Your hosts have earned a reputation as fierce and effective advocates inside and outside of the courtroom. Both partners are experienced trial attorneys who have been board certified and family by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization.
Brian Walters: All right, welcome back to For Better, Worse, or Divorce. I’m Brian Walters. In today’s episode, we’re going to be talking about the advantages of hiring a board certified attorney and family law in Texas, and I’ve got one of the board certified members of our firm, Bernadette Barbee here with me and she’s going to talk a little bit about that. So first, Bernadette, let’s talk about you. Tell us a little bit about your background, where’d you grow up, where’d you go to school, all those kind of interesting things about you.
Bernadette Barbee: Certainly. And Brian, thank you for allowing me to participate in your podcast today. I’m excited to talk to everyone. Well, I, as you can imagine, am an attorney licensed in the state of Texas and I’ve been practicing in the Harris County and surrounding areas since 2004, which has been really great. I’m a fourth generation who, Stony and I been here a long time, went to Lamar High School over on Westheimer and then went to law school at South Texas College of Law. And I’m very lucky to have all of my family here, extended family in the Houston and surrounding area. So I’ve been here a while and been lucky enough to get to know the community and feel that I’m a part of it and so it’s great.
Brian Walters: Fourth generation, that’s Texas has grown so much over these past years and decades. It’s rare to find somebody that’s has family ties that deep here and is stuck around, especially in the same place. Sometimes people have moved in from elsewhere, but I guess the early part of your family was probably here when Houston was just a much more modest place instead of a metropolis, worldwide metropolis.
Bernadette Barbee: Definitely, definitely the case. And it’s amazing to see how the city has changed. And when I first graduated law school, shortly thereafter I decided to move pretty close in to the courthouse, wanted to be close by. And it’s funny I didn’t realize it at the time, but I rented an apartment in the same street where my great grandfather had a pasta factory in the early part of Houston. So it’s just amazing how things come full circle and I just think Houston and all the areas in our community, it’s just the best. So I’m very happy to be blessed to practice here.
Brian Walters: A pasta factory, interesting. I guess people have liked pasta for a long time.
Bernadette Barbee: Yeah.
Brian Walters: Interesting. Wow, that’s such a contrast to me. My family was, from my mom’s side, it was kind of small town South Texas folks, I guess they’ve been here a while, but they moved around a lot during the wars and stuff. And my dad’s side of the family’s even kind of a mystery of people in places. So it’s interesting to have somebody who’s got deep roots in a place, so that’s nice. Well, did you start out practicing family law or did you do something else originally?
Bernadette Barbee: Well, I originally, like a lot of people started out in just general civil litigation and that would include everything from personal injury to securities litigation. I had cases in New York during the 2008-2009 financial meltdown that we had with the banking industry. And from that point I had cases up in New York in securities litigation. So I had a pretty broad background in civil litigation before, I then focused on family law. And it was a natural progression really. I represented not only institutional clients, companies, things like that, but also family businesses in and around the Houston area. And so it just was a natural progression that these clients that I had helped with their businesses, when they had a family law problem, they began to turn to me.
Bernadette Barbee: And so that evolved into a focus on family law, which really was to me, when I got to the point that I began focusing on family, it just resonated with me. It hit a spot for me that I felt like what I was doing gave me a level of satisfaction and felt like I was really making a difference in people’s lives in ways that I haven’t before.
Brian Walters: Yeah, it sounds familiar. I didn’t start out in family law either. I was law school, I did some clerkships with the Texas Attorney General and the Texas Board of Medical Examiners and worked for this firm and that firm, ended up mostly spending my time working for and after law school with both a medical malpractice defense firm representing technically doctors and hospitals and nurses, but also essentially through insurance companies. And it was a good introduction to a number of things. And this sort of the same thing, I started to get into some family law when I was there and then when I went out on my own, went into a partnership, I got into family law. It was pretty much a full-time thing at that point. But it gave me a realization there’s a world beyond just family law. But then the other part of that is that family law touches on everything.
Brian Walters: I mean, you can have securities related litigation issues or securities litigation, you can have personal injury or tort stuff like I had backgrounds in. And it pulls in a little bit of everything, which I find it keeps me interested, right? Because we learn new things and you and I talked about a new case we had yesterday that involves military pension and military service and those type of things that are, who would think you’d have to deal with that? But in family all, if you’re married to somebody in the military, they have a pension rights that’s going to come up and you need to understand that type of thing. So to me that’s interesting. I think maybe for other people might be overwhelming, but it sounds like it’s an interesting kind of a plus for you as well.
