Founded on Tradition and Integrity
Building on Commitment and Service
I Hope You Dance
BY John W. Frost II
Adelle dropped the brief on her desk and rubbed her tired eyes…
Ron sank once more into his desk chair as his partner headed home…
Enrique rested his brain, letting his imagination paint the new sign he’d erect next year: “Board Certified in Civil Trail Practice.”
These three lawyers, in their approach to their profession, are acting out the title of a popular song that recently swept the country. Instead of settling for the status quo and the least effort, they have each chosen diligence, involvement, and excellence, developing themselves as people and as professionals. They have chosen to become board certified as legal specialists. Or, in words of the popular song, instead of just “sitting it out” while other lawyers embrace higher standards and increased public awareness, they have decided to dance.
Too many Florida lawyers are sitting it out in the matter of certification when they could choose to dance and enhance their lives and the profession itself. When I was asked to write an article explaining why I believe in certification, Lee Ann Womack’s song kept running through my mind: “When you have the chance to sit it out or dance, I hope you dance.” The songwriter speaks from the viewpoint of a more experienced life veteran inviting a listener to sign up for all the fullness life offers. As I looked back on my own professional choices in preparation for writing these words, I kept finding parallels between a choice metaphorically to “dance” the dances life offers, and the professional choice to develop every facet of our legal expertise to the utmost and to stimulate our determination to help our clients to the maximum.
You may be asking yourself, “Why not just sit out this certification business? Why dance?” These are compelling reasons, and I will discuss three: increased competency, informed choices by prospective clients, and inspired professionalism. In law schools, bar association, and gathering places, lawyers and law professors are examining these advantages of certification.
The Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics describes a hardworking lawyer sitting at his desk in the late evening hours.1 He had promised himself, when he gained admission to the Bar, never to take another test. Yet here he was, like the lawyers that introduced this article, reading some recent state Supreme Court case in his area of the law. His motivation? The test he faced, if he passed it, would tell the world (and potential clients) that he was a certified specialist in Family Law. Already he was devoting the required amount of his working time to family law matters. He had obtained the required references from fellow lawyers. Now all he needed was to pass the written examination.2
The three composite Florida lawyers above were reaching for the same goal. They had established the required percentage of practice time spent in a certain field, had obtained the peer references required in our state, and were just a test score away from a certified level expertise. They had, in effect, chosen to follow the exhortation in Womack’s song: “hope you never fear those mountains in the distance; never settle for the path of least resistance.” Although the steps required for certification may not be easy for a hardworking lawyer with no free time, the fact remains that monitoring the amount of time spent on certain areas of practice, establishing an impeccable reputation with one’s peers, and studying for a certification test all lead to a professional self-evaluation that can be as valuable as the certification itself. Pouring over reams of legal cases and opinions in preparation for a test may seem a high mountain to climb, but achieving certification encourages practicing lawyers to “improve the quality of the representation of their clients.”3
The certification process will help make you a better lawyer, stimulating you to increase your legal skills and to expand your storehouse of knowledge. The hours of study will enable you to meet requirements that keep your skills honed. Once you’ve climbed the mountain, your certification will let the legal community and your clients know you continue to steep yourself in current law and to work hard at being the best you can be.
As lawyers seek certification, one result will be a higher standard of practice in Florida. More proficient representation will inform and protect the consumers of justice in this state. True, it will be economically rewarding to those who become certified, but in the long run, it will create a finer legal climate, unquestionably promoting greater efficiency and effectiveness in the administration of justice. The song’s “path of least resistance” transferred to the legal community would entail lawyers settling for the status quo in which they find themselves. I hope you will choose to be part of a self-evaluation and self-development process that is richly rewarding. Be among those lawyers drawn to certification because it encourages staying on the cutting edge of practice and setting the highest standards of professional competence.
The second compelling reason to work toward certification is that the program creates an informed body of prospective clients. Our professionalism and our oath of admission to the Bar require that we take the actions that better serve our clients. Certification facilitates the intelligent selection of counsel, demonstrating to the consumer that the attorney has met objective standards in a certain area. A majority of respondents in a social science survey recently indicated they would be more likely to sue a lawyer who has been certified.4 Bar associations around the country have noted that certification provides the only dependably meaningful information in lawyer advertisements. Finding an attorney can be a difficult and daunting process, and objective information is not readily available. Consumers of legal services and referring attorneys can be more secure in selecting an attorney who definitely has developed a certain level of experience in that area, completed a certain level of continuing legal education, and passed a certifying examination. Because assisting the public in selecting legal counsel is one responsibility that American Lawyers and our courts have embraced, and because certification helps inform the public, Florida lawyers will serve clients better by supporting and promoting the certification process. Although the process is not an easy one, as Womack’s song reminds us, “living might mean taking chances, but they’re worth taking.”
Once you have taken a chance on the certification process, remind yourself that you are also taking a step to set yourself apart, both as a lawyer driven to develop maximum expertise to develop maximum expertise and as a responsive professional sensitive to the needs of clients and the legal community. In fact, development of yourself as a professional is the third compelling reason for involvement in the certification process. The process itself is specifically designed for those who care about professionalism, high standards, and the uplifting of the profession.
Lawyers in this country, writes news columnist Sydney J. Harris, “advertise a laundry list of legal competences that would defy the combined talents of Holmes, Brandeis, Darrow, and Daniel Webster.” Although Harris is surely exaggerating for effect, it behooves Florida lawyers to examine their professionalism and expertise, and offer the public the highest standards possible of both. Whether board certification gives you the key to the executive washroom or the relieved handshake of a client, your training and designation as a certified lawyer help make the system better. Be the best influence you can be: a professional stimulating the system in the best interest of the public. Shoulder the responsibility professionalism demands, and help the Florida legal community send in the most expertly trained lawyers possible on each side of every legal question.
I hope that you, as a professional, “never lose your sense of wonder” as the popular song says. May your idealism and love of the law recall the early days of law school and beginning practice, when you had a “sense of wonder” at the opportunity to be part of a legal community crucial to the stability and security of our nation. As the singer says, I hope that by this point in your career, you “get your fill to eat but keep your hunger.” I believe lawyers need to hunger to learn more law and to polish their skills, to risk measuring themselves against high standards and to feed on ideals as well as profits. I urge you to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of certification in Florida by embracing the challenge and the enrichment certification will bring to you personally and professionally. I hope you dance.
1 Buddy O. Herring, Liability of Board Certified Specialists in a Legal Malpractice Action: Is There a Higher Standard? GEO. J. LEGAL ETHICS 67 (Fall 1998).
3 D.C. Offutt, Presidents’ Page, 11 W. VA. LAW.4 (Feb. 1998).
4 J. Perlin, Special Recognition, ABA J. 76 (May 1998).