It’s that time of year again. This month, Thompson Reuters’ 2014 Minnesota Super Lawyers list went public. But as we celebrate professional achievement (our own and our colleagues’) I can’t help but notice the proliferation of professional awards and recognitions, and wonder about the implications for legal practice, and family law in particular.

The Lawyer Awards Arms Race

Lawyer awards and accolades continue to multiply, from Lexis Nexis’s Martindale Hubbard’s ratings, to Woodward-White’s Best Lawyers (now paired with US News and World Report), and more recently Thompson Reuters’ Super Lawyers.  Avvo, the relative new kid on the block, has developed its own numerical rating system, which, though much maligned, appears to be introducing a populist streak into the lawyer’s ranking system: allowing any licensed attorney to claim his or her profile and obtain a ranking. (Chambers, though it doesn’t rank family law attorneys, also provides lawyer and firm rankings in a wide-variety of practices.)

To be clear, I have no objections to these ranking services. As anyone who’s visited my bio page can see, I’ve been included in Thompson Reuters’ Rising Stars list and claimed my Avvo profile. Personally, I’m of the opinion that each company has a role to play in the market place, and I don’t know many lawyers who don’t publicize their selection. Of course, these designations remain, in an important sense, advertising, and have to be understood as such.

What sets them apart, however, is that none of the above companies require honorees to pay for the recognition. If you’re selected as a Super Lawyer or Best Lawyer, or AV-Rated, etc., the designation is granted whether or not you purchase advertising. Similarly, you can’t buy your way on to (or up) a list.

As a result, Super Lawyers, Best Lawyers, and Martindale Hubbard (and others) are not simply a pay-for-play system but (admittedly for-profit) attempts to create a peer-reviewed ranking system. The New Jersey Supreme Courts probably did the most thorough job explaining the distinction in its 2008 decision In re: Opinion 39 of the Committee on Attorney Advertising, which opened the door to lawyer ranking services in that state subject to several, specific criteria.

Of course Lexis, Thompson, and Woodward-White aren’t the only players on the scene. Just in the past few months I received offers from the National Trial Lawyers to join their “Top 40 Under 40” list. A few weeks later, an invitation arrived from the National Academy of Family Law Attorneys (Inc.) to join their “Top 40 Under 40” list as well. Both invitations asked for payment of “membership dues” between $250 and $300 for inclusion.  Even as I was writing this post, another letter arrived from the American Institute of Family Law Attorneys offering to name me one of “Minnesota’s 10 Best” family law attorneys…for $275.

And this is where I begin to feel a bit concerned. One can certainly question the proliferation of lawyer awards, and whether they add or detract from the profession, or whether or not they’re a useful tool for potential clients. But more disconcerting is the presence of awards that lack any meaningful indication of how they were “earned” and include an expectation that attorneys should pay for the recognition. Perhaps just as worrisome, there doesn’t appear to be any meaningful way for consumers of legal services (particularly personal legal services such as family law) to distinguish awards which have been purchased from those that have not.

Why It’s Time for a Family Law Specialist Certification

While it could be argued that this is a matter for stricter regulation by the Professional Responsibility Board, I’m not aware of any case pending here in Minnesota. And for that matter, I’m not inclined (at least not here) to try and parse the “legitimate” from the “illegitimate” awards with the inevitable arguments over whose methodology is better, and what truly counts as paying for an award.

Instead, this is an excellent opportunity for the Minnesota State Bar Association (and in particular its family law section) to take the lead by creating its own marker of professional excellence in family law: the certified family law specialist. The designation would be the result not just of peer-review, but objective testing and scrutiny by the Minnesota State Board of Legal Certification. The certification would provide a public imprimatur of expertise, offered by a respected, not-for-profit, professional organization. The process would be transparent, (hopefully) rigorous, and allow experienced and dedicated family law practitioners to set themselves apart from others who may only dabble in the area.

The idea is hardly novel. Minnesota already certifies legal specialists in Civil Litigation, Labor and Employment Law, Criminal Law, and Real Property Law. And despite being one of only 12 states that administer their own legal specialization programs Minnesota stands virtually alone in not including  family law among their legal specialties (joined only by South Carolina).

Here it’s worth pausing to state that Minnesota does recognize the family law trial certification program offered by the National Board of Trial Advocacy. However, judging from how few Minnesota practitioners appear on the list (three), and the certification’s focus on trial work to the exclusion of alternative dispute resolution, I’d argue this alternative isn’t sufficient.

Lest there be any doubt about the importance of legal specialization and certification, the ABA has offered its own helpful guide.  And closer to home, Judge Kevin Burke (a judge on the family court rotation) wrote a thoughtful article for Minnesota Bench & Bar in 2012 explaining the continued importance of legal specialization:

Legal certification helps improve the quality of legal service and attorney competence, which benefits both the profession and the public. Certification could promote increased public access to legal services, and both the public and legal profession benefit from knowing more about legal certification.

All of these arguments for legal certification generally apply with the same or more force to the practice of family law: a unique and constantly evolving area of practice in which practitioners must keep abreast of legal developments in any number of fields in addition to their own (tax, real estate, bankruptcy, trust and estates, immigration, employee benefits, just to name a few) as well as social science.  Attorney Randy Kessler, past chair of the American Bar Association’s Family Law Section, wrote recently on the importance of experience and specialization in family law and the “dangers of dabbling.”

And while specialization is certainly not a panacea, to borrow from Judge Burke again:

The public and the legal profession benefit from information about legal certification because certification, particularly in the context of general information about different types of qualifications, is a tool the public can use to determine which attorney to hire. Information about certification in and of itself is already helping attorneys find competent specialists when they need them, which improves the quality of legal services that clients receive

While attorney awards will continue to have their place, I can think of no more meaningful step the Bar could take to help stem the tide (or at least the importance) of attorney awards than to create a single, authoritative marker of legal competence for family law clients.

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