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Court of Appeals defers vote on letting attorneys say they ‘specialize’

The Courts of Appeal building in Annapolis. (The Daily Record File)

The Courts of Appeal building in Annapolis. (The Daily Record File)

Maryland’s top court has deferred until next spring its consideration of a proposed rule that would permit Maryland lawyers to say they “specialize” in specific areas of the law, provided they meet yet-to-be-determined certification requirements.

Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera announced the deferral Thursday, during a session at which the high court was slated to consider the proposal. Barbera provided no specific reason for putting off consideration other than saying the court would consider the rule in advance of fiscal year 2017, which begins July 1.

Adoption of the rule would bring Maryland in line with the vast majority of states where specializing in areas of law are already permitted.

Without the rule change, lawyers in Maryland can still tell colleagues, clients and potential clients that they “concentrate” their practice in an area of law, such as family law or worker’s compensation, but cannot say they specialize.

The proposed rule would call for the creation of a 13-member commission to recommend to the court which fields of law should be recognized as specialties.

Once the high court recognizes areas of specialization, the commission would create standards for accrediting entities competent to certify attorneys in those areas. The commission would then accredit those entities, subject to a veto by the high court.

Attorneys seeking certification as specialists would then submit an application to the commission-accredited entities.

This approach would permit “the attorney to advertise that he or she has been certified as a specialist by the particular entity and that the entity has been accredited by the commission but to preclude the attorney from advertising that the certification has been approved by the Court of Appeals,” Alan M. Wilner, chair of the Judiciary’s Standing Committee on Rule of Practice and Procedure, wrote in a letter to the high court. “Most states that have created commissions of this type do not permit attorneys to claim that their certification has been approved by the state supreme court.”

To determine the criteria for specialization, the proposed rule calls for the commission to look toward other states and the American Bar Association for guidance.

Under many certification programs, according to the ABA, lawyers must demonstrate that a particular percentage of their practice is devoted to the specialty, obtain peer references, pass an examination geared toward knowledge of the specialty and demonstrate that they have completed a certain amount of continuing legal education courses in that practice area.

Of the 13 slots on the Court of Appeals-appointed commission, nine would go to Maryland lawyers. They would be joined by a district court judge, a circuit court judge and one faculty member from the University of Maryland and University of Baltimore law schools.