All lawyers have their comfort zones of practice; stepping outside these zones can increase your risk of making a mistake.
Dabbling – or taking the occasional case in an unfamiliar area – is a good way to invite a malpractice claim or bar grievance.
This doesn’t mean you always have to reject all cases in new areas. In fact, the ethics rules allow you to accept a novel case matter if you take appropriate steps to become competent to handle it.
It just means you have to know your limits, maintain competence, and put your clients’ interests first. Below are some practice pointers.
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Sticking to Your Practice Sweet Spot
Dabbling can spell disaster. Lawyers must have a baseline of competence before accepting a case. Some firms 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.
Read ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct 1.1, Competence. A lawyer shall provide competent representation to a client. Competent representation requires the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.
Associate co-counsel. Bring in an experienced attorney 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. Follow relevant ethics rules.
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. 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.
The Bottom Line: Avoid malpractice minefields by sticking to what you know and are good at.
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