The Leopard’s New Spots: Education and Attorney Competence
In California, as in other states, an attorney must represent his or her client with competence, and with a reasonable level of skill and knowledge.
Attorneys acquire knowledge, skill, and competence over time, through experience and education. An attorney is not limited to one area of practice or specialization. In fact, an attorney may expand his or her practice over time to encompass additional areas. Sometimes this expansion results from the attorney’s personal decisions. At other times, attorneys expand their practices in response to prospective clients’ needs. This is permitted, provided the attorney achieves the necessary level of skill and knowledge.
Attorneys may acquire competence in several ways.
1. Attending Classes or MCLE Sessions. California, like many states, requires legal practitioners to attend mandatory continuing education classes (MCLEs). The MCLE requirement includes some mandatory topics, but the bulk of an attorney’s MCLE hours can be spent on topics of the practitioner’s choice.
Attorneys often use these hours to keep current in their practice areas, but may also attend classes to acquire knowledge (and competence) in new areas. For example, a California personal injury lawyer who specializes in auto accidents might want to expand his practice to include personal injuries arising from property hazards. The attorney could attend classes on real estate, property law and homeowners’ liability, as well as other subjects, to acquire the skills necessary to handle this new type of clientele.
2. Practice Guides, Reading and Research. “Practice guides” are publications, usually by major legal publishing houses, which contain the laws and forms required for attorneys to practice in certain areas. Practice guides often contain citations to recent cases and the statutes which govern the relevant area of law.
While many practice areas may be too complex for an attorney to acquire necessary competence by reading a practice guide alone, practice guides are a helpful tool to assist attorneys in acquiring learning and skill.
3. Retreats and Seminars. Many legal nonprofits and other organizations run multi-day retreats and seminars designed to teach attorneys the skills they need to take on certain types of cases and clients. These seminars often focus on one or a narrow range of topics, enabling an attorney to gain more in-depth education and experience than a one-day or one-hour MCLE can offer.
In Some Cases, Attorneys Are Held to a Specialist’s Standard of Care.
Some legal issues require the learning and skill of a specialist. In these cases, an attorney is held to a specialist’s standard of care when representing the client. This makes it even more important for attorneys to obtain appropriate levels of education and expertise before venturing into new or specialized areas of the law.
The good news is that attorneys can acquire competence through several methods, including but not limited to the ones discussed above, and that diligent study can give an attorney the skills that he or she needs to represent clients in a variety of practice areas. In the law, as in everything else worth doing, hard work and careful attention to detail creates the competence required to do the job.
© Ross Law, 2014