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Keep Safe by Staying in Your Practice Comfort Zone

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Dabbling can spell disaster.

In a volatile economy with the cost of everything rising, it may be tempting to accept a case in an unfamiliar practice area.

Resist that temptation.

We all have our comfort zones. Taking the occasional case in an unfamiliar area – or dabbling – increases the chances of a mistake, which can lead to a malpractice claim or bar grievance. And while the ethics rules permit lawyers to take on a novel matter, the rules also require you to do what it takes to become competent.

The bottom line: dabbling can spell disaster.

Lawyers are required to have a baseline of competence before accepting a case. Some have practice niches that serve a specific clientele. Others become certified as specialists. Even those with general practices have expertise in some areas but not others.

Know your limits. Problems arise when lawyers stray from their sweet spots and dabble in cases where they lack experience.

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9 Pro Practice Pointers to Avoid Dabbling

Know the rules of professional conduct. ABA Model Rule 1.1 says you should not represent a client without sufficient “knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation.”

Be candid. Tell the client what areas you’re experienced in. If their case falls outside this zone but you want to take it anyway, explain your plan to get up to speed. Then let them decide whether or not to retain you.

Associate co-counsel. You don’t necessarily have to decline the case or refer the client elsewhere. You can bring in an experienced attorney or consultant to help. A retired lawyer may be perfect. Make sure the client agrees to the arrangement, including how case responsibilities and fees will be divided. Get their consent in writing.

Educate yourself. If you’ve never handled a complex divorce before, you may not know what discovery to conduct or even what a good outcome would be. Do what it takes – attending CLE, acquiring a mentor, joining a bar association section – to acquire the necessary skills. Don’t bill the client for your time and expense doing so.

Add an experienced lawyer to your firm. If you’ve been thinking about expanding into this area, recruit a lawyer who can bring expertise from day one.

Don’t accept a case to accommodate a friend or relative. You’re doing nobody a favor by stepping into uncharted territory.

Don’t let your inexperience hurt your client. 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. 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.

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