“So, Bruce, what do you specialize in?”

Nothing.

For the record, I, Bruce Godfrey, do not specialize in any field of law. I don’t.  If you need a specialist, please go elsewhere.

Why?

Because the Court of Appeals of Maryland owns my main law license and leases it back to me for an annual maintenance fee, and that Court has made it abundantly clear that no Maryland attorney may claim any specialty.  I don’t want the Court, through Bar Counsel and the Attorney Grievance Commission, repossessing that license due to a breach of lease, so to speak.

On December 13, 1994, I (and many hundreds of my colleagues) took an oath on Rowe Boulevard in Annapolis before the seven red-robed judges of the Court of Appeals to obey the Maryland Lawyers’ Rules of Professional Conduct. Rule 7.4 (a) prohibiting claims of “specialty” reads essentially the same today as it did then.  No Maryland attorney may hold her/himself out as a specialist publicly.  By logical extension, every part of speech derived from specialist (specialize, specialty, etc.) is prohibited to Maryland attorneys in public communications regarding oneself.

The Rules allow attorneys to communicate the practice areas in which they practice, and allows patent attorneys holding that status from the USPTO to communicate that fact.  So long as attorneys avoid the term “specialist” or its derivatives, attorneys may communicate the fact (if true) that they have additional academic achievements or other licenses/certifications/degrees, such as an LLM, an MBA or the like.  But there are no “specialists” here.

Why are there no specialists, and why is the term prohibited?  Simple.  There are no boards of specialty that confirm specialization certificates.  Texas has several attorney boards of specialty which set standards for attorney specialists, such as trial work, publications, taking and teaching continuing legal education, examinations and the like.  To become a specialist in criminal law, for example, a Texas attorney must practice at least 25% of her practice time for a 5 year period in Texas as a criminal attorney and must have handled at least 10-20 jury trials and/or appeals under a complex formula. In California, a specialist in admiralty law must amass a total of 300 points for professional achievements including the filing of maritime liens, arrests, litigation over ocean bills of lading, maritime personal injury claims, maritime mediation briefs and the like as well as vessel transactional matters such as hiring a crew or exchanging title.

Maryland could invent a similar administrative structure for specialty boards, but has not done so.  Maryland is one of the few states that does not require continuing professional education, and has (or had the last time I checked) the least expensive bar dues in the nation.  Perhaps some day Maryland will mandate CPE or create boards of specialty, but it has not done either.  The former may happen soon but I have heard no demand from any quarter of the organized Bar here for specialty boards in the Old Line State.  Without specialty boards, holding oneself out as a specialist attorney in Maryland is meaningless, prohibited by express rule and probably also constitutes a false or misleading communication under Rule 7.1 and even deceptive conduct under Rule 8.4 (Misconduct).

The issue of specialty boards reflects a broader issue in the Bar, perhaps more intensely among newer attorneys but also broadly among the entire Bar, namely, the management of professional expectations by clients of their attorneys and the ethical communication of skills and lack of skills when applicable by attorneys to their clients.  We cannot engage in deceptive conduct or communications to or with our clients or potential clients regarding what we offer and what we can do.  We cannot compare our services to those of other attorneys unless that comparison has a factual basis under Rule 7.1 (c), objective basis in fact; claiming to be a specialist when there are no boards of specialty probably violates that rule as well by implication since specialty is a claim of distinction from other attorneys, i.e. a comparison.

Selling used cars is a legitimate way to make a living.  So is selling fashion.  But if the client asks us, “does this suit make my rear end look big,” we have to be honest.  We have to be able to say the law practice equivalent of “no, the suit doesn’t make your rear end look big.  Your rear end is objectively big; the suit is an innocent bystander.”  And if we have to be honest about the clients’ liabilities, negotiation posture or rear end size, we have to be more ruthlessly honest about ourselves.  We are fiduciaries; we owe a special duty to look out for clients far above and beyond what we owe ourselves, and that starts with not lying about who and what we are.

Go to Craigslist in your town or region and take a look at the ads by lawyers.  Check and see how many claim to be from “specialists.”  Go now, check it out and come back.  Most states that allow the claims of “specialization” state that it cannot be done without the existence of official certification of a specialty.  If they say that they “specialize” in anything, and do not state their Board of Specialty status in a formal way, that’s a sign that you are being snowed (or so the attorney is trying to do.)  Sometimes attorneys use that term because they do not realize that it has a meaning other than a mere practice area, which we are permitted to communicate to prospective clients.  Sometimes attorneys are snowing their clients and prospective clients without realizing they are doing so.  “Specialize” is not a synonym for “practice in a particular area.”

I am 43 years old today (7 March), born in the hard core center of Generation X, the cynics’ generation.  At the risk of engaging in “invidious discrimination” on the basis of age, I will reference the perception of Generation Y common among my cohort as excessively dependent on rewards and reassurances.  It is possible that the “specialization inflation” among sone attorneys derives from a desire to feel good about themselves.  We are required to be competent and should not apologize for being merely competent.  We need not be excellent in everything, or specialize in anything.  We must be competent and we must deliver excellence when we promise it.  Part of maturity is recognizing that we must persevere and meet our duty even when we wear no cape, will get no trophy or will get no Roman triumph past the Colosseum.

Sometimes, we do our duty merely competently, shake hands, close the file and earn an honest fee for honest work.  In this there is no shame; on the contrary, it is the hallmark of professionalism in attitude beyond differences in knowledge and skill among different professionals.  The height of professionalism is to say,”Madam, I am not a specialist in your field.  But because I know I am not a specialist, you will see me starting with a respectable base of knowledge and a sense of care regarding your needs – because I KNOW I don’t know it all from memory.  I will handle your case like a professional and will  treat you with maximum respect.  My goal is to earn your referrals of all 172 of your cousins to my practice.  Will you honor me, a non-specialist, with the entrustment of your legal needs with your X?”  And, then, get it done, shake hands, close the file and earn the fee.

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