AVVO Rating - 10.0
Board Certified - Federal/State Criminal Law
DUI Defense - Lawyers Association
NORML Legal Committee
National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers
National College for DUI Defense
Super Lawyers

What Makes a Lawyer a Specialist?

Donahue Law Firm, PLLC

Becoming a Board Certified Specialist in State and Federal Criminal Law

Non-lawyers are often curious how one becomes a legal specialist. Below is information about the standards that must be met to become board certified as a specialist in state and federal criminal law. The rigorous application and testing process helps explain why of the 28,302 lawyers in North Carolina, only 63 are state and federal criminal law specialists – a mere .22%.

As the NC State Bar Board of Legal Specialization states, “Hiring a board certified legal specialist helps to ensure that your lawyer is proficient in the specialty legal field in which you have a legal need. When you are looking for a lawyer, you can use board certification to identify lawyers who are qualified to represent you.

Board certification is an indication that the lawyer has intentionally focused his or her legal practice to improve the proficiency and quality of the lawyer’s legal services and to stay current in the specialty field.

Board certification, unlike the self-laudatory information in advertising and marketing, is a credential that you can rely upon because it is based upon objective criteria.”

Read more about the Board of Legal Specialization here.

Summary of Standards


Licensed and in good standing to practice law in North Carolina as of the date of application.

Substantial Involvement in Criminal Law

During the five years preceding application:

  • Average of at least 500 hours a year.
  • Minimum of 400 hours for any one year.

Practice equivalents may be accepted for the following:

  • service as a law professor for one year
  • service as a federal, state or tribal court judge for one year.

Additional information required regarding: (A) representation during the applicant’s entire legal career in criminal trials concluded by jury verdict; (B) representation as principal counsel of record in federal felony cases or state felony cases (Class G or higher) (C) court appearances in other substantive criminal proceedings in criminal courts of any jurisdiction; and (D) representation in appeals of decisions to the North Carolina Court of Appeals, the North Carolina Supreme Court, or any federal appellate court.

During the three years preceding application:

  • At least 40 hours of accredited CLE in criminal law, which must include the following:
    • at least 34 hours in skills pertaining to criminal law, such as evidence, substantive criminal law, criminal procedure, criminal trial advocacy, and criminal trial tactics;
    • at least 6 hours in the area of ethics and criminal law.

Peer Review

Must provide the names of ten lawyers or judges who practice in the field of criminal law and are familiar with the competence and qualification of the applicant in criminal law.

Must also provide a list of opposing counsel and judges in eight recent cases tried to verdict or entry of order.

All references must be licensed and in good standing to practice law.

A reference may not be related by blood or marriage to the applicant nor may the reference be a colleague at the applicant’s place of employment at the time of the application.


6 hours long (two 3-hour sessions).

The examination shall cover the applicant’s knowledge in the following topics in criminal law, and/or in the subspecialty of state criminal law, as the applicant has elected:

(A) the North Carolina and Federal Rules of Evidence;

(B) state and federal criminal procedure and state and federal laws affecting criminal procedure;

(C) constitutional law;

(D) appellate procedure and tactics;

(E) trial procedure and trial tactics;

(F) criminal substantive law;

Tested Topics Include the Following:

State Topics:

  • Admissibility of testimony
  • Justice Reinvestment Act
  • Admissible evidence
  • Jury considerations
  • Automatic appeal
  • Jury selection
  • Business record introduction
  • Lesser-included offenses
  • Collateral consequences (to include license and insurance consequences)
  • Motion for joinder
  • Confidential communication between Attorney and client
  • Offense classification and sentencing enhancements (emphasis given with multiple questions)
  • Criminal history categories
  • Pretrial release
  • Criminal record
  • Probation
  • DWI (emphasis given with multiple questions to include pertinent case law)
  • Search warrant
  • Ethics
  • Sex Offender Registration
  • Evidence Rule 803(4)
  • Structured sentencing act
  • Good faith reliance
  • Subpoena for witness
  • Grand jury testimony
  • Trial procedure
  • Impeaching a witness
  • Validity of search
  • Infractions
  • Witness interview procedures
  • Insanity/diminished capacity

State and Federal Section:

  • Consent to Search
  • Misdemeanor statute of limitations
  • Defense strategies
  • Motion for new trial
  • Domestic violence
  • Motion to Suppress
  • DWI (emphasis given with multiple questions to include pertinent case law)
  • Plea agreement
  • Enhanced punishment
  • Post-conviction relief
  • State Rules of Evidence
  • Rules of professional conduct
  • Federal proffered plea agreements
  • Satellite-based hearings
  • Federal Rules of Evidence
  • Sex offender registration
  • Federal Sentencing Guidelines
  • Trial procedure
  • Felony statutes of limitations
  • Trial scheduling
  • Grand Jury
  • Trust accounts
  • Jencks Act (18 U.S.C §3500)
  • Venue options
  • Mandatory minimum sentences
  • Witness impeachment

Client Reviews

Case dismissed! Professional and worked with my budget. Would recommend!

Max W.

From the moment I contacted Donahue Law Firm I was very impressed with the professionalism of the staff. Their office stayed in constant contact with me regarding the details of my case. I was also impressed that Mr...

Michael H.

The people at Donahue law firm were very professional and courteous. Once I made my payment online, Dan Donahue contacted me promptly. Once I explained my situation he was able to easily explain to me exactly how the...

Brian Oliver

I am an out of state driver that visits the Currituck County area primarily during the summer. I received a speeding ticket during a recent and faced a court date. I contacted Donahue and explained how I was unable to...

David Saunders

Dan Donahue is an outstanding lawyer! His effort to win your case knows no bounds. I retained his services after I was stopped for a DUI in February of 2017. Through his efforts, Dan was able to secure a complete...

Rob Purvis

Take the Next Step

Ease your stress by reaching out to us to get the answers you deserve. Call (252) 715-5785 or complete the contact form to set up your complimentary consultation.

Leave Us a Message