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American Bar Association - Defending Liberty, Pursuing Justice

Winter 2009

Vol. 5, No. 2

Family Law


Why Specialize?

Becoming certified as a specialist in family law is a great marketing tool to distinguish yourself from other attorneys who practice family law as a sideline. Certified lawyers often receive referrals of more complex cases and more sophisticated clients. Many state bars print lists of newly board-certified lawyers in their monthly publications, which are distributed to lawyers statewide. This is free advertising that reaches a wide audience. Many state and local bar associations list board-certified lawyers by specialty on their web pages. In addition, in many states a board certified lawyer may advertise that he or she is designated and recognized as an expert; in some states, lawyers with specializations are allowed to use the board certified logo on business cards and stationery.

Most family lawyers receive referrals from business or estate planning lawyers, and these attorneys often seek to refer clients to a specialist. Certification also may garner you the respect of your colleagues because the process requires recommendations from lawyers who have been opposing counsel on past cases. Finally, in states that have a specialization program, you must be specialized before you can apply and be accepted to the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (provided you meet other requirements, including a national test).

What It Costs

Application fees can be expensive and the process time-consuming. Certifications generally run for five years and then require reapplication and another fee. The applications themselves can be quite time-consuming. You may be required to submit for a period of, say, five years, a list of litigated cases, opposing attorneys, and assigned judges. Usually the certification committee checks with all opposing counsel and your references. In addition, some specialty certifications require an expanded number of CLE hours, and attendance at such courses can be expensive.

The cost of certification is immediately passed on; most lawyers who obtain certification raise their billable rates to reflect their high stature in specialization. Although the process and costs may seem taxing, most board certified lawyers will tell you that the energy and funds expended are rewarded threefold.

The National Board of Trial Advocacy certifies lawyers in the area of Family Law Trial Advocacy in all 50 states, based on an examination process. The application fee is $350, the exam fee is $375, annual fees are $150, and the recertification fee is $350. Some states that grant a specialization based on the NBTA program charge an additional fee, e.g., Idaho charges $500, including the exam fee. Arizona, California, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, and Texas have separate specialization programs, not necessarily based on testing. Application fees range from $100 to $600.

The Process

Certification usually involves a test and a long application designed to demonstrate that your experience meets the stated requirements, as well as peer review forms, and proof of good standing with your bar. Some states handle certification through their supreme courts, whereas others do so through state bars.

Board certified lawyers will tell you that the energy and funds expended are rewarded threefold.

Check your state requirements for certification as well as rules on advertising as state rules vary. For example, in the District of Columbia, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, and Oregon, lawyers may advertise and state a specialization in a certain area. Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, California, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, and Wisconsin allow the statement but require the lawyer to name the certifying board, and the certification must be from an ABA-accredited entity.

Check your state requirements for certification as well as rules on advertising as state rules vary.

In Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wyoming, the communication is allowed as long as specialization is awarded by a state-sponsored or state-approved third-party program. Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, Rhode Island, Virginia, and Washington allow communication but require a disclaimer, whereas in Kansas, lawyers are not allowed to state “specialist,” or “practice limited to,” or “practice concentrated in.” Maryland and West Virginia also prohibit such communications. For more information about specialization, see

Specialization States

The following states have some type of specialization program: Arizona, California, Connecticut, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Louisiana, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas.

Published in Family Advocate, Volume 29, No. 2, Fall 2006. © 2006 by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association.

Twila B. Larkin is a family law specialist certified by the New Mexico Board of Legal Specialization and is the former Region V Representative to the ABA Section of Family Law Council. She is a former chair of New Mexico's Family Law Section, as well as being a chair or co-chair of many seminars. She practices in all aspects of family law, including collaborative divorce, in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, New Mexico. This article is not intended as an exhaustive analysis of all requirements of certification testing programs. Check with your individual state and strictly follow all requirements of the process.

© Copyright 2009, American Bar Association.