Bernadette Barbee: Well, I definitely think so, and particularly when you have people who have a small business within their marital estate, one of the spouses or both of the spouses have a small business, you have to have some background or at least it’s certainly preferable that your attorney have some background and exposure to business law and litigation and valuation and all of those things come up, even sometimes, not all divorces are smooth.
Bernadette Barbee: Sometimes you’ve got allegations of fraud, there’s all sorts of things, breach of fiduciary duty that can come up in connection with businesses. And so you need to have some background in that if you can. And you also need to have an understanding of what it is to build a business and how to protect that asset. So there’s just multiple layers to it and every type of person could find themselves involved in a divorce and they come from diverse backgrounds, financially and in every other way. And so I’ve been lucky enough to have a pretty broad background in the law so that when I did focus on family law, I’ve been able to build on that foundation in a way that is not as common among practitioners.
Brian Walters: Yeah, absolutely. So just so listeners know that the board certification system was instituted by this the state bar Texas, some number of decades ago to help people understand, hey, this is a lawyer that really understands whatever, securities litigation, family law, criminal law, whatever. Not that you have to have board certification to practice in that area, but that does set you apart. And my latest look at the statistics said that there was a little bit less than 1% of the lawyers in Texas that are licensed are board certified in family law. Much more than 1% practice in that area or at least dabble in it. But that’s certainly the gold standard for someone who’s in family law.
Brian Walters: And so let’s talk about how you get certified. It’s been a long time since I was initially certified. So I believe you have to be in practice at least five years and then constitute most of your practice area for at least three of those last five years in family law. And then you have to go through this very difficult process of even being able to sit for the examination and then you have to pass the exam, which has a very low passage rate. So that’s one of the reasons it’s such a rare thing. Obviously since you didn’t go straight out of law school into family law, I assume you were somewhat after your fifth year of practice before you thought about getting board certified in family law. Is that correct?
Bernadette Barbee: Yes. I have a total of about 18 years of experience altogether. And about the midway point is when I refocused into family law and I pretty quickly honed in on the desire to be board certified. And I knew that while there is a minimum number of years of practice that you have to have just to sit for the exam, I knew that in order to meet the milestones that the Board of Law examiner set to even sit for that exam, it would take probably longer than five years to meet those milestones. And the milestones being you have to have accomplished a certain number of trials, including jury trial or appeals. You have to have spent so many hearings in court to achieve the list of things, that you have to achieve even to be eligible to apply to take the exam is just so much. That number one, you got to be focused almost entirely full time on family law to meet those milestones. And then it’s just you have to get, in some respects, lucky and you have to have a lot of court time and a lot of mediation time.
Bernadette Barbee: So I’m glad I focused in on it fairly early because otherwise it would just take such a long time to accomplish. And then of course you have to have the knowledge when you apply for the exam, you check off this list of all the things that they need you to have experience in and then you have to apply for it and you have to be peer reviewed on top of it. You have to put a list of references forth, who are judges or other board certified attorneys, who are your peers to recommend you. And it isn’t just simply a list of three references and you check that box. It truly is a peer review. So you have to have a reputation in order to pass the screening process. And then after that, if you’ve passed that process, then you are invited to take the exam or you are approved to take the exam and then becomes the next phase of your journey to board certification, which is sitting for that exam.
Bernadette Barbee: And I think anyone, no matter how long ago they took the exam, they remember it was hard. It is not an easy exam no matter how long you’ve been practicing family law. There are aspects of our family code and principles of law that are constantly changing. It’s very broad. And so if you are able to pass that exam, you really have achieved a breadth of knowledge within family law that is unique. And so all of these things, just the rigorous application process to even be able to sit for the exam and then the extremely broad exam is part of the reason I think, Brian, why there’s just not that many people who do it. There’s not that many people who can. And so it’s a very tiny percentage of attorneys in Texas who practice in family law who are able to achieve it. And it’s definitely a mountain to climb and it’s an honor to be board certified.
Brian Walters: Yeah, I agree. It was a haul, the part that I remember the most was having to dig up from three years ago the cause number and the opposing counsel and the outcome of this type of hearing. And they needed 30 temporary orders, hearings or whatever and 20 final trials or whatever the numbers were. I think it’s changed a little bit over time. It’s just quite the hall. But once you’re there, then I guess not only that, you don’t just automatically get that and then keep it, you actually have to apply for recertification every five years and you have to maintain your other bar requirements, certain number of continuing legal educations, et cetera. So it’s not like you can rest on your laurels. I’ve been through the re-certification process couple times and that’s never that easy either. It’s kind of some of the same things, less difficult. You don’t have to sit for an exam that at that point, but they certainly look you over and make sure you’re still practicing and still at the top of your practice.
