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California Board of Legal Specialization

California Bar Board of Legal Specialization

In February of 1971, California became the first state in the country to approve a legal certification program. The California Board of Legal Specialization ("CBLS") began operations in 1973. The first three practice areas for certification as a specialist were tax law, criminal law and workers' compensation.

Today, CBLS is the third-largest attorney specialization program in the United States. It offers specialty certification in twelve different legal practice areas. CBLS estimates that approximately 3% of practicing attorneys in California are certified by CBLS.

The State Bar also recognizes an additional eleven practice areas for certification through private entities accredited by the State Bar of California to certify such attorneys. The CBLS is supported by State Bar staff located in The State Bar of California offices at 180 Howard Street in San Francisco, California.

Under California Rule 1-400(D)(6), a lawyer may not claim he or she is a specialist unless he or she is certified by either the California State Bar Board of Legal Specialization or an entity approved by the Board of Governors. Board certified lawyers in California may seek and obtain more than one certification if otherwise qualified.

The California Board of Legal Specialization (CBLS) consists of 15 members who meet approximately six times per year in the State of California Bar offices. Members also participate in at least one subcommittee via teleconference is mandatory. The members of CBLS recommend rules and provide policies and guidelines for the certification of specialists.

Requirements for Attorney Certification in California

Requirements to qualify for certification in California may include:

  • At least five years experience during which at least 25 percent of the practice focused on the area of law for which he or she is seeking certification;
  • Active membership in the State Bar of California;
    • If seeking certification in worker's compensation law, the attorney must be in good standing with the Workers' Compensation Appeals Board;
    • If seeking Immigration & Nationality Law certification, the attorney must meet the definition of "attorney" in 8 CFR 1.1(f) and not be under an order of suspension or disbarment by the Board of Immigration Appeals; 
    • If seeking certification in Bankruptcy Law, the attorney must be admitted to and in good standing with at least one U.S. District Court in California;
    • If the attorney is seeking board certification in Taxation Law, the attorney must not be suspended or disbarred from practicing before the Internal Revenue Service (IRS);
  • Performing a minimum number of designated tasks in the particular field of specialization;
  • Showing education experience in the field of specialization;
  • Passing a written exam;
  • Demonstrating proficiency in the area of specialization through independent inquiry and review; and
  • Paying the required fees.

Areas of Certification by the State Bar of California

The eleven (11) legal practice areas certified directly by the State Bar of California include:

Private Entities in California Accredited to Award Certification

Eleven (11) legal practice areas are certified by five different organizations accredited by the State Bar of California including:

Regulatory Structure for Specialty Certification in California

Rule 9.35, adopted by the Supreme Court, contains a provision authorizing the State Bar of California to adopt rules to establish and administer a program to certify legal specialists.

The Rules Governing the State Bar of California Program for Certifying Legal Specialists, adopted by the Board of Governors, contain the details of operation for the program. The Standards for Certification and Re-certification in each specialty area was adopted by the Board of Governors.

Costs of the Specialty Certification Program

The costs of the legal specialization program are entirely paid for by annual fees, as well as certification, re-certification, and accreditation fees. Section 20.8 of the Rules mandate that California's specialization program be self-supporting. The program is not subsidized by the dues collected from attorneys by the California State Bar.

The annual budget for the program is prepared in accordance with the State Bar’s policies and directives and is subject to approval by the State Bar’s Board of Governors. According to the 23rd Annual Report of the CBLS dated May of 2010, for the 2009 calendar year, the total expenses for the program were $1,188,254, compared to the $1,529,052 that was budgeted.

Goals of the Legal Specialization Certification Program in California

One of the goals of the California Board of Legal Specialization is to give consumers another tool to use in selecting an attorney. Certified Legal Specialists are automatically listed by their specialty on the State Bar website and only certified specialists can be searched by practice area on the State Bar of California website using advanced search features.

The website also contains a separate search function to find a specialist by county. If fact, you can attorney by certified legal specialty area, and by county, with just two simple steps. Visit the State Bar’s Certified Specialist Search page and select from 11 areas of law, in and out of state.

Additional Resources

Q&A: Legal Specialization a Boon for Consumers - Visit the California Bar Journal to learn more about the benefits of becoming a certified legal specialist and what it means for the attorney’s practice. The article is a "question and answer" session with J. Scott Bovitz who served on the State Bar’s Board of Legal Specialization and the American Board of Certification

Contact CBLS for More Information:

State Bar of California - Department of Legal Specialization
180 Howard Street
San Francisco, CA 94105
Phone: (415) 538-2100

Lawyer Legion recognizes that the way specialty certification programs help the public find an attorney in California. This article was last updated on Friday, January 17, 2020.