of the National Board of Legal Specialty Certification. Founded in 1977, the NBTA certifies lawyers in civil trial advocacy, criminal trial advocacy and family law. The public is still learning about the importance of certification when choosing an attorney. However, the relatively short existence of legal specialty boards doesn't fully explain the rarity of a specialization certified lawyer.

Another prominent reason for the low number of specialty certified attorneys is because of resistance in the profession, because obtaining board certification is not easy for a lawyer; and while it is also not easy for doctors, the culture of going the extra mile is well-established in medicine whereas in the legal profession, elite lawyers have been drawn in first. Obtaining specialty certification requires a lot of dedication from the participating attorney. It takes a substantial investment of time and money, but organizations such as the NBTA and state certification boards also require reputable peer evaluations and even require the lawyer to undergo a demanding examination.

What You Know About an Attorney Who Is Board-Certified

When a lawyer holds a board certification from an accredited or state-sponsored organization, such as the NBTA, you immediately know some important things about the attorney without even meeting him or her. Some of the safe assumptions about the attorney include:

  • The lawyer is seriously dedicated to his practice area;
  • The lawyer has made substantial effort and investment in becoming a better attorney, well above and beyond the standard requirements, and proving this to the satisfaction of a nonprofit certifying board;
  • The lawyer is highly regarded by fellow attorneys and judges;
  • The lawyer passed an independent screening and examination in addition to the requirements imposed by a state's licensing association;
  • The lawyer is in elite company, less than 4 percent of attorneys attain certification.

In sum, specialty certification demonstrates that the attorney is highly regarded and proficient in his or her practice. It gives a potential client additional confidence and insight when he or she is selecting a lawyer for representation.