Certification Matters

Texas Board of Legal Specialization Executive Director Leo Figueroa on how attorneys can distinguish themselves and why it is important.

Interview by Patricia Busa McConnico

TBLS Swearing In
Attorneys get sworn-in at a Texas Board of Legal Specialization ceremony.

The Texas Board of Legal Specialization, or TBLS, one of the largest legal board certification programs in the country, presents many opportunities for Texas attorneys to advance their careers and become distinguished thought leaders in 23 areas of law, including family law, criminal law, oil, gas, and mineral law, and more.

At the request of the State Bar of Texas, the Supreme Court of Texas established TBLS in 1974 to be the only governing board authorized to certify attorneys in legal specialty areas. It serves the public interest and advances quality standards within the legal profession by awarding a certification of special competence to attorneys with demonstrated expertise and knowledge in a specific area of law.

Although the organization has been around for more than four decades, there may be things about TBLS that are not common knowledge. The Texas Bar Journal interviewed TBLS Executive Director Leo Figueroa, who has been certified in civil trial law and personal injury trial law for 24 years and practiced law for more than 30 years before taking the TBLS job in 2016, to learn why certification is important, how to become certified, and what’s on the horizon for TBLS.

Why did you decide to leave your practice to work for the Texas Board of Legal Specialization?
The opportunity to lead such a great organization as TBLS was something I couldn’t pass up. Its mission of better serving the public by certifying attorneys in various specialties is, quite simply, a fantastic mission and something I truly believe in. After serving individual clients for over 30 years, I leapt at the opportunity to give something back to the legal profession and the public as a whole. TBLS board certified attorneys are providing outstanding legal services for their clients and the Texas justice system.

There are a variety of ways for attorneys to distinguish themselves. Why should they consider board certification?
Board certification is an objective measure of an attorney’s professional experience, competence, and skill in a particular area of law. It is an achievement that matters to potential clients, fellow lawyers, and the judiciary. More and more Texas attorneys are seeing the value of board certification, evident by the recent rollout of our new specialty areas—construction law, child welfare law, and property owners association law—as well as the increased number of applicants in recent years. As legal areas get more complex and competitive, board certification helps to set attorneys apart.

How many Texas attorneys are board certified?
There are more than 100,000 active State Bar of Texas members and more than 7,300 who are board certified. Because several board certified attorneys are certified in more than one specialty area, the total number of active certifications is more than 8,400.

What are common misperceptions attorneys have about TBLS and its board certification program?
Although a good number of attorneys generally understand TBLS and board certification, there are a few misperceptions that come to mind. For instance, becoming board certified does not cause your malpractice premiums to increase. In addition, becoming board certified and maintaining certification is not that expensive when compared with price increases in other areas. TBLS has maintained the same fee level for applications and annual examinations and recertifications for more than seven years.

What were the first specialty areas to be recognized and when?
What was the most recent area and when? In 1975, the first criminal, family, and labor law certifications of special competence were awarded to 319 Texas attorneys. Today, the TBLS program encompasses 23 different specialty areas.

In terms of new areas, construction law officially rolled out last year, which had one of the highest numbers of new board certified attorney groups of an inaugural specialty in TBLS history. Also, child welfare law and property owners association law were approved as specialty areas this year by the TBLS Board of Directors and Texas Supreme Court. These new specialty areas have long been requested and are expected to have significant interest when applications roll out in 2018.

Which area has the largest number of attorneys who are board certified?
Personal injury trial law has consistently been our largest group of board certified attorneys. Our other large groups include civil trial, criminal, family, estate planning and probate, and labor and employment.

What do current board certified attorneys—younger and older generations—say about their board certifications?
The Texas Bar Journal produced great commentary from diversified board certified attorneys on Texas Bar Blog in February 2017. I have also heard many wonderful remarks firsthand, such as: “being board certified is an honor,” “it advances the standards of the legal profession,” “it makes a difference in how other lawyers see you,” “it is official recognition of special competence in a particular field of law,” “it enhances the lawyer’s reputation and credibility,” “it sets you apart from the competition,” and “it helps you become a better lawyer.” I can list several more due to the amount of board certified attorneys we have, but that’s just a sample.

Leo Figueroa
TBLS Executive Director Leo Figueroa speaks during a ceremony. Photograph courtesy of the Texas Board of Legal Specialization

What’s the process for board certification?
To become board certified, an attorney must be an active member in good standing with the State Bar of Texas and must have been licensed for at least five years. Applicants for board certification must devote a required percentage of practice to a specialty area for at least three years immediately preceding application, show the required substantial involvement in the specialty area by providing detailed information concerning the substance and complexity of the tasks handled in the specialty area, complete the requisite number of CLE hours in the specialty area, be evaluated by fellow lawyers and judges, and pass a six-hour written examination. To remain certified, attorneys must apply for recertification every five years.

This level of rigor is needed in the process as it helps to ensure only the most qualified attorneys are allowed to be called board certified.

Explain how the standards and requirements for specialty areas are determined.
Establishing the standards for each specialty area, including revisions to existing standards, is a team effort. Advisory commissions are instrumental in drafting the standards for their respective areas. Proposed specialty area standards are then reviewed by the TBLS board to determine whether proposed standards are ready for submission for public comment. After receiving public comment, the TBLS board then determines whether any changes should be made to the proposed standards before submission to the Texas Supreme Court for consideration. The Texas Supreme Court makes the ultimate determination on all proposed standards. You can learn more about our standards process on our website at tbls.org.

Who determines whether an applicant is accepted to sit for a specialty certification examination?
Applications for specialty certification are first reviewed by the TBLS Advisory Commission, which is composed of board certified attorneys for the applicable specialty area. After a thorough review of each application, the advisory commission recommends to the TBLS board whether each application should be accepted or rejected. The TBLS board then considers each application and the recommendation from the advisory commission before making a final decision on the application.

Explain how certification examinations are drafted and who grades the completed examinations.
Each specialty exam is drafted by a TBLS exam commission, which is made up of attorneys who specialize in that particular area of law. Appointed by the TBLS board, exam commissions grade essay answers while multiple choice answers are computer graded.

Are there educational requirements to continue/upkeep your certification?
Yes. A certification applicant must complete 60 hours of CLE in the specialty area within the three years immediately preceding application, through December 31 of the year of application. Those who are already board certified must complete 100 hours of CLE in the specialty area by December 31 of each fifth year of certification.

What’s next for TBLS?
We have a number of exciting things happening at TBLS. We have begun updating the TBLS website and making it mobile friendly. We are anticipating adding several new specialty areas within the next year or two. Finally, we are always examining our specialty area standards to ensure they remain rigorous and accurately reflect the practice in each specialty area. TBJ

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