Allison C. Williams is the new chair of the New Jersey State Bar Association’s Certified Attorneys Section. She is certified by the Supreme Court of New Jersey as a matrimonial law attorney, and practices exclusively family law throughout New Jersey, with offices in Springfield and Wall Township. She is also a member of the Supreme Court’s Board on Attorney Certification’s matrimonial committee. She spoke recently about what it means to be a certified attorney and plans to reinvigorate the section.
Q: New Jersey attorneys can become certified in four areas of practice: civil, criminal, family and municipal practice law. What does it take to become certified?
A: The Supreme Court created a protocol, so you can apply for eligibility. To be certified you have to pass a test that has been drafted by the Supreme Court Board on Attorney Certification. It is specific to your area of practice. There is an examination of your ethical standards and reputation in the community in the bench and bar. You must prove to be someone who is known for practicing in this area and as someone who upholds the highest standards of ethics and professionalism. There are certain continuing legal education requirements. And you must also be able to show a certain level of recognition in the legal community, such as how many times you have lectured in the area of law or how many times you have been the moderator of an educational panel. Once you become certified there is a re-certification process every five years.
Q: What does it mean to be a certified attorney?
A: To sustain yourself and make a living you need to be able to distinguish yourself from other attorneys in the field, and being a certified attorney is one way you can easily distinguish yourself. It’s the closest thing we have to specialization in New Jersey. You can say you are certified, and you can advertise that. You can also identify how much you practice in a given area. What you cannot do is call yourself a specialist. The reason behind that is when an attorney says she is a specialist it can imply a comparison to other attorneys, which is not allowed under the Rules of Professional Conduct governing attorney advertising, and it is a subjective term that can be confusing to the public.
Q: Why did you decide to become certified?
A: I first learned about attorney certification when, as a judicial law clerk, I reviewed fee applications. I wanted to know what it was, and when I researched it I thought it was very impressive that the Supreme Court determined that this group of practitioners was so well known and competent in an area of law that they warranted a special status. I wanted to count myself within that group. Certification also provides women, minorities and young lawyers a means to distinguish oneself.
Q: Why is it important for the state bar association to have a Certified Attorneys Section?
A: It is important that there be a voice for certified attorneys. It is important that there be a voice to educate less experienced members of our profession, and to also ensure that those of us who do become certified have a way to give back to the community. The section should seek to have a voice about future criteria to evaluate certified attorneys. And we should also educate the bar about different ways that law firms can use certification to market legal services. As New Jersey has the greatest number of attorneys per person in any state of the union, certification serves to educate the public about the profession and its available talent.
Q: What is the section’s first priority?
A: We really have to get the word out. We want to serve the populace. I want to see us improve upon what has been done in the past. We are at the grassroots stage. We want to know the issues of concern for certified attorneys. We want to know what their thoughts are so we can focus on the issues that matter.
Q: Does the section have any upcoming plans?
A: We are planning to hold an ethics of marketing for lawyers program at the association’s Annual Meeting in May. This program is for all attorneys, not just certified attorneys. We are also planning meet-and-greets so people can see what the section is about in North and South Jersey this winter and spring.