Make Your Mother Proud
I decided to seek board certification in my main area of practice, real estate 10 years ago. This decision was not based on a desire to get more clients or to hang an extra plaque on my “ego” wall but simply to see if I could pass the test and peer review. I was fortunate to pass both and the residual results were surprising and well worth the effort.
When we raise the expectations we have of ourselves and others, we are often astonished by the results. We are indeed fortunate to be engaged in a profession which offers us the opportunity for continuous challenges, whether to our intellect, the manner in which we represent our clients, and/or our dealings with those who oppose or judge our opinions. Each response, whether in words or in our demeanor, reflects our character, our competence, and our respect for professionalism. It’s all a matter of personal choice.
From the perspective of the general public and our clients, our profession is judged through a variety of sources, the most influential of which is your personal representation and commitment to excellence in the legal services you provide. A powerful means by which to demonstrate your resolve is through board certification. Embedded in the program’s requirements are high standards of practice which focus on competence, knowledge, skills and proficiency. Moreover, our Supreme Court in 1998 expanded the scope of the required peer review to include an assessment of each applicant’s character, ethics, and reputation for professionalism. This meshing of evaluating competence and character offers an opportunity for us as lawyers and provides an unparalleled benchmark for the public. It is time to advance the mission of the Bar’s certification program, to celebrate its existence, and I strongly encourage your participation.
Long before the official inception of the Florida Certification Plan in 1982, the concept of legal specialization was divisive. Some deemed its regulation to be unnecessary and to have the effect of fragmenting the practice of law or creating an elite status. Others countered by arguing that with the explosion of lawyer advertising, the public needed a means by which to make an informed selection. Responding to the debate, our Supreme Court ultimately acknowledged that it is the responsibility of both the court and the Bar to assist the public in the selection of legal counsel. A certification plan was proposed, approved, and implemented. Lawyers practicing in tax law and civil trial were among the first to take the plunge, submitting not only to a review of their qualifications by their fellow colleagues, but likewise to a formidable examination. It was a courageous step for many who had an already proven reputation and clientele.
In the years following, the program expanded with new practice fields. Twenty areas are now available and two more are on track for consideration by the Supreme Court. Changes have also occurred in the practice standards to more accurately reflect our evolving profession. The ability of trial lawyers, for example, to take cases to trial to meet the recertification requirements has become increasingly difficult given the emerging means of dispute resolution. With extensive debate, negotiation and concession, the civil trial standards have now been modified to permit alternative activities to satisfy the requirements without compromising the integrity of the program. Other practice fields have met similar challenges and all who understand the nature of board certification acknowledge that changes in its requirements are both inevitable and necessary.
The introduction of professionalism as a criterion for qualification has by far been the most challenging, yet has the greatest potential to encourage and influence a conduct of behavior we all should strive to attain. The plan’s language speaks to “character, ethics and a reputation for professionalism” and the confidentiality of the peer review process offers those who assess an applicant to speak truthfully and most do. A candidate facing denial on this basis receives an explanation of their weaknesses and provides the opportunity for response, a personal appearance, and appeal. To open oneself to this type of scrutiny declares a willingness to learn and to know how we are perceived by our peers and the judiciary and, if necessary, to take steps toward self-improvement through increased education, working with a mentor, or professionalism training.
Board certification has been described by former Chief Justice Harry Lee Anstead as one of the “crown jewels of the Florida justice system.” With professionalism and competence at its core, the certification program sets ongoing goals to make us better lawyers and to improve the system of justice for the public we serve. I commend it to you as a tangible way to enhance your career and to demonstrate your commitment to excellence.
Whether or not you seek certification, we all need to practice law in a way that would make our mother’s proud.