National Board of Legal Specialty Certification
The National Board of Trial Advocacy (NBTA) is a non-profit board certification organization in the United States which administers four national board certification programs for attorneys in Civil Trial Law, Criminal Trial Law, Family Trial Law, and Social Security Disability Law. To become board-certified, an attorney must meet substantial professional requirements and undergo a peer review process. There are currently close to 2,000 attorneys who are certified by the NBTA. The organization is led by board of directors of noted trial lawyers, law professors, and judges.
Based in Wrentham, Massachusetts, the NBTA was founded as the National Board of Trial Advocacy (NBTA). The NBTA's stated mission is to "inform and educate the public concerning legal representation by board-certified specialists" and "recognize and promote excellence in legal advocacy through a national program certifying specialists predicated on high standards of demonstrated competence and integrity.
The NBTA is the largest and oldest of the seven private board-certification organizations for attorneys that the American Bar Association (ABA) accredits through its Standing Committee on Specialization. In addition, many state bar organizations maintain certification programs.
In 1973 at the annual Sonnett Lecture at Fordham University School of Law, Chief Justice of the United States Warren Burger stated that "some system of certification for trial advocates is an imperative and long overdue step." Burger stated that the absence of certification programs "has helped bring about the low state of American trial advocacy and a consequent diminution in the quality of our entire system of justice." Burger endorsed board certification of trial lawyers as "basic to a fair system of justice" and, referring to barristers, wrote that the idea had "historic recognition in the common law system." By the time Burger promoted the idea, board certification for physicians was already well-established, with Dr. Derrick T. Vail first proposing certification in his presidential address to the American Academy of Ophthalmology and Otolaryngology in 1908. However, the idea of board certification for trial lawyers was new, and one author describes the reaction of the American legal profession as "startled.".
In response to Burger's call to action, the National Board of Trial Advocacy was founded in 1977 by prominent Connecticut trial attorney Theodore I. Koskoff. Koskoff established the non-profit organization as a group "dedicated to bettering the quality of trial advocacy in our nation's courtrooms and assisting the consumer of legal services in finding experienced and highly qualified trial lawyers."
Initially, NBTA was housed within the offices of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America. In 1987, the Association moved to Suffolk University Law School in Boston, where the law school provided office space. Shortly thereafter, the NBTA became fully self-supporting and set up offices on Tremont Street one block from Government Center. The NBTA remained in Boston until about 2001, when it moved to its current headquarters in Wrentham, Massachusetts.
Board-certified attorneys undergo thorough screening of credentials. This includes "documentation of their experience, judicial and peer references, an exam, and they must report all disciplinary matters brought before any official body, whether public or private, for scrutiny by the NBTA Standards Committee." An attorney who meets NBTA's stringent requirements and becomes board-certified remains an active member for five years and may apply for re-certification after this time. All board-certified attorneys must meet annual reporting requirements for the NBTA Standards Committee. The NBTA states that "All members have an ongoing responsibility to inform NBTA of any misconduct which may arise during the course of the certification. Good standing is also confirmed on an annual basis by way of a formal annual reporting component of the NBTA certification. All misconduct matters are reviewed and ruled upon in the same fashion as initial certification."
In 1990, Associate Justice John Paul Stevens quoted the Task Force on Lawyer Competence, Report With Findings and Recommendations to The Conference of Chief Justices, Publication No. NCSC-021, pp. 33–34 (May 26, 1982), in Peel v. Atty. Registration & Disciplinary Comm'n, 496 U.S. 91, 95-96 (U.S. 1990) on the quality of the vetting process: "NBTA certification has been described as a 'highly-structured' and 'arduous process that employs a wide range of assessment methods.'" The Minnesota Supreme Court wrote that the "NBTA applies a rigorous and exacting set of standards and examinations on a national scale before certifying a lawyer as a trial specialist." In re Johnson, 341 N.W.2d 282, 283 (Minn. 1983).
By 1973 board certification for physicians was well established. In contrast, when Chief Justice Burger called for board certification of trial lawyers relying on analogies to medical specialization, aviation specialization and the barrister system, in the United States no state recognized trial lawyers as specialists and there were no organizations accredited to certify trial lawyers as specialists. Thus when Chief Justice Burger called for board certification of trial lawyers one author described the American legal profession as "startled".
