Board Certification Process
By: Alex J. Bell

As young lawyers, we are always looking for ways to build our brand, enhance our image, or bolster our qualifications.  One of the best ways to accomplish this is to earn a board certification through the Texas Board of Legal Specialization.  TBLS certifies attorneys in 21 select areas of law and is the only organization authorized to provide this service to Texas attorneys. 

There are different qualifications and requirements for each area of law.  Attorneys must:

•  have been in practice a minimum of five years with three years of substantial involvement in an area of law,

•  complete TBLS-approved continuing legal education course requirements,

• furnish at least 10 qualified, vetted references,

•  provide extensive, relevant experience documentation and

•  pass a comprehensive, daylong, specialty area examination.

As someone who recently went through the process of board certification, I found several areas where I wished I’d had a mentor—or just some friendly advice—on things that would make the process easier.  So here is my list of things you should do to make sure that you’re ready to apply for and take the board certification exam in your practice area.

First, it is never too early to begin keeping a list of trials, hearings, oral arguments, or other "experience units.”  For my criminal appellate certification, I had to provide information for 50 units of experience.  Twenty-five had to have been in the three years immediately before the exam and five had to be oral arguments before an appellate court.  For my application, I used appellate briefs and oral arguments to meet the requirements.  The application required me to fill in the cause number, style of the case, and the date on which I submitted the brief or presented oral argument.  I already kept a list of cases and oral arguments, but I did not keep track of the dates on which briefs were submitted.  As a result, it took several hours to look up the dates on the courts of appeals’ websites.  A comprehensive list will save you a lot of time.

Second, prepare and keep a list of references.  These will come from people you work with, people you work against, and the judges in whose courts you practice.  While maintaining good, collegial working relationships with your legal peers is always important, it is especially important when it comes time for you to seek out references to become board certified.  Contact prospective references before listing them on your application to assure they are willing to serve as a reference and they will be expecting the form that will follow from TBLS. 

Third, exam preparation is essential.  Preparing for this exam is different than preparing for a law school exam or the bar exam.  There are no official classes or study materials for the exam.  However, each area of certification has an extensive list of topics that could be covered during the exam, which can be found on the TBLS website.  If you are unfamiliar with any of the topics, find a resource or CLE on the subject too.  One of the best ways to prepare is to attend a quality comprehensive CLE that includes a yearly update on the law in the field where you are trying to become certified.  There are no "test prep" courses or old exams with which to practice.  Prior exam takers are good resources for what areas might be covered, but their reports are no guarantee that the same material will be covered again. 

Finally, if you’re thinking about taking a specialization exam, make sure to talk to your boss or supervisor about the exam and why you want to take it.  Some employers will pay for your application and exam fees; they may even give you some time to study or prepare for the exam.  Others might take a little convincing.  When having that conversation, make sure you talk about the benefits of certification: specialized branding, use of the "Board Certified" logo, listing on TBLS’s website, and enhanced credentials to solicit new clients. 

The board certification process may seem a bit daunting at the outset, but with proper preparation, everything can go very smoothly.  If you have any other questions about the process, more information is available on the TBLS website.

Alex Bell is a senior associate at Fletcher, Farley, Shipman & Salinas in their Dallas, Texas office.  He was previously Chief of the Appellate Division at the McLennan County Criminal District Attorney’s office in Waco, Texas and an Adjunct Professor and Lecturer on Advocacy at Baylor Law School. 

Views and opinions expressed in eNews are those of their authors and not necessarily those of the Texas Young Lawyers Association or the State Bar of Texas.

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