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What Does it Mean for a Lawyer to be “Competent”?

By law, a lawyer must be “competent” to represent clients. Attorney competence includes and requires more than “mental competence”–meaning a lack of any mental defect or instability that would compromise his or her reasoning skills.

Attorney competence generally refers to the lawyer’s obligation to possess a certain level of professional education, learning, and skill.


The rules that govern attorneys state that a lawyer must possess and apply at least the minimum learning and skill “reasonably required” to handle a given matter. In simpler terms, a lawyer must have enough skill to:

— Evaluate and identify the types of legal problems, claims, or issues, involved in a client’s situation, and

— Analyze the legal and factual elements of the client’s problem, claim, or issue.

Attorneys do not have to possess “the right answer” in every situation, and do not have to be competent to handle every legal issue. However, attorneys who choose to represent a client should either be competent to handle the client’s issue or acquire competence by one or more permitted alternative methods. (For more on those methods, check the other posts in the “Attorney Competence” category.)


Even newly-licensed attorneys are normally competent to handle certain types of clients and issues. The level of experience an attorney needs will vary from matter to matter and from lawyer to lawyer–it’s a facts and circumstances test.

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In addition to the basic duty of competence, California lawyers have an obligation to keep up to date with relevant changes in the law, particularly those which impact their areas of practice. While lawyers don’t have to understand, or practice in, every area of the law, they are supposed to have at least a basic level of competence and knowledge about the areas in which they choose to practice. This includes an obligation to stay aware of changes in the law, or in the way courts (or businesses) function in the areas where the attorney represents clients.

Every attorney licensed in California must engage in continuing legal education (“MCLE”) activities every year. Some of the MCLE subjects are required by law, while other classes are optional–attorneys in active practice must complete a minimum of 25 hours of continuing legal education classes every three years, and must report compliance to the California Bar Association.

Although failure to complete MCLE requirements does not necessarily render an attorney less than competent, the failure to perform and report MCLE when required can subject an attorney to warnings or discipline from the Bar Association.


Disclaimer:  THIS ARTICLE IS FOR INFORMATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY, AND DOES NOT CONSTITUTE LEGAL ADVICE. Your rights and experiences may vary. Never use an article like this one to evaluate your legal claims. Speak with an experienced lawyer promptly to obtain a personalized evaluation of your claims, possible damages, and options.  You may lose or compromise your rights if you delay in consulting legal counsel.

Legal claims against lawyers are a complicated topic. Articles like this touch only on basic issues. If you believe you have a claim against an attorney who failed to provide you with competent representation, consult an experienced malpractice lawyer immediately for an evaluation of your possible rights and claims.

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