Much has changed since 1973. Now, there is a greater prevalence of trial advocacy training in law schools and continuing legal education, and attorney board certification is well established and growing. For example, by 1995 there were almost 20,000 board certified lawyers in the United States and by 2009 that number increased to more than 35,000 lawyers. According to the American Bar Association's research in 2008 there were 1,180,386 attorneys licensed to practice law in the United States. Of these the ABA estimates 74% are in private practice; thus approximately 4% of practicing lawyers are currently board certified by states or ABA accredited agencies. Moreover,there are now seven private organizations with ABA-accredited certification programs, 12 state sponsored certification plans and eight state sponsored plans to accredit private certifiers. Today attorney board certification is now available in 49 specialty fields by certifying agencies either operated by a state or one of the ABA accredited private agencies like the NBLSC
Nevertheless, full acceptance of the validity and importance of board certification by all courts and all states has not been achieved. Still, there are NBTA certified attorneys in most if not all states and their numbers are growing.
- Standing Committee on Specialization, American Bar Association. The others are the American Board of Certification (dealing with bankruptcy law and creditors' rights); the American Board of Professional Liability Attorneys (legal and medical professional liability law); the National Association of Counsel for Children (child welfare/advocacy); the Estate Law Specialist Board, Inc., a subsidiary of the National Association of Estate Planners & Councils (estate law and planning); National College for DUI Defense (dealing with defense of driving under the influence); and the National Elder Law Foundation (elder law).
- Warren Burger, The Special Skills of Advocacy: Are Specialized Training and Certification of Advocates Essential to Our System of Justice? 42 Fordham L.Rev. 227 (1973).
- Id. at 230
- Id. at 239.
- Thomas F. Gibbons, The Right to Specialize: Restriction on Lawyer Advertising May Fall, 76 A.B.A. J. 56 (1990)
- Wolfgang Saxon, "Theodore I. Koskoff, 75, Lawyer" (obituary). New York Times March 14, 1989.
- "Theodore I. Koskoff (1913-1987)." Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder, PC.
- "Board Certified Lawyers." National Board of Legal Specialty Certification.
- "About the NBLSC." National Board of Legal Specialty Certification.
- The complete history of the development of board certification for medical doctors is documented. E.g. http://www.abms.org/About_ABMS/ABMS_History/Extended_History/; "The concept of a specialty board was first proposed in 1908 by Dr. Derrick T. Vail in his presidential address to the American Academy of Ophthalmology and Otolaryngology. Certification boards were needed, according to Dr. Vail to define specialty qualifications, supervise examinations that test the preparation of those who desire to practice in a specialty and issue credentials that would assure the public of the specialist's qualifications. Up until that time, there was no way to confirm that a physician claiming to be a specialist was indeed qualified. "The idea was well received and soon other areas of medicine began forming their own boards."
- Gibbons, The Right to Specialize: Restriction on Lawyer Advertising May Fall, 76 ABA J 56 (1990).
- See generally http://www.nita.org/
- p. 2.
- Id. at p. 3.
- Compare, e.g. http://www.abanet.org/legalservices/specialization/source.html (listing current state sponsored and ABA accredited legal specialty certification programs) and http://www.abanet.org/cpr/mrpc/rule_7_4.htmlwith (setting forth the American Bar Association's Model Rule of Professional Conduct 7.4 allowing board certified attorneys to communicate "the lawyer has been certified as a specialist" but only "by an organization that has been approved by an appropriate state authority or that has been accredited by the American Bar Association") with, for example, http://www.state.il.us/court/SupremeCourt/Rules/Art_VIII/ArtVIII_NEW.htm#7.4 (setting forth Illinois' version of Rule 7.4 which, with few exceptions forbids lawyers from communicating they are board certified without a disclaimer, even for certifications by ABA accredited certifying agencies, stating: "the Supreme Court of Illinois does not recognize certifications of specialties in the practice of law and that the certificate, award or recognition is not a requirement to practice law in Illinois.")