The Many Dangers of Dabbling

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Beware of straying outside your comfort zone.

“Stick to what you know” is an important phrase to remember as you go through your workday.

If you forget it, you might find yourself on the receiving end of an ethics grievance or malpractice claim.

All lawyers have their comfort zones. Some practice in specific niches. Others are certified as specialists. Even those in general practice have expertise in some areas but not others.

Stepping outside of your comfort zone and dabbling in an unfamiliar area increases the odds of a mistake, which can lead to trouble.

Want to learn other ways to stay safe and successful? Join Alta Pro Lawyers RPG. You’ll get access to free webinars, the Pro Practice Playbook, Reminger ProLink, Ask the Risk Pro and lots of other practice resources. Here’s how to join.

Alta Pro Practice Pointers

  • Know your limits. You must have a baseline of competence before accepting a case.  ABA Model Rule 1.1 says you can’t represent a client without sufficient “knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation.”
  • Be candid with clients and prospects. Don’t try to pretend to be someone you’re not. If a prospective matter falls outside your sweet spot, be upfront about that fact. Candor in advance can prevent a claim down the road.
  • Associate co-counsel. Not having experience in a given area doesn’t necessarily mean you must decline the case or refer the client elsewhere. You can always bring in an experienced attorney or consultant to help. Caveat: make sure the client agrees to the arrangement. Explain how case responsibilities and fees will be divided. Get the client’s consent in writing.
  • Add an experienced lawyer to your firm. The ethics rules permit you to tackle a novel matter as long as you take appropriate steps to become competent. One way to do this is by educating yourself. Another way is by recruiting a lawyer who has the requisite expertise. Consider hiring one on an of-counsel basis. Caveat: make sure to notify your professional liability  insurance provider of any changes in firm personnel.
  • Be aware of known unknowns. If you’ve never handled a complex divorce before, you probably won’t know what witnesses to call, what discovery to conduct, or what outcomes are probable. And it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to get up to speed by attending a single CLE course. Do the right thing and send the client to an experienced family lawyer – or take steps as outlined above to add competent counsel to your team.
  • Work together. If you practice with partners or associates, share your respective knowledge. Help each other when needed.  Don’t become a firm of silo lawyers. Hold regular staff meetings. Talk about recent changes in the law that might impact your practices.
  • Keep learning. Don’t grow complacent or think you’ve reached a point where you know it all. Laws, regulations and procedural rules change all the time. Stay on top of new developments and emerging trends. This will require an investment in education and learning tools. The internet offers a nearly-limitless law library at your fingertips 24/7.
  • Don’t accept a case solely as a favor to a friend or relative. Not only might you be putting your firm at risk of a malpractice claim, but you’ll be jeopardizing the personal relationship as well.
  • Don’t let your inexperience hurt your client. Opposing counsel will know your reputation and background. They may try to leverage your lack of experience in settling or resolving the matter. It’s one thing to handle a slip and fall with minimal injuries; it’s another thing to litigate a complicated products liability or wrongful death case.
  • Withdraw if necessary. If you find yourself in over your head, withdrawing from representation might be required. Don’t do anything to prejudice the client. Get court permission when required.
  • Just say no. This can be hard to do. Don’t make it personal. Explain that you lack the time, experience or resources to handle the case – and that someone else would be better for the job.

There’s an entire chapter in the Alta Pro Practice Playbook on the dangers of dabbling. The Playbook is one of the many benefits of being a member of Alta Pro Lawyers RPG. Here’s how to join.

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