Brian Walters: Something interesting that I’ve noticed also is that when board certification was instituted for family law at least was in the 1970s, I think the mid 70s and in particular sort of the earliest states I’ve seen anybody with that certification. Those folks are now, they’re sort of the first wave there. They were really the pioneers. Those folks are to the end of their careers for the most part, most have retired or otherwise with the few exceptions, I’m sure the rest will be pretty soon. So there’s now kind of a second wave of folks who followed on from them that are kind of coming to the forefront, which I think is kind of nice because in some ways, and maybe I’m just jealous because I’m younger than them, but it’s kind of nice now that the rest of us who weren’t lawyers in the 70s, I was a kid in the 70s, are now able to have some sense of being. We’ve been around a while too.
Brian Walters: So I think that’s a positive. If somebody comes to you and says, “Well, hey, I’m looking at either hiring you or this other lawyer that’s not board certified,” obviously you can’t make a blanket statement and there’s are good lawyers who are not board certified and there are board certified lawyers who are past their expiration date or not at the top of things or going through things in their life or professional life that are not conducive to performing at a high level. But what are the kind of things that you might talk to that person about whether it made sense to focus on hiring a board certified lawyer or not, in their family law case at least?
Bernadette Barbee: Well first I would agree with you that standing alone, being board certified is not the only criteria that you would look at when making a decision to hire an attorney. Obviously if you have a family law problem where you need to hire an attorney or issue where you need to hire an attorney, it’s the most important issue in your life at that time. So you need to have a connection with that attorney. You need to feel that that attorney understands your particular situation. But in addition to that, you need to feel that your attorney has knowledge, experience, and a good reputation in the community. And there’s probably no better way to check those boxes than board certification because of the knowledge that you’ve got to have in order to pass the test, the experience that you have to have to take the test and the peer review that’s required as a part of the screening process.
Bernadette Barbee: So a lot of people may hear about an attorney through word of mouth, through a friend, but you can’t really know that your family law problem is the same as your friend’s family law problem. So there you may not have the same result your friend had or need an attorney with the same type of expertise that your friend had or people go to the internet and the internet is just overwhelming. If you were to Google family lawyer Houston, people put forth websites and it may look great, but how do you really know that this attorney that you’re hiring has the knowledge for your particular matter? And so it’s hard for people to make that decision and to put their family and their lives in this attorney’s hands. So if you see that the attorney is board certified, you can at least say, okay, well somebody screened this person already, in order to get them board certified in the first place.
Bernadette Barbee: Board certified attorneys do tend to be more expensive and there is no doubt that that is a factor. So if you’re concerned about the cost components of it, you can look at the firm that the board certified attorney is with or the attorney that you’ve heard about or you’re looking at is with. And you can ask yourself, is there a board certified attorney within that firm who can provide some guidance to the attorney you’re looking to hire who may not be board certified? And do you have that resource within that firm? So that’s another alternative. And sometimes the best thing you can do when making your selection of an attorney is just make sure that among the attorneys that you’re interviewing or that you set up consultations with, set up a consultation with at least one board certified attorney and you’ll usually get a really good consultation out of it and you’ll at least be able to compare that experience with the experience of the non or certified attorney you might be considering and then see where you go from there.
Brian Walters: Yeah, I think that’s right on. Okay. Well, we’re about at the mark in time where I try to keep these two so that we keep our listeners awake.
Bernadette Barbee: Yeah, we could definitely talk about this topic for a long time, but I think we-
Brian Walters: Exactly.
Bernadette Barbee: Covered the highlight.
Brian Walters: Jake and I did one this morning of about modifications and realized that that’s about an hour and a half topic and we had 20 minutes, so we just decided to keep it pretty simple and it will come back to it in future with kind of breaking down some of the details of it. It’s a little bit like this topic. Well, thank you very much for coming on and talking a little bit about yourself and about this important topic and that important milestone that you and I have achieved and several others in the firm, so something we’re proud of after a lot of work and sweat. So we will hopefully keep our certifications in future years and be helping out people for a long time to come.
Bernadette Barbee: Absolutely. Well, thank you for having me, Brian. I appreciate it.
Brian Walters: You bet. All right. So that’s all we have here for today. If you like what you’ve heard, please do us a favor and leave us a review. We appreciate all your feedback. It helps us do better job on these podcasts. I’m Brian Walters. Thanks for listening.
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