Saturday, September 30, 2017

What Lawyers Do, a Specialization Guide

          Two things struck me this week regarding my profession. First, my son is trying to decide what type of lawyer he wants to be when he graduates from law school next spring. Second, while binge watching Better Call Saul, I was struck by Saul’s attempt to label himself an Elder Law Attorney simply by drafting a few wills.  Putting aside that a lawyer who drafts wills is considered a Trust and Estates attorney, not an Elder Law attorney, I began to think about all the areas of practice in which we, as lawyers, specialize which, in many ways, are unknown to the public who think lawyers, know or should know, all areas of the law.

          There are two main branches of practice, commonly divided between trial attorneys and transactional attorneys. Historically, and in actual practice in some countries, the trial attorneys were known as barristers. These attorneys present all cases in court at the direction of solicitors who handle the actual day-to-day practice of law and who handle all client relations. In many cases, the barrister receives the trial materials merely a day or two before the trial, presenting the case prepared by the solicitor. Barristers were forbidden to meet with clients or to even form partnerships with other barristers. However, many barristers banded together in groups called chambers in which they could share resources, office space and clerks.

          In the United Kingdom for example, barristers are still the most common trial attorneys though the fusion of practice between barristers and certain solicitors is continuing to expand in the United Kingdom. Barristers still wear horsehair wigs, stiff collars, bands, and a gown when appearing in court in the United Kingdom. 

          In the United States, the separation of barristers and solicitors has been eliminated and anyone who is licensed as an attorney may appear in any state court in which they are licensed. However, appearances in federal court still require an application, and in some cases also require the taking of a test. In many jurisdictions, including federal, admission to the appellate bar also requires an application and in some cases an examination. Admissions to the Federal Bankruptcy Bar requires both admission to the federal District Court for the applicable bankruptcy court, and passage of an examination and a minimum of continuing legal education credits. Admission to the United States Patent and Trademark bar requires passage of a very difficult exam and a scientific or engineering undergraduate degree.

          Most lawyers today have a jurist doctorate degree issued by one of the United States’ one-hundred fifty plus accredited law schools. Many law schools also now offer certificates to their students, which allows a student to “major” in a specific area of law while in law school. These programs require the students to take a specific coursework in their “major,” and also to take one or two additional classes beyond the normal number required to graduate. Some programs also require maintaining a minimum GPA in the specialized area. Upon graduation, the student receives a separate certificate indicating the completion of the specialized coursework program.

          In addition, there is also post-law school graduate work for further specialization. The most common is the Masters in Law in Tax, commonly known as the LLM degree. Many tax attorneys practicing today hold this graduate degree.   Other LLM’s are available today including LLMs in international, real estate, health or environmental law.

          On television, lawyers appear to handle a variety of legal matters including criminal and civil, transactional and litigation. While there still are some lawyers who handle a wide variety of cases, most lawyers specialize in a limited area of law. In litigation, there are lawyers who specialize in criminal cases, family law cases, commercial litigation, or civil litigation. Transactional lawyers also specialize, including areas such as real estate, corporate, intellectual property, licensing, sports law and other areas.

          In Florida, lawyers who specialize in a specific area may, after practicing five years, stand for one of the many certification exams offered by the Florida Bar. These exams, when passed, allow a lawyer to state that they are Board Certified in that specific area.   There are currently twenty-six areas of law for which lawyers may become Board Certified. This list continues to grow and includes both litigation and transactional areas of law. 

          Armed with this knowledge, it makes it easier for you to properly select a lawyer to represent you in whatever matter your legal needs require. Choosing the correct lawyer is the first step to resolving your legal needs, and selecting someone who is not qualified to handle your case can lead to poor representation and an unhappy outcome.


Michael J Posner, Esq., is a partner in Ward Damon a mid-sized real estate and business oriented law firm with offices in Palm Beach County and a Board Certified Real Estate Attorney who handles a variety of real estate matters throughout South Florida.  He can be reached at 561.594.1452, or at mjposner@warddamon.com

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